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On Sunday, I roamed through the Chattanooga Market, which was bustling on this busy Labor Day weekend. As the remnants of Hurricane Isaac came blowing in, I popped a stop over at the food truck area. These roamin' mobile kitchens have maintained a presence at this Sunday market throughout the summer, and my primary target this afternoon was Taco Sherpa—looking to see if their storm of good local buzz held any water—or if they would blow it.
A cultural fusion of the food truck revolution
As I discussed in my review of Famous Nater's World Famous a few months ago, the phenomenon of fully operational mobile kitchens in major metropolitan cities has caught fire in recent years across the country. As Chattanooga is swinging in an epically positive direction, our growing gang of food trucks has banded together to drive that big city food movement home to us.
I am all for the idea of quality, roving food trucks and do not think this is merely a fad. However, that doesn't mean I'm judging a food truck any differently than a stationary restaurant, positively or negatively. I am holding them to the same standard, just as the health department does.
The fusion of Korean flavors in a Mexican taco was actually brought to prominence from the beginning of the national food truck phenomenon of recent years. Although you can try to fill a taco with most anything, this specific food-truck-Korean-taco idea was pioneered by the Los Angeles Kogi Korean BBQ, which led to the head chef, Roy Choi, being named Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2010—the first-ever distinction of a food truck chef. It also led to many Korean taco food trucks popping up all over the country.
Now, don't get me wrong here: This fusion was, obviously, a good idea, and that doesn't discount Taco Sherpa's owner and chef, Whit Altizer, rolling with the idea and putting his own spin on it with his culinary experience to bring it to Chattanooga.
Altizer spent five years in South Korea learning about Korean cuisine and their vibrant street food scene before Taco Sherpa hit the Chattanooga streets earlier this year—and had a setback right off the bat with his truck being stolen—strengthening Chattanooga's infant Street Food Project (of which, his wife, Lindsay, started the website). And to present Korean street food flavors in a successfully established avenue, the taco is a great gastronomic vehicle to serve from a gas-powered vehicle.
Atmosphere and service
Dark clouds hovered overhead as I arrived at the Chattanooga Market (which is soon moving into Warehouse Row), threatening to blast us with a windy, watery fury. As the inclement weather whipped in, fortunately those of us in the First Tennessee Pavilion were somewhat spared, as only minor sprays ventured into the area from swirling, sideways winds.
The vendors outside the pavilion were not so fortunate, along with the food trucks, being pelted with torrential downpours. I debated phoning in my Taco Sherpa order and making a run for the truck when it was ready. However, the rain eventually slacked off, and my ordering window of opportunity had opened, so I took advantage of it.
As I placed my order at the window, some rain was still falling in sputters, so an awning would have been ideal for those of us without umbrellas. I didn't have to wait long, however, receiving my order in about five minutes, and the rain held off during that period.
Taco Sherpa's website has their schedule and set menu and, as with other successful food trucks, they are very active with their Facebook and Twitter accounts to announce daily specials apart from the menu, locations and other general updates. I had noticed beforehand on Facebook that they had a "Korean lunch box" special this afternoon for the Chattanooga Market, so I figured this was the perfect time to check out both Altizer's fusion tacos and his more traditional Korean cooking.
Korean lunch box
The $8 Korean lunch box included chicken bokkeum, kimchi, rice, fried Korean beef dumplings, traditional vegetable banchan and an orange wedge. It was also offered for $7 without meat, but I wasn't too chicken (bad pun intended) to splurge the extra $1 for the meat version.
The chicken bokkeum (which means "stir fry" in Korean) consisted of chicken breast chunks, cabbage and carrot in a spicy chile sauce, topped with sesame seeds and my buddy cilantro. This was a lot of cilantro, but it melded well with the chile sauce, and the powerful flavor was nicely quelled and absorbed with the bed of steamed short grain brown rice. Squeezing some juice from the orange wedge added a nice, sweet acidity to the mixture as well.
Kimchi is the national dish of both North Korea and South Korea, and it is eaten with almost every meal on both sides of the border. This strong fermented cabbage with chile flakes was bursting with a heady and complex rotation of bitter, spicy and umami flavors. The lighter, pickled cucumber—also, technically, kimchi—had a nice balance of the cool cucumber taste with smooth garlic undertones and spicy chile sauce.
The potatoes were boiled to a very soft consistency with a sweet soy sauce soaked into every morsel. These scrumptious mild potato chunks were a good complement to the spicy heat of the other dishes. The dumplings had a savory mixture of beef, onions, garlic and mung bean sprouts. A freshly fried crispy exterior housed its juicy interior. Although a couple of them were included in the lunch box meal, they were offered for three for $1, so I snagged a few extra.
Now to Taco Sherpa's bread and butter (although not bread and butter—oh, you know what I mean): their Korean fusion tacos. Each of the tacos had two corn tortilla layers for wrapping around each protein selection and cucumbers, radishes, shredded cabbage, sesame seeds, spicy chile "sherpa sauce" and, of course, cilantro in full force.
All the selections were served as individual tacos for $3.50 or three for $10. A white or brown rice bowl was also available from the protein selections for $10, and another special taco of beef bolgogi was offered, but I went with the three taco selections from the main menu.
As not only a great vegetarian selection, the bulgogi tofu could be chosen for the flavor alone, even among the most carnivorous individuals. These firm soy chunks were marinated in the sweet and savory Korean BBQ bulgogi sauce, and, even if you don't normally like tofu, the flavor and consistency melded well with the crunchy, fresh veggies and soft corn tortillas.
However, my favorite selection was the galbi, which was pulled pork BBQ marinated in a sweet and spicy soy-based sauce. The sweetness of the pork itself combined with this marinade escalated the meat to a tantalizing flavor. The slow-cooked pork was juicy, soft and falling apart like well-cooked pulled pork should. This was good BBQ no matter what neck of the woods you are from: savory and sweet with a hint of heat.
Although also having "galbi" in the name, the dak galbi was a whole different animal—literally. These moist chunks of chicken were marinated and coated in an intensely flavored red chile sauce, and with the combination of the fiery "sherpa sauce" on all the tacos, this selection was packing some major heat. That being said, the capsaicin wasn't overpowering the flavor of the sauce. The fresh veggies and corn tortilla helped to dial the heat down a bit as well.
They also offered $1 bottled water and soda, and, believe me, you will need a beverage of some sort. Most all of these selections had a kick. Although the chile spiciness wasn't too crazy in any of the dishes, I found myself reaching for water quite often.
I am giving Taco Sherpa 3 stars for a typhoon of flavors pounding my palate in waves of tsunamic intensity. Taco Sherpa is a rock-solid part of Chattanooga's food truck scene, bringing, as their slogan says, "mighty fine Korean eats" to our streets in a portable fusion of powerful proportions.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga's food scene. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter or contact him at email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.