There’s a new taco ajeossi in the ’hood
Some of the gusto is gone from Joel Levin’s life. “I lost my taco ajeossi,” the Hongdae resident and JoongAng Daily employee said recently, referring to the man who ran a Mexican food stall called Chili Chili at the Hongik University subway station.
Mr. Levin can still get his taco fix. But now he has to come to Itaewon, where said ajeossi, Young Kim, relocated his stand last month.
Mr. Kim is happy with his new Chili Chili, which is down from the Noksapyeong subway station, on the right side of the road heading to Namsan Tunnel No. 3. “I moved my shop because my customers were mostly foreigners, and I knew that in Itaewon I would get many more,” he explained. “I enjoy the work more when I know the customers really appreciate the food.”
Mr. Kim is proud to serve authentic Mexican tacos - much like what he ate when he lived and worked in Mexico over two stints, in 1994 to ’95 and 1999 to 2001. Working as a sales agent for various Korean-exported goods, Mr. Kim was based in Mexico City, but spent plenty of time on the road, developing a taste for the good, cheap, everyday food that ordinary Mexicans eat. “Mexican food is for anybody and for anytime,” he said.
Mr. Kim noticed, upon returning to Seoul, that Korea had only a few Mexican restaurants, and that none of them followed the “anybody-anytime” principle.
Chili Chili’s menu, not unlike an Ensenada taco stand’s, is short and to the point. You can choose from tacos, burritos, fajitas and enchiladas. Nothing costs more than 4,000 won ($3). For drinks, it’s canned Coke or Sprite.
All that’s missing is Mexican beer. But buy a few Coronas from the Family Mart around the corner, and Mr. Kim will let you drink them at your table. Just don’t tell the police.
While we foreigners in Itaewon are delighted with Chili Chili’s relocation, the person happiest about it is a Korean who lives nearby, a sexagenarian named Mr. Lee.
When he first noticed the new store, Mr. Lee came in and exclaimed how happy he was to have it and how he never could have imagined such a thing. On subsequent days, he brought good-luck gifts for Mr. Kim ― a bouquet of flowers one day, a sack of avocados the next.
Mr. Lee drops in most afternoons and buys a couple of tacos al pastor (pork tacos for which you choose the toppings), one for him and one for his wife. Like any good retiree, he’s usually a tad tipsy by that time, and likes to clown around. He’ll pretend he doesn’t speak Korean, limiting his conversation to hearty English affirmations of “Good, good.” Ask him where he’s from and he’ll say “Mexico,” and that his mother was Korean and his father Mexican. Try out some Spanish on him, though, and he’ll turn to Mr. Kim and start arguing about whether the Spanish spelling of fajitas is with a “p” or an “f.”
Either way, Mr. Kim’s fajitas are absolutely pantastico.
by Mike Ferrin