Ta Bom: Los Angeles’ Women-Owned Korean Brazilian Food Truck
When Ilse Marques Kim, a former model from Brazil, was laid off from Korea Air’s cargo department at LAX, she struggled to find work for over a year.
“When you’re older, it’s harder to find a job,” explains her daughter, Julie Kim, 31. “So we said, ‘Forget a job-let’s start something on our own!’ My mom’s cooking is great and the Kogi food truck craze had just happened.” Ta Bom, a Brazilian food truck, was born as a collaboration between Ilse and her twin daughters, Juliana (Julie) and Jaqueline (Jackie).
At the time of the truck’s launch, the twins had been working full-time in the accounting department at a law firm for eight years. “We didn’t study accounting. We were working as Wells Fargo tellers when a guy at a law firm offered my sister a job that paid two times more. Then two weeks later, the boss told Jackie she could hire anyone, so she hired me and we set up the accounting department. We taught ourselves,” says Julie. In 2013, she left the law firm to focus on Ta Bom.
“We’d never done this. We Googled stuff. We found and leased a truck. They wanted to charge us $800 for the design so I just did it myself,” says Julie.
Ta Bom is both family-operated and women-owned. Julie serves as Ta Bom’s CFO and Director of Catering and Special Events, while Jackie manages their social media. Ilse, who created the recipes, cooks and takes orders.
“It’s what we usually eat in Brazil but with a L.A. twist. In Brazil, you can’t find spicy coxinhas but L.A. people love spicy food, so we adapted it,” says Julie. Brazilians often flock to the truck, eager to know if a fellow Brazilian is inside. Ilse smiles, “They say the food reminds them of home. The Brazilian customers call me ‘mom’.”
On their first day of business, they parked adjacent to Hollywood Boulevard and made $75.
“We thought that was a lot!” laughs Julie. “Now we know that was low. We know to post our location on Twitter and Facebook. We learned everything as we went. ”
“Ta bom,” a popular Brazilian phrase often accompanied by a “thumbs-up” gesture, means “it’s good” in Portuguese. In the late 1980s, the phrase “ta bom” (따봉) became popularized in Korea after a Del Monte orange juice commercial featured Lee Soo Man, music mogul and founder of S.M. Entertainment (one of South Korea’s leading record label and entertainment agencies) indicating his approval of the juice with a declaration of “ta bom!” while flashing a thumbs up sign.
“We wanted to incorporate English, Portuguese, and Korean in the truck’s name,” says Julie. “Koreans know that phrase from the orange juice commercial. Brazilians love that phrase. For Americans, it sounds like, ‘da bomb.’ It was perfect!” says Julie.
An entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to “dar um jeito,” a Brazilian phrase referring to the act of finding a way despite limited resources and setbacks, runs thick through the Kim family.
In 1976, at age nineteen, Dong Joon Kim immigrated with his parents and younger brother to Brazil. “There was a rumor in Korea that you could make a lot of money in Brazil,” says Julie.
“They lost everything,” Ilse shakes her head. “All their money. Everything.”
In Brazil, Mr. Kim opened a casual clothing store with apparel that he designed and sewed with his own hands. With no background in clothes manufacturing, he taught himself. His parents, who sold their farm in Korea to immigrate to Brazil, also worked in São Paulo’s garment industry.
While Ilse was working as a fit model, she met Dong Joon at a clothing convention.
“He was very good looking,” she smiles. They fell in love and married. Ilse gave birth to twins Julie (who is older by five minutes) and Jackie and a son, all born in São Paulo.
“We’re like triplets! He’s only a year and two days younger. Every time we have a birthday party, all three of us share a cake,” says Julie.
In 1988, when the twins were two years old, the family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. While juggling three jobs (newspaper delivery, a recycling business, and a t-shirt silkscreen company), Mr. Kim attended a seminary in the evenings and studied for seven years to become a preacher.
Growing up biracial in L.A.’s Koreatown, the twins struggled to fit in. “We felt our piano teacher was racist toward us because we weren’t full Korean. She beat us and hit us. Even in taekwondo, we hated it because they treated us differently. They called us names like jjamppong because we’re mixed. But when it was sparring time on Fridays- boy, we would show them!” says Julie.
As a teen, music helped the twins reconnect to Korean culture. Julie’s first CD, from the Korean American hip-hop group Drunken Tiger, was a gift from her father. She is a huge fan of K-pop groups such as Big Bang.
Korean was the twins’ first language. The twins and their father speak four languages. “My halmoni lived with us and taught me Korean,” says Julie. “My first word was Umma. Then I learned Portuguese and when we came to America, it was English, then Spanish. Because Spanish is so close to Portuguese, it’s easy. If you live in L.A., you need to speak Spanish!”
“You need to see our dinner table when we eat! We have to speak to our halmoni in Korean, and then my mom doesn’t understand, so we have to speak to her in English or Portuguese,” says Julie.
The twins mediated between their mother and grandmother, serving as translators. Julie says, “When my halmoni and my mom would fight, my mom would say something in Portuguese and we’d say it in Korean to my halmoni in a nicer way. When my halmoni said something in Korean, we’d say it in a nicer way to my mom in Portuguese.”
The family had few opportunities to connect with the Brazilian community after moving to L.A. “We didn’t know where the Brazilians were,” says Ilse. “I didn’t have any Brazilian people around me so I was alone. It was really hard living in Koreatown because I didn’t understand the language. I got sick a lot, pain all over my body. The doctor said I didn’t have any health problems, that I was homesick.”
“When we first moved here, we were struggling to make money to survive so we couldn’t spend money on a flight,” explains Julie.
Ilse adds, “Ten years after we moved here, I went to Brazil to visit my family. Everything was easier after that.”
Julie recalls that the family would sometimes go to Culver City to eat at the Brazilian café but that generally, they were surrounded by the Korean community. The Kim family attended a Korean church. When the twins were ten or eleven, their father founded a Brazilian church in L.A. (which has since closed), which enabled Ilse to make Brazilian friends. “He did sermons in Korean and then at night, in Portuguese. He would have my mom proofread them to make sure his Portuguese was OK,” says Julie.
Ta Bom has been featured on both Brazilian (Planeta Brasil) and Korean (Arirang’s “Dream It” documentary series on 1.5 and second generation Korean Americans) TV. ”We want to make Brazilian food accessible to everyone,” says Julie. She hopes to open a café as well as expand into a fast-food chain.
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Photos courtesy of Ta Bom
Born stateless in Seoul, Grace Jahng Lee is a contributing writer for KoreanAmericanStory.org.