plate of sesame rolls
Artist Interviews

James Suh And The Rise Of Taco Diplomacy

COVID-19 has given Nashville data strategy consultant James Suh the time to build a platform to share with others his love of authentic Korean flavors. His desire to offer a place to experience the beauty of Korean food and other international flavors in very comfortable and accessible forms led to the rise of Taco Diplomacy, a food pop-up concept that may soon become a restaurant. His recipes for dishes like Tteokbokki, Bulgogi, and unique tacos along with his love of great coffee invite people to experience something very unique.

James Suh of Taco Diplomacy in an apron holding a bowl of tteokbokki with cheese sauce

Born in post-war South Korea in 1972, James moved to San Francisco when his mother met and married a US service member. For nearly the entirety of his childhood, he and his sister spent their time alone taking care of themselves, which included finding and preparing their own food. 

James Suh with his mother, father and sister in Korea

Always experimenting with cheap and available ingredients, James created his own sweetbread his sister dubbed Ghetto Bread, when he was around 12. This sweetbread was a simple mix of water, sugar, flour, and some spices that were popped in the microwave for 90 seconds. Interestingly, his sister and her kids still make and enjoy the recipe today. 

As part of a military family and later as a service member, James has lived in 4 different countries and 10 US states. All of these moves gave James incredible exposure to diverse foods and flavors from cultures around the world. His strongest flavor memory is Tteokbokki, which is a spicy Korean rice cake with an incredibly complex and distinct flavor profile. To his dismay and despite countless attempts, James had been unable to faithfully recreate this flavor until very recently. His newfound recipe is now featured in many of his Taco Diplomacy’s popup and catering events.

James Suh in the Navy
James Suh in the Navy

James admits his childhood was a very difficult time in his life and those experiences shaped many of his future decisions, he explains,

“My high school situation wasn’t fantastic, I actually wound up living in a stolen car for a good part of my senior year. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of options when I graduated so I decided to look for a reset and joined the Navy.”

Even with these living conditions, James graduated in the top 5% of his class yet no one encouraged him to go to college or even made him aware that the path was available. Unsure of his options, he joined the Navy to become a Naval Nuclear Reactor Operator. After completing his training, James was selected for a University Scholarship to Rensselaer, where he earned a degree in Computer and Systems Engineering. During his junior year, he also petitioned the military to allow a transfer from the Navy to the Marine Corps.  

James Suh in Iraq
James Suh in Iraq

In the ’90s, he began thinking back to his childhood and trying to find ways he could hold on to the few positive memories from his past. James started looking for ingredients and recipes that would allow him to recreate the foods he remembered as a kid. This labor of love would take him 15-20 years of iterative changes before he felt he had mastered the process. 

Originally, he was concerned that Korean cuisine such as kimchi and other more pungent foods would not be palatable to many of his US friends. He only cooked them for himself and never considered sharing them with others. Today he feels that because Americans are more exposed to different cultures and international foods, he can enjoy experimenting and sharing more of his recipes.

Despite owning a successful data consulting business, recent interactions with business executives forced James to reconsider the value of his time and with whom he was spending it. He began thinking about how he could have a better impact and bring more joy to the world. The importance of being ethically and culturally aligned with the people around him became his primary goal moving forward.  

Those business experiences pushed James to spend more of his time and energy working with non-profit organizations (Make A Wish, Middle Tennessee is a client). The pivot also gave him more free time to explore and build on his passion for food and coffee. He explains his own words,

“I have never ever made anybody happy with data, people are excited, they’re interested, they like seeing it, it helps drive business and enterprise value, but no one comes up and says I love this data! Can you make some more? When I make tacos, Tteokbokki, or some of my other recipes people are genuinely happy, they love it, and that in turn brings me joy.”

When James met his now-wife, Karri Suh, the hobby baker I featured recently on The Creative Push, they began entertaining more from their East Nashville home. It was then that he introduced his Korean tacos to his friends and found that they were a hit. That gave him the desire to share more of his recipes and food ideas with others. 

Korean beef tacos, with bulgogi beef ribeye and garnished with lettuce, pickled root veggies, house red sauce, scallion, and takuan at pop-up.
Korean beef tacos at a recent pop-up

2020 was a pivotal year that brought about a lot of change for almost everyone. James and Karri moved to the west side of Nashville, got engaged, and officially tied the knot all within 10 months.

The COVID lockdown also provided a lot of downtime for James to explore his love of cooking and coffee while Karri pursued her passion for cakes and pastries. They started offering free cake tastings in their front yard to people in their neighborhood, a slice of cake, and a latte in exchange for online critiques using scannable QR codes. 

“Seeing Karri explore the baking side and gaining traction with something she really enjoys doing made me consider this a something we could make a living from …If I do decide to launch a brick-and-mortar business she will definitely be involved,” James explains.

During one of these events, their friend and owner of Miel Restaurant, Seema Prasad, offered her space for an official Taco Popup. This was just the encouragement James needed to move forward with the idea. He and Karri spent an entire month planning the menu, working out the logistics, finding a team, and creating a brand. Despite all the work and preparation, James was still surprised by the turnout and the response to the pop-up. The overwhelmingly positive feedback and attendance at such a low-key event provided the motivation to take the Taco Diplomacy idea to a new level. 

James Suh of Taco Diplomacy, Nashville
James and Karri in their front yard at a recent taco pop-up tasting
James and Karri in their front yard at a recent taco pop-up tasting

As he develops and perfects his unique recipes, James is learning how important it is to write down precise measurements so that he can be consistent with his flavors. Creating formal recipes is something he admits has been difficult since he has no culinary background and generally has always improvised when he cooks.

The top dishes James is sharing at his Taco Diplomacy pop-ups and tastings currently include:

The Real Korean beef taco, using a very thin bulgogi beef ribeye with a popular Korean sweet marinade as the base.

Bulgogi beef ribeye with a popular Korean sweet marinade as the base
Bulgogi beef ribeye with a popular Korean sweet marinade as the base

It is garnished with lettuce, pickled root veggies, house red sauce, scallion, and takuan, which is a sweet, pickled daikon radish found as a side in many Korean dishes.

Korean beef taco, with bulgogi beef ribeye and garnished with lettuce, pickled root veggies, house red sauce, scallion, takuan
The Real Korean beef taco, with bulgogi beef ribeye and garnished with lettuce, pickled root veggies, house red sauce, scallion, and takuan (pickled daikon radish)

The Unreal Korean, a vegan tofu taco, and The Sauer Diktator, a German bratwurst taco. Each is served on a house-made blue corn and flour tortilla.

a Sauer Diktator taco
The Sauer Diktator taco

He also serves Tteokbokki, a savory, spicy rice cake that is a popular traditional Korean street food. Tteokbokki It is made by cooking rice dumplings in a spicy soup stock. The rice dumplings (or rice cakes) are made from sticky rice and sweet rice flour.  The stock is made by cooking down seaweed, anchovies, daikon radish, green onions, and raw sugar for several hours then straining then mixing in tamari, gochujang (a fermented hot sauce paste), and gochu-goru (hot pepper flakes). The rice dumplings are then added to the stock and cooked slowly for about an hour and served in a small bowl topped with house cheese sauce, green onions, toasted sesame seeds, and a few slices of takuan. 

tteokbokki with cheese sauce
Tteokbokki with cheese sauce, daikon radish, green onions.

The day I met with James for our interview and photoshoot he shared with me his Korean seaweed rolls, which are similar to a Japanese nori roll. He prepared his with steamed rice, sesame oil, sea salt, takuan, egg omelet with scallions, cucumber, bulgogi, all wrapped in seaweed. If you want to see more photos check out my post at SOP. Some other taco recipes he is working on include an Irish taco, a pulled pork taco, and breakfast tacos.

seaweed rolls withsteamed rice, sesame oil, sea salt, takuan, egg omelet with scallions, cucumber, bulgogi, wrapped in seaweed.
Seaweed roll recipe of steamed rice, sesame oil, sea salt, takuan, egg omelet with scallions, cucumber, bulgogi, wrapped in seaweed.

James also has a true love for good coffee, he talks about that more in our podcast for The Creative Push. The ginger-spiced orange salted rim latte is a specialty of his, he explains,

“This latte reminds me of so many places we’ve traveled but the complex and wonderful mix of flavors quickly brings me back to what I love the most about Nashville. I’m constantly amazed by the unexpected beauty that emerges from the most diverse mix of ingredients.” 

ginger-spiced latte in a glass with an orange salted rim
A signature ginger-spiced latte in a glass with an orange salted rim

Today James is focusing on sharing his international recipes with a larger audience. Together he and his wife are looking into the possibility of opening a small Taco Diplomacy restaurant to offer his branded Korean foods, quality coffee drinks, and Karri’s cakes. In the meantime, they are participating in local pop-up events and offering catering for businesses in the Nashville area.

“Taco Diplomacy is not just about tacos, it is about introducing international flavors in familiar forms. Cake is a familiar form, coffee is a familiar form, and tacos are a familiar form of street food. Karri is definitely my inspiration, I don’t imagine I would be doing this if she wasn’t also interested in doing something with me,” James explains.

Together James and Kari have completed a business plan, have begun researching business opportunities, and are scouting locations to decide their next move. James believes that this pursuit is not very risky for him since he can always return to the high-demand data analytics consulting work. 

Be sure to check out The Creative Push podcast with James and the photos from the day of our interview.

Personally, I love the pop-up concept and have enjoyed his Korean tacos, tteokbokki, latte, and Karri’s cake variations on multiple occasions. Be sure to follow along with James on Instagram or his Taco Diplomacy site so you will know when his food is available again to the public.

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Photographer, artist, writer and educator, Sheri Oneal views life as a blank canvas, a story waiting to be told. Her desire is to help others find motivation and purpose through creativity.

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