Announcer: “The story you are about to read is true.
The menu has been changed to showcase the delicious mashup of Korean and Mexican cuisines.
Roy Choi: “This is the city: Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a chef.”
Since 2008, there’s been a dragnet in progress across the city of Los Angeles. Instead of a coordinated attempt by police to catch criminals, this dragnet is a coordinated attempt by four mobile food kitchens (that’s food truck to you, Bob) to attract hungry diners. Those mobile food kitchens are named Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go and have pioneered a technological approach for enticing eager eaters by announcing its location on social media. Diners have since been lining up like flash mob of bees to a honey-coated hive, prompting Newsweek to hail Kogi as “the first viral eatery.” Kogi is widely acknowledged as the forerunner of the gourmet truck phenomenon, the catalyst which elevated the food-truck concept from “roach coach” to legitimate destination rolling restaurant. Founder-chef Roy Choi even made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People for 2016.
Kogi’s “Seoul meets Mexico City” concept has spawned a phalanx of flatterers…er, imitators across the country. And why not? Unlike so many forced attempts at fusion cuisine, the multi-cultural melding of Korean and Mexican cuisines is a culinary match made in a celestial kitchen, a logical pairing of cuisines whose contrasting elements are preternaturally complementary. Thankfully that cultural marriage made it to Albuquerque faster than the usual “land of manana” pace at which new culinary trends make it to the Duke City. For that, we can thank John Katrinak who introduced Korean fusion fare back in 2013 from a mobile food kitchen he christened Soo Bak Korean Seoul Food.
Practically since its inception, Soo Bak has been widely acknowledged as one of the metropolitan area’s best mobile food kitchens. Much like Kogi, it’s has a very active presence on social media, apprising its loyal legion of followers where it can be found. Those of us inclined to believe chasing vehicles is a practice best left for dogs and lawyers were elated when Soo Bak announced the June, 2019 launch of a brick-and-mortar version of the rolling restaurant. Soo Bak Seoul Bowl is a permanent fixture at 111 Hermosa, S.E., in the Nob Hill area, recessed by one block from Central Avenue and immediately behind Ragin Shrimp.
Fittingly the mobile version of the restaurant is stationed in the restaurant’s parking lot awaiting its next call to service. The mobile food kitchen has transitioned to a more limited schedule while Soo Bak Seoul Bowl operates Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner (11AM – 9PM). A larger (by far) space (2,000 square-feet) offers the people-pleasing aspects of comfortable seating in climate controlled conditions and a more expansive menu that allows Chef Katrinak to explore and expand the boundaries of his fusion food offerings.
Soo Bak Seoul Bowl offers a “have it your way” approach to dining that lets you build your own meals. First you choose your “style,” either bibimbap, taco salad or burrito constructed with your choice of protein (Korean BBQ beef, spicy pork, sauteed mushrooms, tempura avocado, sweet chili tofu, teriyaki chicken or fire chicken), rice (white, brown or fried), toppings (sauteed daikon, sprouts, edamame, zucchini, carrots, seaweed) and sauce (red pepper, creamy avocado, sesame ginger, Sriracha lime crema, salsa roja, Sriracha, crema teriyaki). You can mix-and-match your tacos, too. The menu also offers banchan (small side dishes), eight types of kimchi and a number of Soo Bak classics such as sesame noodles and chile cheese fries. You’ll quickly discern that “fusion” goes only as far as you want to take it. It’s easy to craft a meal that’s strictly Korean, but if you want a little bit of Mexico, too, that’s easy, too.
The one dish that birthed the mobile food kitchen revolution in Los Angeles was Koji’s tacos which fused Korean and Mexican culinary cultures into an “addictive harmony.” Soo Bak Seoul Bowl offers seven tacos, all made with local corn tortillas and available in mix-and-match discounted quantities of two or three (your best bet). Aficionados of Korean BBQ will quickly gravitate to the Korean BBQ Taco (lettuce, cheese, crema and Sriracha). It’s a great taco though (and it might just be my imagination), it had more of a “carbon” (food cooked on the charcoal grill) flavor when prepared on the mobile food kitchen.
Diners of the vegetarian persuasion will fall in love with Soo Bak’s tempura avocado taco (sesame cabbage, Sriracha lime crema, cilantro and lime). Sheathing a buttery, soft avocado in tempura isn’t exactly a new concept, but Chef Katrinak does it better than anyone we’ve tried. It’s got a sneaky heat, just enough to tease your taste buds. If you prefer an outright attack, try the aptly named fire chicken taco (lettuce, Sriracha lime crema, cilantro and lime), a five-alarm taco made from six incendiary chiles. It’s as piquant as any taco in the metropolitan area…
And the fire chicken taco might not even be the most incendiary item on the menu. That distinction probably belongs to the kimchi fire balls. True to their name, these golf ball sized orbs laced with a Sriracha lime crema are a test for your taste buds. Somehow Chef Katrinak managed to sheathe fermented flames (kimchi) within a batter without having the whole thing explode from within (due to steam, not heat). The kimchi fire balls are served on a bed of lettuce for which you might be grateful as it’s a good foil for the heat.
Note: For my review of Soo Bak, the mobile food kitchen, continue scrolling down…
Soo Bak Seoul Food
111 Hermosa Street, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 31 August 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Korean BBQ Beef Taco, Fire Chicken Taco, Tempura Avocado Taco, Kimchi Fire Ball, Egg Roll
Soo Bak Korean Seoul Food (The Mobile Food Kitchen)
When I told my friend Jim “Bubba” Chester about having discovered a terrific mobile food kitchen named Soo Bak, he became very animated. Surely, he thought Soo Bak just had to serve the Arkansas-style barbecue he craved. When I asked how he arrived at that conclusion, he explained rather matter-of-factly that the trademarked chant at his beloved alma-mater (the University of Arkansas), is ”Woooo! Pig Sooie!” and of course, the team mascot is the Razorbacks. Hence anyone should be able to see that “Soo Bak” is Arkansas-style barbecue. It nearly broke his heart to learn that instead of Arkansas-style barbecue, Soo Bak serves Korean barbecue (among other paragons of deliciousness). “How in tarnation could someone that far from the Ozarks know anything about barbecue?” he cried. Quite a bit, my friend. Quite a bit.
Korean barbecue, called “gogi gui,” more closely resembles grilling than it does the traditional low-and-slow preparation of meats throughout the fruited plain. This grilling method is distinguished by the use of a charcoal or gas grill, often build right into the dining room table itself. There diners prepare their favorite thinly sliced pork, beef, chicken or seafood. Korean barbecue is actually an overarching term encompassing a variety of marinated and non-marinated meat and seafood dishes. The two Korean barbecue dishes with which Americans are most familiar are bulgogi (thinly sliced rib eye glazed with a sweet and savory marinade) and kalbi (sliced, butterflied and marinated beef short ribs prepared over a wood fire).
Contrary to Jim’s rationale, the name Soo Bak actually translates from Korean to “Watermelon,” a fitting appellation considering the mobile kitchen conveyance plies its craft under the shadows of the Sandias. Soo Bak is the brainchild of owner-chef John Katrinak who has reinterpreted his grandmother’s and mother’s recipes so that they meld the complementary flavors of Korea and New Mexico. Those flavors work very well together! During his travels throughout the globe, the impressions he gleaned from the generosity and love many people put into their food resonated deeply with him. It’s his personal mission statement to share his foods in the spirit of that generosity and love. Mission accomplished!
You can’t help but love a mobile kitchen sporting the tag line “Korean Seoul Food,” wordplay honoring the capital of South Korea. Operating across the city since January, 2013, Soo Bak is a ubiquitous presence at the Talin Market where it sets up alongside several other mobile kitchens every Wednesday. Unlike many of its brethren, Soo Bak posts its weekly schedule on its Facebook page and can be counted on reliably to be where it’s supposed to be. Its Facebook page also lists its menu of “everyday items,” though frequently changing specials aren’t listed. Befitting a motorized conveyance with limited operating room, the menu is rather limited, but it’s the flavors and aromas that are far-reaching. As you queue up to place your order, you may want to pull a George Costanza and yank the people in front of you out of your way. That’s how ravenous the aromas will make you.
9 August 2017: Among Soo Bak’s most popular fusion of New Mexico meets Korea are Korean tacos. Available in quantities of two or three and generously engorged with your choice of Korean BBQ beef (with lettuce, cheese, crema and Sriracha), Spicy Pork (with lettuce, cheese, crema, and a side of jalapeño salsa) or sautéed mushrooms (with lettuce, cheese, crema and Sriracha). The Korean BBQ Beef taco is in rarefied company as one of the most surprising tacos I’ve had in years. Many other tacos have surprised me in their use of ingredients which don’t always work well together. Soo Bak surprised me in just how harmoniously well those ingredients coalesce into a delicious whole. The beef is impregnated with a superb smokiness, a grilled flavor with a perfect amount of char that still lets you appreciate the crispiness and freshness of the lettuce and the complementary sauces.
9 August 2017: Air Force friends and colleagues who served in Korea like to use the term “deep kimchi” when someone is in a rather sticky situation. They shared horror stories of kimchi so pungent and piquant that they couldn’t eat it. Because I could, it instantly made me one of the gang. Soo Bak offers three types of kimchi available in small and large portions: Napa cabbage, radish and cucumber. The cucumber kimchi is the complete antithesis of the sometimes cloying cucumber salad oft served with satay at many Thai restaurants. Where Thai cucumber salad is sweet and vinegary, Soo Bak’s cucumber kimchi is pungent, salty and pleasantly piquant with a nice crunchy texture that bespeaks of its freshness. It isn’t nearly as incendiary as other kimchi I’ve enjoyed, but it is a delightful accompaniment to any meal.
9 August 2017: Koreans have mastered the art of “leftovers disguised as a gourmet dish” in a popular dish known as Bibimbap, which translates from Korean to “mixed rice.” As with other Soo Bak dishes, there are three types of bibimbap available: Korean BBQ beef, spicy pork and sautéed mushrooms. The dish is described on the menu as “on a dish of steamed rice with lettuce and chilled daikon, sprouts and zucchini; topped with a fried egg and topped with red pepper sauce or sesame ginger vinaigrette.” My words won’t do justice to this dish which plays with and delights every one of your ten-thousand taste buds. Puncture the yolk and let it run across the other ingredients to maximize the intensity of your enjoyment. My choices were the spicy pork and the sesame-ginger vinaigrette, both of which interplay so well. As with the aforementioned BBQ beef, the spicy pork is grilled to the point that its exterior is nearly caramelized, the flavor of nicely-seasoned charcoal prominent. Call it “gourmet leftovers” if you will, but this is an addicting dish.
16 August 2017: There’s an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t eat more than one starch in any one meal. This isn’t as much so that you avoid bad combinations (such as potatoes and pasta) as it is so that you don’t overeat starches. Somehow Soo Bak can get away with violating this culinary faux pas. At least they do with the Sesame Noodles (chilled sweet potato noodles with spinach, carrots, onion, and sesame seeds in a sesame soy sauce) served with steamed rice. While both the sesame noodles and the steamed rice are exemplars of how each dish should be prepared, eating that much starch in one meal will rankle the ire of your cardiologist. One way to cut the starch is to add the Korean BBQ beef with the dish. Yes, the dish will still have two starches, but at least the flavor profile isn’t one-note. This is an excellent dish.
16 August 2017: Kimchi is as Korean as apple pie is American. It’s a quintessential food, one offering spicy, salty, sour, crunchy and healthy notes. With more than one hundred varieties of kimchi, there’s bound to be one to appease ever palate–and contrary to stereotype, not all are made with cabbage. That said, Soo Bak’s Napa cabbage kimchi is terrific, an exemplar of the kimchi with which most Americans are familiar. Its pungency and piquancy is courtesy of the combination of red pepper powder and several other seasoning spices. Its deliciousness is courtesy of Soo Bak’s traditional preparation. My friend Bill Resnik calls Soo Bak’s radish kimchi the very best he’s ever had. Made with ponytail radishes, it’s got a pleasant punch and delightfully crunchy texture.
Soo Bak prepares everything to order so waits are in order. If you find them at Talin, there’s a good chance you’ll run into Air Force personnel in uniform. Make sure to thank them for their service and maybe compliment them for their good taste in mobile food kitchens. Soo Bak is among the very best!
Soo Bak Foods
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2017
1st VISIT: 9 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Korean BBQ Beef Bibimbap, Cucumber Kimchi, Spicy Pork Tacos