Don Charly Taquería in Gyeongnidan
Long before there was Villa Guerrero, Little Baja, or even (I think) Vatos and Coreanos, there was Don Charly, a little hole-in-the-wall taco place up the road towards the Hyatt, with five seats and a couple of overworked Mexicans serving top-quality tacos in polystyrene plates to hungry foreigners.
Time passed and Don Charly opened up next to Craftworks in Gyeongnidan – a very solid spot, but some have grumbled that it isn’t the same as the old days, when we used to stand on the street and lick meat juices from our fingers like taco junkies. So now they have returned to their roots with a brand new taquería, just a couple of hundred metres from their original location, and though it’s only been open a day, I’m pleased to report that it’s a hit.
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed, unfortunately. The main Don Charly branch next to Craftworks remains open.]
On this gorgeous sunny autumn afternoon, I braved the hordes of Instagramming girls to walk up the infamous churro street in Gyeongnidan, past all the new places that have popped up back here, to a street which just 12 months ago was empty. Now it’s full of new restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, as well as the inevitable queues of people for their chicken, melted cheese sandwiches, gelato and churros.
The new restaurant, which is under the same ownership as both the original and the existing Don Charly (though it won’t have Carlos cooking in the kitchen) evokes the look and feel of Mexico, and the aim is to remain close to the idea of quick, simple food that you eat with your hands – “street food” is an overused phrase, but that’s essentially what we’re talking about.
The restaurant opened its doors yesterday, so the menu remains limited at time of writing. There are three tacos available; two pork and a beef offering. Each portion comprises two small tacos, no bigger than the palm of your hand, each one of which is made from two corn tortillas, doubled up to guard against disintegration. (More about the tortillas later.)
I ordered everything.
First up was the suadero (above), which is a taco with braised beef, onions and plenty of cilantro. One of the tacos comes out with green sauce, the other with red (no doubt they have fancy Spanish names, but “green” and “red” they will remain to me), and sauce bottles are also brought to your seat for you, just like in the old days.
Fabulous. The beef was reasonably tender, the balance of everything just right. The corn tortilla really lifts the flavour. At two for 5,000 won, I could have eaten ten. One day, I might.
Next up (picture above) were the carnitas tacos. Now, after sampling the gloriousness that is Villa Guerrero in Gangnam, trying someone else’s carnitas might have set me up for disappointment – like hoping for Beyoncé but ending up with Solange. And I won’t say they were as good as Villa Guerrero, because I can’t lie, especially on a Sunday, and me skipping church every weekend for the last two decades.
But I will say; these were tasty tacos, and if I was forced to eat these every day for lunch I would do so uncomplainingly, and I could face my premature death with equanimity. The owner was fretting that the pork was a bit dry, saying that once they have more customers they’ll be able to get a better workflow going and the carnitas will be better. Maybe. Until then, this’ll do me fine.
Last up was the al pastor taco; grilled pork with a sliver of pineapple. I am a sceptic of fruit with meat – any British person my age will remember tough gammon steaks at school topped with a huge pineapple ring, and shudder. But this worked well. The pork had a decent char on it and the sweetness of the pineapple complemented it nicely. It was like a deconstructed kebab.
This was probably my least favourite of the three varieties, but it was still a solid seven out of ten. Even though I’d eaten my way through the menu, I wolfed them down in record time.
The new Don Charly is bigger than the original hole in the wall, with space for twelve seated counter-style or at a communal table, and there’s also a bit more space for people to stand around and eat on the go.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, is a tortilla machine imported direct from Mexico. This monster rolls the tortillas, flame-grills them and then deposits them on a little rack for the chefs to transfer to the kitchen. It took six months to ship from Mexico and is probably the only object in the neighbourhood that weighs more than I do.
The owner was chatty and told me all about her concept for the new place and her enthusiasm for introducing more Korean people to the joys of good honest Mexican food. On the early evidence, I hope she succeeds. I don’t think these tacos are going to change your life, but even the fact that I can say that about such a damn good product speaks volumes about how far Mexican food has come in Seoul in the last three or four years.
- Category: Mexican
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: All of them – they’re small enough that you can try them all in one or two visits.
- Subway: Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 2.
- Directions: You can approach from two directions. From the subway or from Itaewon, walk up towards Namsan until you get to the famous churro stand on the second road to the right, where Chansbros coffee is. Walk up to the top of that street and turn left. Don Charly will be 50 yards or so further on, on your left. From Gyeongnidan-gil, take the first right opposite the galbi restaurants and walk up the hill – eventually you will get to Don Charly, which will now be on your right.
- Hours: 12-10pm Tuesday-Friday, with a 3-5pm afternoon break. Weekends will be 12-10pm with no break. Closed on Mondays.
- The Soju Sunrise Food Awards 2015 | soju sunrise - […] Guerrero (Samseong) [above]. Honourable mention: Don Charly […]