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Spicy fusion: Soo Bak Seoul Bowl blends Korean, Mexican cuisine

Soo Bak Seoul Bowl’s classic version of bibimbap comes with one protein and three sides: here, bulgogi with broccoli, carrots and cucumber kimchi. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Chef John Katrinak’s Sook Bak Seoul Bowl stands out as one of the more conspicuous successes in the Albuquerque food truck scene.

Katrinak’s fusion of Korean and Mexican cuisine made Soo Bak Seoul Bowl one of the city’s most popular trucks, and that success drove the opening of a brick-and-mortar restaurant last year in Nob Hill. The new place has been drawing crowds, or at least it was until COVID-19 hit.

Soo Bak Seoul Bowl is open for takeout as the state prepares to allow patrons back into restaurants. Ordering through Selflane.com provides a convenient, minimal-contact experience. You can pay online, add a tip and then pick up your food without needing to hand over a credit card or sign anything.

The restaurant sits at the back of a parking lot just off Central in the shadow of the Carlisle, a hulking luxury condo development. It would be easy to miss if not for the food truck parked at edge of the lot. The building’s handsome façade bears evidence of its previous incarnation as an auto repair shop, with five large bay doors painted green against a gray background. A depiction of a watermelon slice nests in the sign across the top, a clue to soo bak’s meaning in English. On Katrinak’s menu you’ll find Korean standbys such as bibimbap and side dishes called banchan alongside tacos and burritos.

Bibimbap, the Korean rice bowl, is available in two sizes: classic ($9.95), with three toppings of your choice, or the deluxe ($11.95), with five toppings. Protein selections include beef, chicken and pork. Tempura avocado and sautéed mushrooms make up the vegetarian options. Mine came with bulgogi, or Korean barbecued beef, along with broccoli, carrots and cucumber kimchi. These bowls can be a dull affair, but the smokiness of the bulgogi and the savory-sweet sesame garlic sauce jazzed this version up considerably.

Fillings for the Korean tacos at Soo Bak Seoul Bowl include cubes of tofu, foreground, in a sweet chile sauce. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Korean tacos have swept the country since Los Angeles chef Roy Choi began serving them out of his Kogi BBQ truck in 2008. Soo Bak offers seven varieties with the same protein choices as in the bibimbap. You get two for $7.95 or three for $9.95.

Both the spicy pork and the fire chicken lived up to their names. The proteins were well-marinated and falling-apart tender, with lots of heat. The fire chicken taco got a boost from Sriracha lime crema, while jalapeño salsa raised the pork taco to an even spicier level. The third taco, made up of cubes of tofu in a sweet chile sauce with Korean pepper paste, delivered an almost dessert-level sweetness that provided a nice balance to the two spicy tacos. The tofu, fried to a crisp golden brown, bore enough teeth to stand up to the sauce.

Kimchi fireballs ($2), one of four small plates on the menu, also delivered on the promise of heat. They’re made from golf ball-sized portions of rice infused with kimchi that are coated with breadcrumbs and fried. The result is very spicy, almost tear-inducing. An accompanying cup of aioli helped cool things down.

Chile cheese fries ($8.95) and sesame noodles ($9.95) are the two Soo Bak Classics on the menu. The latter is a popular holiday dish in Korea, where it is known as japchae. It presents as a colorful tangle of spinach and julienne carrots over a pile of translucent noodles made from sweet potato starch and water. The chewy noodles effectively concentrate the tangy sauce, making the side of rice feel redundant.

Paletas ($3) from Pop Fizz are the only dessert on the menu.

The prices at Soo Bak stand in the middle of the pack for local Korean restaurants, a bit lower than those of its Nob Hill neighbor, Korean BBQ House, and little above Asian Pear on Paseo del Norte.

With its big flavors and lots of heat, Soo Bak Seoul Bowl stands as another example of how food trucks have invigorated the local dining scene.

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