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February 26, 2021

Toki Tako brings Korean BBQ to the Rotunda

By SABRINA ABRAMS | January 31, 2021

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COURTESY OF SABRINA ABRAMS

Toki Tako features ssam, which is leafy lettuce wraps with meat or other filling. 

As a half-Korean who rarely consumes Korean food while in Baltimore, I was excited to see Toki Tako opening up in the Rotunda. Whether or not you’re craving Korean food from home, I highly recommend checking it out: Toki Tako’s Korean food is tasty, accessible and fast. 

Toki Tako is a Korean BBQ-inspired taco and ssam bar that opened last Wednesday. The pedigree was exciting since the owners, husband and wife duo Kevin and Elizabeth Irish, also own the excellent Hampden staple The Local Fry (you may have indulged in their Banh Mi fries at Spring Fairs past). 

In an interview with The News-Letter, co-owner Elizabeth Irish discussed her inspiration for opening Toki Tako Baltimore, explaining that it provided a connection to her Korean heritage. 

“I grew up eating this food all the time,” she said. “My mom, she cooks a lot for the family, but as a kid I was never taught to make a lot of this stuff. I always ate it and enjoyed it, and as we’re getting older, I don’t want to lose my connection to the Korean culture or the cuisine, so for the past 10-15 years I’ve been learning recipes from my mom.” 

Irish began to make numerous banchan for her mother every week.

“Now that we’re older, I want to give back to her all the love that she’s given to us,” she said.

The couple had signed the lease for the space in the Rotunda in the summer of 2019 and hoped to be open by the spring or summer of 2020. When COVID-19 hit, they had to push back their opening. Over this time, the concept evolved from a Korean taco restaurant to more of a Korean BBQ taco/ssam restaurant.

The menu at the new establishment is a delight. The best deal is the three for $13, where you can get three “takos” or ssam for $13. I had yet to encounter ssam — a dish where leafy vegetables wrap meat or another filling — outside of Korean BBQ, so it was lovely to see it offered on a casual menu. My friend who got this deal also received her ssam in a container shaped like a bamboo steamer, which was a cute addition. 

I ordered 2 ssam, the Se Songyi Beoseot Ssam (king oyster mushroom) and the Samgyupsal Ssam (spicy pork belly and pineapple kimchi). I decided to go for the ssam over the traditional tacos for the health factor, but I will probably try the tacos next time. I also ordered the genmaicha kombucha; as an avid kombucha drinker, this was a tasty treat. 

I loved the ssam. The Samgyupsal Ssam was easily my favorite of the two, with the mix of flavorful meat, pineapple sweetness and yuzu cream coming together in a delightful way. I liked the Se Songyi Beoseot Ssam, which is a great option if you’re trying to eat less meat, but I ultimately preferred the spicy pork. 

Their menu also highlights banchan (sides), which includes Corn Cheese and Tteokbokki (spicy stir-fried rice cakes). While I didn’t have the chance to try the sides during this venture, I’ll definitely check them out on my next visit. 

Irish expressed her desire to bring Korean BBQ to Baltimore in an easier method than a sit-down BBQ. 

“The flavors are authentically Korean, but we’re making it in a more accessible and approachable restaurant,“ Irish said. “People who haven’t tried Korean food, or are intimidated to go into a Korean restaurant, or if they don’t have a big group to enjoy the Korean food with and they’re by themselves... can just come in, pick up something to go or eat it quickly on their own and still enjoy all those Korean flavors.”

She hopes that through Toki Tako she can show Baltimore what Korean food is all about.

“It’s a bit of an homage to my family and my culture and my mom, and then showing Baltimore and teaching Baltimore about how good the food is and how it’s not so foreign,” she said.

Irish expressed hope that they would be able to weather the challenges of the pandemic. 

“We spent a lot of time coming up with the color scheme and décor because we wanted to create a nice ambience,” she said. “We won’t be able to have customers dine in with us yet. But I think the people in Baltimore are used to online and mobile ordering and curbside pick up, so I hope that it doesn’t hurt us to open during the pandemic. We’re worried but hopeful that we’ll still reach the people in the neighborhood.”

Since Toki Tako’s indoor dining is closed right now, order online through their website for pick up. I’d recommend going a bit earlier than the recommended delivery time, as our food was starting to get cold by the time we arrived.

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