Authentic Mexican food has arrived in HongdaeI was 16 when I learned that the taste of real Mexican food could only be obtained in Mexico, about a four-hour drive from northern Los Angeles, where my family and I lived. Initially there was some culture shock in discovering how different tacos and enchiladas were right across the border. But, by our second trip we began to crave them ― in our dreams and throughout the years to come.
Since Mexican expats in Seoul led me to Casa Maya four years ago, I’ve been going back there for my regular Mexican-food fix. Casa Maya’s tacos and enchiladas are the closest thing to those I encountered along the Baja California coast in Mexico.
So, when Casa Maya recently moved to a new location in Hongdae in northern Seoul, I followed, of course. There, the Korean owner-chef, Chung Mi-wha, lowered prices and added new dishes, while maintaining the quality of the existing dishes, which are rated among the finest in Korea among Mexican expats. If there’s one thing that didn’t improve over time, though, it’s the service. Because Ms. Chung does everything, from cooking to bartending, managing the part-time waiters and tending the cash register, dishes often arrive late or not in the order diners requested.
At Casa Maya, I like to start with a round of classic margaritas served in a large cactus-shaped glass (6,000 won, or $5.70). This is a perfect way to let go of your frustrations over hectic city life or the baffled waiters. This tequila-based cocktail is salty, slushy, sweet and tangy ― a good thirst-quencher and body cooler on a hot summer day. With tortilla chips, a complimentary starter, the long wait is never boring.
The real starter can be a taco al pastor (4,500 won). Taking a big bite into chunks of roast pork and heaps of cilantro leaves and salsa, all rolled inside a tender tortilla, instantly takes me back to a midday street market in Tijuana where a Mexican fiesta kicks off.
For a wholesome meal, a large plate of tacos de tres salsas (17,000 won) is great, as it comes with three kinds of tacos ― chicken, seafood and beef ― in three colorful sauces ― green, white and red ― representing the Mexican flag.
Ms. Chung recommended a “very Mexican dish” called albondigas (18,000 won), or beef-and-cheese meatballs in green sauce. Everyone at my table agreed that we would need time to acquire a taste for and appreciate the strangely sour flavor of the sauce, which is made from green tomato and cream cheese, but Ms. Chung said the dish was quite popular.
Another authentic Mexican dish is mole poblano (18,000 won), grilled chicken topped with brown or green puree made from herbs and vegetables. The brown sauce is dark and rich, while the more herbal green sauce can be adventurous for beginners.
A favorite of Mexican food lovers is enchiladas (15,000 won), chicken wrapped in tortillas served in a pool of spicy tomato sauce, fresh cream and cheese. For me, a basket of French bread, served on the side, is a must-have to clean the plate. The sauce also goes well with a steaming pot of paella (13,000 won). The dish of saffron rice, cooked with freshwater prawns, mussels, cuttlefish and shortneck clams, takes a minimum of 20 minutes to prepare, so order in advance.
Casa Maya’s new features include freshly wrapped burritos and a dish called chile relleno (18,000 won). Hidden under a pool of ripe tomato sauce are deep-fried pimento peppers filled with mozzarella cheese, tuna and eggs. With a slightly crunchy coating and light filling, the dish tastes more Italian than Mexican, but was wholesome and very delicious. I tried a large fresco burrito (13,000 won) and liked it. Bursting out of the plump tortilla wrap were, instead of plain chili beans, fresh morsels of roasted chicken, iceberg lettuce and cheddar cheese, with a few beans. This could be a great starter or even a healthful lunch, I thought.
Every time, a meal at Casa Maya turns out to be a grand affair over endless rounds of margaritas, which usually leaves absolutely no room for desserts. So I rarely get to drink Casa Maya’s reasonably strong Mexican coffee (2,500 won) or te de yerbabuena, a mint tea (4,000 won), brought back from Ms. Chung’s trip to South America.
Over the years, Ms. Chung has become something of an “aunt” figure in my life, who, upon each visit, gives me a big welcoming hug, rushes to the kitchen and cooks a table full of delicious food for me and my pals. That’s my Mexico right in the middle of Seoul.
English: On the menu, Spanish spoken.
Hours: Noon - 2 a.m. daily
Location: Next to Hongdae Park near Hongik University; Hongdae station on line No. 2, exit 6.
Parking: Parking lot nearby.
Dress code: Casual.
Second opinion: “This is my first time here; I really like a dish called chile relleno, but I didn’t like other dishes very much.” Park So-hyun at Libro Internet Bookshop.
by Ines Cho