How KoJa Kitchen created the perfect short rib sandwich
When food trucks were all the rage in SF back in 2011, Alan Tsai developed a bit of a hobby following them and sampling their fare. “The concept that street food could be so good and unique was really refreshing,” says Alan. “And I had the chance to try a lot of fusion food between different cuisines.”
This hobby sparked an idea for Alan and two of his colleagues, who were looking to start their own business. “We all loved Korean and Japanese cuisine so we thought, why not combine the best of both worlds?” he says. A food truck seemed like the least risky way to test out their concept, a “rice burger” that combined premium Japanese and Korean proteins and condiments, and was served on a garlic rice bun.
Before they went all in, Alan and his co-founders drove down to San Diego and set up a makeshift food stall outside a sandwich shop owned by one of the co-founder’s relatives; that person is now their fourth partner. “We only sold 10 burgers but we knew from that trip that there was a chance people would like our food,” says Alan. Six months later they bought a truck and KoJa Kitchen became the newest addition to the SF mobile food scene.
The premise was simple: “We wanted to make food that was not only unique and delicious but also included strong elements from both the Korean and Japanese cuisine,” says Alan. “Not all Japanese and Korean flavors pair well. You really have to pick and choose the flavors to combine. Korean food is synonymous with strong impactful flavors while Japanese food focuses on the subtlety of its ingredients.”
One of their best representations of this is the Original KoJa, their spin on Galbi or short rib, a staple of Korean BBQ. “The marinade, which is made from fresh kiwi, pineapple, and Asian pear, went through over 96 different iterations before we arrived at our current recipe,” says Alan. The sandwich is finished with KoJa Kitchen’s house-made Japanese katsu aioli to give it an extra smoky sweet flavor.
Such creative cuisine is undoubtedly inspired by the hours Alan spent cooking alongside his mom while growing up in Orange County, where he first honed his knack for pairing unlikely flavor combinations. “When I create a dish, I always let my imagination run wild,” says Alan, who hasn’t had formal culinary training. “Of course, it’s risky because you’ll sometimes end up with the weirdest flavor combinations ever.” Judging by KoJa Kitchen’s popularity, Alan’s experimentation has paid off.
In 2014, Alan and his partners opened their first retail location in Berkeley. They now have 16 locations, 12 of which are on Uber Eats. In addition to the Original KoJa, customers also clamor for the kamikaze fries—waffle fries topped with minced Korean bbq beef, kimchi, red sauce, Japanese mayo, and green onions—as well as their Korean buffalo and soy garlic wings.
“There’s a saying in our restaurant that the food must be “KoJa” before you can serve it to our customer,” says Alan. “When the food goes into your mouth, if your first reaction or thought isn’t ‘ooh this is good’, then it’s not ‘KoJa’. We want to keep surprising our customers and give them a unique and memorable experience.”