Over the past few decades, restaurateur Alex Lee has bonded with the local Latin American community. He founded a string of Casa Blanca bakeries (outposts remain in Alexandria, Va., Arlington, Va., and Hyattsville, Md.). And Lee says he and former food trucker Jacobo Vanegas — who retired his mobile kitchen, La Veracruzana, in 2014 after circling the immediate area for 18 years — have been pals for ages.
It wasn’t until last year that Lee stepped out of his comfort zone and into personally uncharted territory: his native cuisine.
“I’m Korean, but I have a passion for Mexican food,” Lee said of his predilection for snacks from south of the border. He united those two universes in summer 2016 at Taco Ssam, his first multicultural venture.
The tightly-knit space features a half-dozen chairs overlooking a prep area where his staff hand-makes tortillas, grills up assorted proteins and dresses everything with house-made condiments. Most patrons seem perfectly at ease with the fusion happening in the kitchen. No one bats an eyelash when ordering Mexican dishes with Korean flourishes, or thinks twice about washing it all down with Peruvian soda (Inca Kola).
The most mission critical thing for Lee in mashing up his personal favorites was not sacrificing authenticity on either front. He said the restaurant prides itself on serving made-to-order tortillas; Lee estimates that the kitchen goes through a 50-pound bag of corn flour per day.
It’s a key feature he picked up while traveling.
“When I went to Mexico, that’s the way it’s done,” Lee said.
Honoring his roots continues happening in waves. Rolling out the Ko-Mexican menu items was the first step. Producing kimchi in-house marked the next evolution. The latest gambit: introducing ramen bowls featuring standard (bulgogi, diced tofu) and non-traditional offerings (adobo-seasoned pork).
The restaurant also does Mexican-style tortas (sandwiches), burritos and tamales, while daily specials range from Korean boxed lunches (dosirak) to fajitas (Fridays). “Most people stick with tacos,” Lee said.
Although he’s only eight months into this experiment, Lee is raring to launch a second storefront before the end of the year.
“We definitely have the funding and the people ready. But finding a location is getting harder and harder,” Lee said of a real estate hunt that’s already probed potential landing spots in Arlington, Fairfax and McLean.