King’s Inn Casino in downtown Reno—opened in 1974 and closed by 1986—hung out on the “doomed to demolition” list for decades. I often wondered why someone didn’t just bulldoze the eyesore. Thus, I was genuinely surprised when it reopened in late 2016 as 3rd Street Flats, a stylish apartment building with a street-accessible mix of retail and restaurant space. I almost can’t believe it’s the same place. Among the new tenants is Reno’s latest Korean spot, Bab Café, which I’ve looked forward to trying since its doors opened earlier this year.
The room is modern and inviting. The quick, friendly staff serves up a menu of Korean rice bowls—bab—along with a few appetizers and a kids’ menu. Free wifi is available to customers, which is good since there is next to no cell service once you step inside. There’s a patio and swimming pool just above, which likely has something to do with that.
My friends and I started with mandoo ($2.99 for five), a Korean potsticker traditionally made with ground pork and beef, Asian chives, mushroom, onion, tofu, scallion, egg, garlic, seasonings, sesame oil and fish sauce. I don’t know exactly the ingredients of the crispy bites we enjoyed, but they packed a ton of zesty, herby flavor.
The rice bowls were served with cups of hot miso soup with plenty of scallion and tofu in a savory broth, a welcome addition to the meal. The menu featured a few styles of bab, each a combination of veggies with a choice of proteins, served apart from each other on a bed of steamed rice, waiting to be mixed together. You can add additional ingredients for a few extra coins, or scale up to a considerably larger portion for an additional $2. I found the regular serving to be plenty for one person, especially when combined with appetizer and soup.
First up was dak-galbi bibim-bab ($9.99) with teriyaki chicken, cooked spinach, carrot, cucumber, radish, zucchini, and egg. The tender meat was cubed, but the veggies, other than the spinach, were zoodled, i.e., cut into long, thin shreds. The sauce was not as sweet as Japanese teriyaki, with just a touch of heat. Additional side sauces included spicy Korean barbecue, spicy mayo and a big bottle labeled “super hot.” The spicy barbecue sauce did have a kick, tempered by a fair amount of sweetness. The extra-rich mayo was akin to Japanese kewpie with a bit of punch. My favorite—super hot—was similar to the most fiery Mexican sauces in my cupboard. A couple shots really hit the spot.
Next was kimchi bokkum-bab ($9.99), a bowl of spicy pork fried rice with spicy Korean fermented cabbage, topped with shreds of fresh veg. The rice and pork were tasty, and the kimchi did its part on both flavor and heat. I really liked being able to taste each item separately before mixing. This combination was probably my favorite dish of the meal.
A couple of bowls with thin, chopped beef in a classic Korean marinade rounded out the meal—Bulgogi top-bab ($11.99) with steamed baby carrot and florets of broccoli and cauliflower and japchae top-bab ($10.99), essentially the same thing with the addition of stir-fried glass noodles in their own sauce. The beef was excellent, and the veggies were fine, but the addition of japchae’s savory-sweet notes of sweet potato, garlic and sesame made this my second favorite bowl of the evening.