Served on plastic, but the flavor’s realLast weekend, La Salsa Loca, a new establishment in the heart of the Yeouido business district, got as close to an official stamp of approval as a Mexican restaurant in Seoul is likely to receive. More than 70 Mexican Embassy staffers, expats and friends threw a dinner party there, and an elated guest later pronounced the fare “100-percent Mexican.”
In my own, less authoritative opinion, the best Mexican restaurant in town by far has been Apgujeong-dong’s Casa Maya, which, among other selections, serves classic tacos and enchiladas that bring back childhood memories of traveling in Mexico.
I had to know whether the newcomer in Yeouido was as good. To help rate the food, I invited a Mexican friend along for a late lunch.
La Salsa Loca is a casual, diner-style restaurant with a pristine interior; the 80-seat space features spare, white tables and chairs and a glossy, tall banquette along the wall covered in metallic royal blue vinyl cushions.
Scribbled colorfully overhead are “100% natural,” “100% organic” and other such English phrases.
It was midafternoon, and the place was almost empty. Behind the counter was a bespectacled, diminutive Mexican chef, whom everyone called Carlos (his full name is Jesus Carlos Najar Munoz). My dining companion chatted in Spanish with the chef, and with a couple of Spanish businessmen who came into the place; my friend had met them before, and they said they’d had the best burritos they’d ever tasted in Korea here.
We had a Mexican-style aperitif, horchata, for 3,900 won ($3.40; a 10-percent value-added tax is applied, incidentally). A sweet rice beverage, the version served here was thick and slushy. I had been looking forward to a lime margarita, so rare in Korea, but a young Korean staffer told me they had no lime that day.
A mango-flavored frozen margarita (6,900 won) was served like a Coke in a tall plastic cup; it was a cool, refreshing cocktail, made with just a splash of tequila.
My companion was delighted to see beef tortas (11,500 won) on the menu. A torta is a Mexican sandwich, served, in this case, with jack cheese, guacamole, beans, tomatoes and shredded iceberg lettuce.
The TGIFriday-style photo-book menu offers tacos, quesadillas and fajitas; I passed these up and went with an enchilada.
We also ordered beef burritos (13,900 won), which, for an additional 3,000 won, came with pilaf, pinto beans, guacamole and an iceberg lettuce mini-salad topped with sour cream.
The burrito was fat with rice, beef slices and beans; the combination was surprisingly tasty, with good texture. But because it didn’t have the traditional bean paste, I asked my tablemate for his opinion.
“I’ve never had rice burritos before, and in Mexico, burritos are not like this, you know,” he said. “But the overall taste and flavor are very Mexican, and this is very good.” It tasted perfectly fine to me, but I still wanted the real burrito with the real stuffing, which you can buy for less than a few bucks anywhere in southern California or Mexico.
The tortilla chips served on the side were extra-thin, freshly fried in corn oil ― not the artificially colored, MSG-laden factory version. Crispy and translucent, they went wonderfully well with the three dipping sauces, namely salsa chipotle, salsa asada and salsa ranchera.
The chicken enchilada (10,900 won), which came with tortilla chips, baked potato and carrot chunks, also had authentic, rich flavors. Inside the warm, home-made tortilla were lean, tender and delicious strips of chicken breast marinated in Mexican spices, covered with a thick, mustard-yellowish verde sauce. It was not too greasy or salty, unlike some heavy-duty enchiladas served in Tex Mex restaurants.
The torta’s bread was too soft and floury for my taste, but the beef, just like that in the burrito, was extremely tender and flavorful, so I became curious about the chef’s recipe. Mr. Najar Munoz, formerly a hotel chef in his hometown of Guadalajara, said the beef was Australian, and that he marinates it overnight in Mexican herbs and chili peppers (but not in wine) and grills it over fire. He says the jalapenos, as well as the cilantro and the tomatoes, are grown here from imported seeds.
At the end of the meal, a cup of complimentary coffee arrived; fresh coffee, slowly dripping into the cup from a brown paper filter secured over it. (Incidentally, the coffee costs 2,200 won if that’s all you order.) This was a nice attempt to please coffee lovers; most casual restaurants, of course, serve stale coffee from bad beans and, what’s more, charge you for it. It definitely tasted more pleasant than one could have expected from such a place, though it was not strong enough for my daily caffeine fix. The chef told me the beans were from Colombia.
Behind La Salsa Loca, I was told later, is a Korean company with a dream of conquering Asia. Mr. Najar Munoz, who came from Mexico to Korea 10 months ago to work for Elli and the Company, Inc., helped the company set up La Salsa Loca, catering to local tastes. The company hopes to set up 15 La Salsa Loca locations in Asia within five years.
“I wanted to start with familiar dishes and spices and gradually add more as Koreans acquire a taste for more complex Mexican food,” the chef said.
The presentation at La Salsa Loca is extremely casual ― plastic plates, cups and trays ― but if you don’t mind that, you’ll find some very good, authentic flavors.
LA SALSA LOCA
English: A little spoken (Spanish, too); English menu available.
Telephone: (02) 780-8133.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays and holidays.
Location: Behind SK Gas Station near Hewlett Packard Building.
Subway: Yeouido station, line No. 5, exit 3.
Parking: Paid parking nearby.
by Ines Cho
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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