That's Become the Cry of Hungry KoreansThe spices that put the spark into condiments in Korea seem almost exclusively limited to garlic, onion, red pepper and sesame oil. Anything that deviates from these national staples would usually cause a little stir at the table.
However, the dining scene in Korea is slowly changing, thanks to adventuresome new palates seeking variety. More and more Koreans are becoming interested in trying exotic spices that originated in different regions of the world.
In the past few years, Mexican food in particular has found its way onto the Korean menu through large franchise restaurants (TGI Friday's for one). Although not so long ago Mexican spices made from black peppercorns, cumin, oregano, chili pepper and coriander or cilantro leaves were considered too "foreign," imaginative chefs improvised to make the flavor more Korean-friendly. The results included salsa sauce light on herbs and sour cream, and guacamole and cilantro leaves － the main culprit of Koreans' distaste for Mexican food － served on the side so that individual diners could add according to their taste. To satisfy Koreans' penchant for spicy heat, restaurants served jalapeno peppers in place of kimchi.
The least threatening dishes in terms of flavor soon became popular. In Korea, fajitas turned out to be a top choice for main a dish among meat-lovers. Koreans found fajitas not only delicious but also fun to eat, as the food involves wrapping broiled meat and vegetables in a flour tortilla and adding spicy salsa, then seasoning each wrap with sour cream and avocado dip as personal taste dictates. Tacos, quesadillas and nacho chips also became the favorite accompaniment for a Corona beer. Bold diners went for burritos, enchiladas and chimichangas. Over the past few years, several restaurants specializing in Mexican food have attracted those who crave the authentic Mexican taste. At these restaurants, the chefs may be all Korean, but their recipes are "Mexican" enough to satisfy both novice and experienced palates.
Perhaps the Mexican restaurant that comes best recommended by Mexican expats in Korea is Casa Maya, located in the heart of Apgujeong-dong. Casa Maya opened four years ago near the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Dongdaemun-gu, and moved to its present location only one month ago. Casa Maya serves the most authentic Mexican dishes in Korea － what the owner Chung Mi-wha proudly terms "street-style" Mexican food.
What makes Casa Maya different from other restaurants is that the owner is the creative chef. Ms. Chung learned to cook Mexican dishes while living and studying in Mexico and Columbia, and found she preferred the taste of "authentic" foods sold at the ubiquitous food stalls and eateries rather than that offered by fancy hotel restaurants in Mexico City. Unlike most Mexican-style restaurants in Korea that rely on canned goods, she concocts her own sauces in the kitchen with special recipes collected from various chefs she met in Mexico.
The classic country-style taco or taco al pastor is indeed classic and country-style: served on top of a flour tortilla are grilled meat and fresh cilantro leaves. Spice the meat with salsa, roll it up, take a bite and you are back in the Mexican marketplace! Delicious extra cheese in that taco merits it a special mention on the menu as a "Gringa taco."
Ms. Chung says that her enchiladas, a typical Mexican food, are already popular with her long-time clients, but she also recommends "real" Mexican dishes such as tlaccollos (red bean dishes), mole poblano (brown sauce over grilled chicken), pozole (spicy soup) and parillada (various grilled ingredients wrapped in tortillas). Mole pablano is especially delicious because of its brown sauce called mole (with an accent on the "e"), which covers chicken and Spanish rice and is made using a secret recipe. Ms. Chung emphasizes that the sauce alone contains over 15 different kinds of herbs and spices imported directly from Mexico. While a light meal such as tacos and quesadillas cost around 4,500 won ($3.50), main dishes such as quesadillas, Latin American steak served with potatoes, alambre, enchilada, fajita and the like costs between 14,000 and 20,000 won.
At Casa Maya, diners can enjoy the latest Mexican pop all day; Ms. Chung is proud of her CD collection of years. "Don't you love the music here?" she beams, listening to the romantic tunes of Enrique Iglesias. The two-story building has cozy corners, a balcony, a waiting room complete with wash basins and even a garden outside, and on the first floor, she plans to sell various gift items and decorative goods imported from Mexico.
Here, the dining experience cannot be completed without trying a Mexican liquor or beverage. Casa Maya serves 10 different kinds of tequilla ranging from the standard Cuervo Especial to the more expensive Sauza 3 Generaciones, not to mention Mexican beer. Ms. Chung recommends Mexican coffee, tea and rice drink (horchata) or fruit juice (agua de Jamaica). The light aroma of the popular teas, te de yerba buena (mint tea), te de manzanilla (camomile tea) and te de limon (lime tea), make them the perfect choice for after-meal drink, as they leave the diner with a clean, refreshed palate after the surprisingly tasty, rich meals. Starting next month, Casa Maya will prepare original taco al pastor on a barbecue grill. This can also be ordered to take out.
Casa Maya is located at 646-19 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu and is open daily from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. For reservations or information, visit the Web site (www.casamaya.co.kr － due to open shortly) or call 02-545-0591 (Spanish and Korean service available).
Location: On Namsan hill, near the Grand Hyatt hotel
Telephone: 02-798-4656 (English service available after 4 p.m.)
Business Hours: Noon-midnight
The island of Fiji happens to be the owner Anita Jang's favorite spot on the world map, but the food she likes is Mexican. Thus, the Fiji Island menu includes regular steak and pasta dishes along with typical Mexican dishes － tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas and fajitas － of which the fajita comes highest recommended by both Ms. Jang and her customers. If you order a beverage, they serve you a basket of hot nacho chips － lightly sprinkled with Parmesan cheese － with salsa mixed with Italian tomato paste. Tacos, served with a choice of hard corn shells or soft flour tortillas, are a safe bet, but enchiladas and burritos come with Mozzarella topping and again with Italian tomato sauce. Ms. Jang said she had acquired a taste for Mexican food while living abroad and brought some recipes with her, but in Korea she has modified them to suit Korean tastes.
The food may not be quintessential Mexican, but the cafe/bar, located in the quiet residential neighborhood in Namsan, makes an ideal rendezvous.
Location: On the third floor of Hanmok building in Daehak-ro
Telephone: 02-3675-0111(Korean service only)
Business Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
El Paso serves a variety of what are called "Tex Mex" dishes － Americanized Mexican foods. Alambre, a mixture of broiled beef, bacon and various vegetables (bell pepper, onion, paprika) served with green tortillas is a delicious treat － although it goes a little overboard with the garlic. The good news is that almost every dish served at El Paso comes with a heap of fresh cilantro leaves and salsa sauce made of chopped fresh tomato to satisfy those who crave an exotic flavor. Taco and enchiladas cost about 10,000 won but are served in reasonably large portions.
Other El Paso specialties, including burritos, tostados and fajitas, are reasonable in terms of taste, portion and price, but diners should be warned that this is not hard-core Mexican cuisine; it has been watered down a little to suit the local palate. Located in the same building as the Museum of African Art, the restaurant/cafe attracts both exotic art lovers and gourmands.
Location: On the main boulevard of Itaewon
Telephone: 02-792-4767 (English service available)
Business Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 2:00 a.m.
Pancho's, located on the main boulevard of Itaewon, is a bar-cum-restaurant that boasts a pool table. The loud music of the latest Latin pop stars － Mark Anthony and Ricky Martin － may suit easy-going partyers who want to play pool and darts over Mexican beer. But because the food arrives belatedly after several rounds of drinks, this pub may be a little hard on hungry diners who want both food and coherent conversation at the table.
They serve pretty decent quesadillas, either chicken or beef, and soft-shell tacos with fresh vegetables minus cilantro leaves for starters. With or without starters, the lightly alcoholic frozen lime margarita is a very pleasant treat on any day. Though the Pancho's-style enchilada, burritos and fajita are far from authentic Mexican, if you don't mind the taste of Korean bulgogi infiltrating your Mexican, the dishes can pass the test － perhaps as Mexican-meets-Korean fusion dishes.
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