David Choi Of Seoul Taco In St. Louis
If David Choi has his way, Seoul Taco may one day be as ubiquitous as McDonald’s. In just six years, the Korean-Mexican fast food restaurant that began as a St. Louis-based food truck has expanded like wildfire, now with brick-and-mortar locations in St. Louis, Columbia, Champaign-Urbana and Chicago, with another in Chesterfield, Missouri, slated to open later this fall. With hopes of bringing Korean tacos, quesadillas, burritos and bibimbap (which he calls Gogi Bowls) far and wide, Choi’s intent is clear. “My end goal is to have Seoul Taco in Seoul, Korea,” he says. “That would sort of drop the mic.”
A Chesterfield, Missouri, native with a background working in fast food and pizza joints, Choi, who is Korean-American, trudged through the early Obama-era economic recession and leapt into a venture of his own. He sold his car, cashed out his bank account and drove to Philadelphia to buy a food truck from a man who had listed the truck for $40,000—but was willing to accept Choi’s $18,000 just to get the truck out of his driveway. Fundraising from family and friends helped get the truck ready for its launch at St. Louis’s Food Truck Friday in 2011, a trial-by-fire beginning that proved to be a great success. By the end of the day, they’d completely sold out.
Though Choi had previous experience working in restaurants, he didn’t attend culinary school. Rather, it was his parents and grandparents who taught him to cook with traditional Korean flavors, after he left for college and found himself missing home cooking.
Reality competition TV shows like Master Chef and America’s Best Cook have brought positive attention to home-taught cooks in recent years, though it appears not to have made it any easier to break into the restaurant world without a culinary degree. Choi says there are advantages and disadvantages to opening a restaurant without formal training as a chef. “Learning directly from my parents and grandparents helped me to focus on one cuisine—to really master the craft—and you can’t really learn that in culinary school,” he says. Whereas in an upscale restaurant where you might find an extensive menu that demonstrates the chef’s mastery of technique, Choi emphasizes that the simplicity of his menu—composed of five basic dishes that allow customers to add steak, chicken, spicy pork or tofu—is integral to his current success, and to his ability to expand the chain further.
Though Choi didn’t invent the concept of Korean-Mexican fusion, he was the first to bring the Korean taco to St. Louis. The dearth of Korean-food options in the city fueled Choi’s initial drive to launch the Seoul Taco food truck. “I thought it was just a great way to introduce Korean flavors,” he says, aiming to pair the unfamiliarity of Korean flavors—fermented foods like kimchi and gochujang—with the familiarity of Mexican cuisine. “I thought that was a well-made match to have people try Korean food—and that they’d be more likely to try Korean food if it was wrapped in a tortilla, in taco or burrito form.” Korean and Mexican cuisine pair perfectly together, he explains, because of their complementary flavor profiles and because they both favor marination as a means of infusing proteins with bold spice.
When he launched the food truck, Choi worked in the kitchen, cooking alongside his staff. But these days, you won’t find him in the kitchen. His role has changed to focus on business management and development, which still sometimes has him working 100-hour weeks, building the future of the business. “I’m mostly in meetings, really focusing on growth for Seoul Taco and really building these relationships,” he says. “Anyone who knows me knows that’s sort of my personality. I like to connect with other people. We have a saying that ‘We don’t just serve food, we serve people,’ and that’s something that holds true for me in everything we’re a part of. It’s something that keeps me going.”
He admits, though, that he misses cooking on the line. “I sometimes cook at home, but it’s a lot rarer than when I was cooking in the food truck everyday,” and with a laugh adds, “I’m an expert at cooking frozen pizza.”