As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, bars and restaurants in Multnomah County have had to change and adapt as quickly as possible: many have switched to takeout, either as family meals or just slimmed down versions of their regular menus. For Phil Chung — owner of the late-night karaoke spot Suki’s Bar in Southwest Portland — it provided an opportunity to embrace his family’s Korean roots. While the bar is temporarily closing, it will eventually reopen with a new menu featuring items like bibimbap, kimchi fried rice, bulgogi tacos, and fried chicken wings. “Ever since COVID-19 we’ve had to reassess,” says Chung. “We’re putting something together to focus on our identity as Korean-inspired cuisine with karaoke and sports.”
This switch to a Korean-American menu is rooted in his family’s history behind the bar. Chung’s father, the titular Suki, immigrated to British Columbia from South Korea, before he moved down to the Portland area with his wife and two children in 1990. He purchased the Caravan Motor Hotel and the attached Lilah’s Restaurant and Bar in Southwest Portland, down the hill from OHSU, right off of the busy intersections of criss-crossing I-405 on and off-ramps. Suki took over the restaurant operations in 1996, changing its name to Suki’s and its concept to a steakhouse and jazz venue. Eventually, jazz gave way to karaoke nights, and its steak menu transitioned into more casual bar food, fitting for its un-fussy vibes and red leather booths.
Chung took over the restaurant from his parents in 2005, adding more karaoke nights and a greater focus on sports on the TVs — it became a consummate spot for older PSU students and Southwest Portland residents looking for some late-night karaoke. The huge dining menu was a staple of the restaurant, with around 50 items on it at one point. “We had everything on the menu you can think of,” Chung said. “You could get breakfast, tacos, rice bowls, burgers, wraps, bar food, sides... you could get it all.”
Then, in late 2019, COVID-19 arrived in Portland. By March of 2020 the entire restaurant industry had been radically altered, with dining rooms across the state temporarily shuttered. Suki’s, like many other places, switched to a takeout menu, and was forced to slim down significantly to cut down on overhead costs—this provided an opportunity to dial in a new identity for the bar, which Chung describes as Korean-fusion rather than traditional Korean. “We had a few items on the menu, but I wanted to go further,” Chung says. “Having this time off has allowed me to consult with my mom, an excellent Korean chef who knows a lot of recipes. [I’ve been] spending time with her, to see what would work here at Suki’s.”
Besides consulting with his mother, Chung also reached out to Josh Missman, a former Suki’s regular and sous chef for the lauded restaurant Departure at the top of downtown’s Nines Hotel. “The day before we met up the first time, he spent like eight hours with his mom,” Missman says. “She helped him get a lot of his ideas together for where he wanted to go.” The two sat down together and hashed out menu ideas, then Missman returned to help teach the kitchen staff how to make it.
The new menu is Korean bar food — rice bowls like bibimbap, gochujang pork, ginger chicken, and kimchi fried rice; an assortment of Korean tacos; bulgogi burger; Korean fried chicken wings; and a vegetable pancake are a few stars, while sides like fried tofu or shiitake mushrooms help round out the menu. For people looking for more standard American bar food, there’s still a cheese burger, as well as fries and tots.
Despite the new menu being conducive to takeout, Chung and his team have decided to close up for the time being and prepare for an eventual full service reopening to come. The 3,000 square foot space means that even with social distancing, the bar can fit around 70 to 80 diners. Outside, a patio and parking lot seating means nearly 40 more will be able to join. And Chung is patient but eager for the time that late night karaoke returns. “In Korea people order platters of food, drink Hite beer and soju, sing songs, have a great time,” he says. “Once karaoke is back, we feel like it’s going to build a niche for us.”
• Suki’s Bar [Official]