Review: Da Korner in Itaewon
Da Korner is the unlikely name for a new place in Itaewon serving up South American-style empanadas, which are small pastries filled with savoury ingredients like meat or fish. I spent a glorious four months traipsing round South America this time last year, and ate quite a few empanadas along the way, so when I found out about this new venture, I determined to give it a try.
It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. Despite being simple enough to find – hidden off the main drag in Itaewon, it’s still pretty straightforward once you have directions, which are at the bottom of this post – my first two lunchtime visits to Da Korner were unsuccessful, because despite the sign proclaiming it to be open, it was firmly shut.
The menu is pretty minimalist. At time of writing, they have three flavours of savoury empanada; beef and potato, beef and tomato, and shrimp. There’s a couple of sets available and a small but solid beer menu. The lunch set (6,500W) comprises two empanadas with a soft drink, though you can also get a dinnertime sharing set with chips and a couple of other permutations.
I ordered the beef and potato empanada set and was advised that there would be a short wait; all the pastries are heated in the oven to order, though I suspect they were probably part-baked beforehand and then returned to the oven for a final reheating.
They were terrific. The pastry was really firm but not dry, so that the empanada didn’t crumble once opened but held its shape. I cut into them to open them up for the camera, though the photo doesn’t really do them justice. But this is finger food. In Argentina, in Uruguay and elsewhere, this is a snack served off plastic plates with a flimsy piece of tissue to clean your fingers on afterwards. Please don’t be Korean and cut each one into four pieces to share with your friends.
The filling could possibly have been more generous, though it probably settles and reduces in volume as it cooks, but it was pretty tasty. There’s beef, a little potato, and some cheese. I’d have liked a bit more spice or saltiness, and the cheese was very much on the mild side; but they were hearty, satisfying and really well made. There were two accompaniments; a vinegary tomato and onion relish, which was great piled on to the soft pastry, and a sort of fresh coriander (cilantro) sauce, which was also very more-ish.
The empanadas were reasonably sized, somewhere between the huge versions I had in Uruguay and the smaller, but nonetheless delicious, empanaditas I had in a famous Buenos Aires restaurant devoted to the craft. But two wasn’t quite enough for a big man with a long afternoon of work in front of him, so I rocked back up to the counter and asked for a shrimp empanada. Each pastry is just 2,900 won which is really very fair value, so having one more seemed like a no-brainer.
The shrimp version was even better. The filling seemed more savoury, reminding me a little of the peerless camarones taco at Don Charly. These were probably my favourites, and I could have eaten four of these on my own. Next time, I probably will.
The setup at Da Korner is perfect for these early autumn days; a lovely little garden set up with tables and artificial grass, a small oasis of calm away from the bustle of Itaewon. The restaurant itself is pretty small, with only four or five tables, so when winter sets in, hopefully there will be lots of business here and you will find it hard to get a table, at which point takeout might be a more sensible option.
Are they authentic? Well, on one level, it’s a meaningless question. There are as many different varieties of empanada in South America as there are provincial towns, corrupt politicians or dirty footballers. The most common flavours I encountered in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay were ham and cheese, or a mixture of beef, olives and chopped hard-boiled egg, and those aren’t on offer at Da Korner. But around the continent, they are made with pork, chicken, fish, corn, even tripe or shark meat. They are big or small, baked or fried, spicy or bland. (They can also be sweet – though I was very sceptical to see that Da Korner’s fourth variety of empanada is a cherry flavour, it’s not uncommon to see sweet fillings like jam or dulce de leche in South America, so I guess it’s legit.)
I’d love to see the owners at Da Korner branch out a little into serving more varieties of empanadas, and expanding their menu more generally. I’d particularly like to see a bit more savoury flavour in their fillings – some egg, olive, green onion or whatever. But for them to do that, they need to thrive. So go and check them out. It’s a great lunch spot, or a place to get an evening beer and a snack before heading out to one of Itaewon’s fast-dwindling selection of sinful fleshpots or dive bars. Me gusta.
- Category: South American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Shrimp empanada
- Subway: Itaewon Station (이태원역) exit 4, Noksapyeong Station (녹사평역) exit 3.
- Directions: Da Korner is behind McDonald’s on Itaewon-ro. Walk into the little arcade immediately to the left of McDonald’s front door (resisting the temptation to walk down the steps to Linus BBQ). Da Korner is at the back.
- Hours: 11:30 until close, but you might want to check ahead, or have a plan B, in case they are shut. Given that Linus BBQ is about 50 yards away, coming up with a plan B shouldn’t really be too hard.