Kalbi Taco Shack is a family affair. You notice this the second you walk up to the counter and receive a warm greeting from Olivia Shackelford. She takes your order and hands it off to the woman manning the flattop grill — her mom, the restaurant's owner, Sue Wong-Shackelford. As Wong-Shackelford hurries to prepare the food, the gentleman next to her fills cups of bubble tea. He's Olivia's dad and Sue's husband Mark. Sometimes Wong-Shackelford's brother Kam comes in to help out on the weekends, and her twelve year-old daughter Sierra is also quite a presence: She's the resident baker who takes credit for teaching her dad the skills to handle the bubble tea and Vietnamese iced coffee while she's at school.
Kalbi's family roots go much deeper than the team behind the counter, however. Wong-Shackelford's mother and father cooked for decades around town at various Asian restaurants — everywhere from the Polynesian-themed Trader Vic's to the original Rice Bowl on South Grand. And when they came home, they'd play around with recipes and experiment with new flavors. Though Chinese, Wong-Shackelford recalls family dinners full of dishes from a wide variety of Asian traditions — Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Pacific Rim, Taiwanese. It instilled in her a passion for food that led her into the restaurant business as well, where she worked for years cooking, managing and consulting.
For a time, Wong-Shackelford was out of the industry, working with her husband at their antique and estate liquidation business. As their daughters grew and developed their own love for food and cooking, she felt herself being pulled back in. She combined her background in Asian cuisine with her daughters' love of Mexican food and set up shop in a part of town she'd grown familiar with through her antique business: Cherokee Street.
At first, Wong-Shackelford and her husband thought the Kalbi Taco Shack concept might be best suited for a food truck. Though they ultimately scratched that idea, they wanted to give their brick-and-mortar spot that hip food truck feel. Don't be fooled by the rustic-sounding name, which is actually a nod to the family's surname ("Shack" for Shackelford). The restaurant is painted in bold red and yellow with graffiti-style artwork advertising its specialties. Guests order at the counter and take a seat at the handful of tables or at one of the stools along the wall toward the back of the space. The order counter — designed to look like the order window in a food truck — is surrounded by a chalkboard menu. A large red sign reading "Eat" hangs prominently in the main part of the dining room.
You won't need that sign to tell you what to do, though; the aroma of marinated meat searing on the grill is enticement enough. It's not false advertising. The restaurant's namesake kalbi, or Korean-style marinated pulled short ribs, show why the K-taco trend has been so popular. Following the Chipotle model, the mouthwatering sweet soy-glazed meat can be stuffed into any number of formats — a taco, burrito, quesadilla, rice bowl or bánh mì. I chose the burrito, which paired the meat with jasmine rice, jack and cheddar cheese, pickled carrots, sour cream, lettuce, cilantro and the restaurant's wonderfully funky "Kalbi aioli." The contents are folded into a flour tortilla and pressed on the griddle, giving the outside a crunchy texture. It's delicious as-is, though spice lovers will want to ask for a side of hot sauce.
- PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
- Olivia Shackelford, Mark Shackelford and Sue Wong-Shackelford.
The same burrito preparation can be filled with "sweet and spicy" jackfruit, a large tree fruit native to South Asia that's like a cross between a pineapple and really firm tofu. Kalbi tosses the fruit in a sweet chili glaze, which brings out its natural sweetness. For the uninitiated, the somewhat fibrous texture can be unexpected, but once you wrap your mind around it, the taste is enjoyable.
Pan-fried tofu, another excellent vegetarian option glazed in the same "sweet and spicy" sauce, pairs well with Kalbi's rice bowl. Basically a burrito without the tortilla, the dish is topped with an over-easy egg and served with a side of gochujang, the Korean spicy fermented soybean condiment. These additions add richness and depth to otherwise sweet flavors.
Kalbi Taco Shack winks at Vietnam with its bánh mì option. The "sweet and spicy" pork seemed like the best choice to layer atop the crusty baguette; the mildly spiced, fork-tender meat served atop shaved cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro and that rich, slightly spicy "Kalbi aioli" makes for a wonderful Asian/fusion pulled pork sandwich. Thin slices of jalapeño gave a welcome pop of spice. I wished for more filling or some pate to give it more heft, though it's a fair representation of the Vietnamese classic.
If you're looking for variety, Kalbi's à la carte tacos are a good way to try all the various fillings in one sitting. Soft flour or corn tortillas are available, and all come simply dressed with the Kalbi aioli and Wong-Shackelford's crisp Asian slaw, a refreshing, sweet rice wine vinegar-based concoction of cabbage and julienne carrots. The tender shredded "sweet and spicy" chicken, covered in the signature aioli, is a simple pleasure that shines with such a straightforward presentation. Still, the other meats were all so tasty that I found myself ordering every one of them in taco form even after I had completed my official tasting.
The biggest surprise at Kalbi came as an accident of sorts. My daughter and her friend both asked for quesadillas. I knew to get cheese, but her friend's dad optimistically ordered the teriyaki chicken for his adventurous eater. Or so he thought. Both girls, pushed past the breaking point because they were late for their naps, fought over the cheese quesadilla, and we had to order a second one to avoid dueling meltdowns.
That left the teriyaki chicken up for grabs. I mindlessly grabbed a bite and was floored. Rich, gooey cheese melted over the sweet and salty meat for the guiltily perfect mix of fat, sugar and salt. I dipped it in that slightly spicy, umami-laden Kalbi aioli and was shocked to have accidentally found what may be the best thing on the menu.
But it's not just the food I loved about Kalbi Taco Shack. As our daughters were melting down, Wong-Shackelford smiled knowingly at our predicament the way that only another parent can. She even offered us housemade popsicles, as she does to all of the kids who visit.
We passed — by this point our little ones really were past the point of no return — and I thanked her for so graciously rushing out that quesadilla. She smiled and said that she gets it. "I've raised two daughters," she said. "I'm just thankful we all get along in this small kitchen. We have to. We're family."
- PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
- The order counter at Kalbi evokes a food truck.