Sue Wong-Shackelford is back with her first love at Kalbi Taco Shack.
Growing up in Sue Wong-Shackelford's household, there was no way to avoid the cooking bug. Born in Hong Kong, the owner of Kalbi Taco Shack (2301 Cherokee Street, 314-240-5544) came to the United States with her family when she was six. To make ends meet, her parents immediately secured jobs in the restaurant industry: Her mom worked at the original Rice Bowl on South Grand, her father at Trader Vic's. As they became masterful cooks, Wong-Shackelford's parents branched out on their own, turning their experience into a string of successful restaurants.
However, it was in their home kitchen where Wong-Shackelford fell in love with food. "We didn't just cook Chinese food," she explains, describing glorious feasts of Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and Pacific Rim flavors. "That's where I caught the bug. I just loved every aspect of the kitchen."
As she grew up, Wong-Shackelford worked in her parents' restaurants, where she did everything from cooking to managing the front of the house, and she eventually used this knowledge to become a restaurant consultant. Though she loved the industry, her mother's death made her reconsider her demanding career. "One of the reasons I decided to get out of the restaurant business was because it was so time-consuming," Wong-Shackelford explains. "You just don't have any family time."
So Wong-Shackelford followed her other passion, antiques. She and her husband began a successful antique and estate liquidation business, raising their two daughters and enjoying work-life balance.
She continued to cook, however, and dinnertime became a way for the family to connect. As her daughters took an interest in learning about food, it brought out a longing in Wong-Shackelford to get back into the business. "My daughters, Olivia and Sierra, have the same bug I did," she explains. "Olivia, my oldest, was always in the kitchen with me, and it really brought back memories for me when I was with my parents. As she was leaning toward culinary school after high school, it got me thinking that I wanted to get back into my first love, which was cooking."
For the past year, that love for cooking has been on display at Kalbi Taco Shack, a bright, food truck-inspired storefront on Cherokee Street that expertly blends Asian and Mexican flavors. Though Wong-Shackelford admits the concept is trendy, she explains it's actually rooted in her family experience. "I'm not trying to copy anyone. This is what is meaningful for me," she explains. "These are the recipes that my parents and I have cooked over the years and the marinades I have worked my whole life on perfecting. And the Mexican part — well, it's my daughters' favorite food. They're the ones who brought my passion back."
Wong-Shackelford took a break from the kitchen to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, her sweet way of supporting the neighborhood and why she will always make time for family dinner.
What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did?
As a child, I grew up learning and cooking from two great chefs: my parents. I have been cooking ever since.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
In the busy life we all lead, it's to have dinner with my husband and my two daughters.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To slow down time, since it's going by way too fast.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
I've noticed that people want to eat healthier these days. For vegetarians and vegans there seems to be limited options. That's why we offer sauteed tofu and marinated sweet and spicy jackfruit along with our house-made vegan aioli sauce. We try to accommodate everyone.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you'd like to see?
I honestly don't see anything missing. I think St. Louis is very innovative and diversified. It's a great city to get delicious food.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Wei Hong Seafood Restaurant on Olive. It's delicious food, and she cares about her customers.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
I can't really pick one because I respect everyone who is in this industry. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to do this, but when someone comes up to say they love your food, it's very rewarding.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Sugar with a dash of pepper.
If you weren't working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
My other passion is antique and estate liquidations. I still do it when I find time.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
MSG and peanut oil.
What is your after-work hangout?
Home sweet home.
What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Our Vietnamese iced coffee. I drink at least one a day and when I can. Oh, and a brownie at Whisk, our neighbor on Cherokee Street.
What would be your last meal on earth?
A juicy steak, fresh lobster, oysters on a half shell and a side of crab legs.
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