El Pino 323
El Pino is a well-known landmark in East Los Angeles, and despite being open for just a couple of weeks, its namesake El Pino 323 is already well on the way to becoming an equally notable landmark of the Seoul food scene. Opening officially last weekend, hidden in a basement near a little-frequented subway station on line 5, this takeaway-turned-restaurant is dishing up some of the most authentic and certainly best, Cali-Mex food that you’ll find anywhere outside the 323 L.A. area code.
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed, with El Pino reopening near Noksapyeong Station. Please see my new review for details.]
Owner-chef “D” Kim is already well-known to hungry Seoul expats with an eye for good Mexican food; many readers will have enjoyed his tacos and enchiladas at various Taste of Los pop-ups over the last year or two, as well as in Volstead bar in Itaewon before that. An LA native, D and his wife Kendra have now opened up their own space near Aeogae station, near Gongdeok, and it’s highly worth your time and custom.
[Note: No money, free food or other inducement was asked for or received in return for this post. Soju Sunrise accepts freebies only very occasionally and will always explicitly state if this is the case.]
Nestled away in a nondescript basement shopping centre and food court in a building near the subway exit, El Pino was initially conceived as a takeaway and delivery kitchen with a couple of seats for walk-in customers. It’s been so overwhelmed with customers showing up in person during the soft opening phase, however, that they’ve put in some proper tables and chairs and generally spruced the place up. You’ll be able to watch your food being prepared in front of you, but don’t go expecting Michelin-starred surroundings, only damn good food.
And the food is damn good. Centred around tacos, enchiladas and rice bowls, it’s the real deal. D makes his own corn tortillas and mole sauce and the difference tells. Portions are generous and the flavours are great. I won’t claim to be any sort of expert on Mexican food but this stuff is so good that President Trump is going to build a wall around it.
The tacos are generously filled and topped with a citrusy pico de gallo. Carnitas tacos (above) have soft, chewy pork and were wolfed down in record time.
D also makes chorizo tacos (above), the chorizo here isn’t so much spicy but more flavourful and crumbly. Also tremendous, these won’t last long on your plate. The corn tortillas really lift the flavour of a taco, but I never really appreciated how much until I tried these.
The chicken tacos (above) are also pretty great, though the more neutral flavour of the chicken makes it less memorable than the other, meatier options.
For me, the absolute highlight are the enchiladas. Spicy chicken, particularly when served with the deep warmth and spice of the homemade mole sauce, lemon rice and beans which even I as a confirmed bean-sceptic guzzled down. I’m a big fan of the enchiladas at B’Mucho in Hongdae, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that these are better.
What else? The poblano chicken rice bowl (above) is basically a chicken and potato stew to you or me, Mexican comfort food that gets spicier as you go through it. This’ll be great as the mercury drops, particularly if you get it delivered, which El Pino is doing through Shuttle or, perhaps better, directly by phone on the number at the bottom of this post.
On my most recent visit I had the steak and egg burrito, which is only available at lunchtime. So good. A breakfast burrito slathered in spicy-sour salsa verde, it’s big enough that the lack of rice isn’t a problem, though I still had a couple more tacos afterwards just to make sure.
El Pino also has good guacamole and salsa, Mexican beers like Tecate, and tequila shots for just 2,500 won if you are feeling like starting the weekend with a bang. They’ve also started serving margaritas, but I haven’t tried one yet so can’t comment.
Also worth a shout out is their already-famous jalapeno jam, which we got a free sample of – this tangy-sweet-spicy jelly can be purchased to take home and I think it would go great on a burger or with some pork chops, or just on crackers.
Finally, save some space for the habanero brownie. It’s innocuous enough but the heat builds, and some days can pack a hell of a punch. With the vanilla ice cream it’s a great combination. Love this stuff. (We received this compliments of the house.)
El Pino 323 is in the early days of its existence and no doubt the menu will change and grow as a regular clientele builds, but it is already a hit and I wouldn’t be all that surprised if they are expanding or moving to a bigger location before too long. In the meantime, if you’re feeling adventurous, head down to Aeogae and give it a try – you will not be disappointed.
- Category: Mexican
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Chicken enchilada (16,800 / 18,500 won)
- Subway: Aeogae Station (애오개역) exit 4
- Directions: Coming out of Aeogae station exit 4, walk up the road for 150m or so until you reach the Koryo Academytel building, which also has an Woori bank on the ground floor. On your left you’ll see the entrance to a B1 shopping 상가 – walk down the stairs, turn left at the bottom, then walk down to the end. You should see the El Pino sign (see photo below). Or just wander around until you find it – the B1 level isn’t that big. You can also hunt for it on Naver under the name 엘피노323.
- Hours: At the moment it’s 12-10pm six days a week except Tuesdays, with an break time between 3 and 5pm. However you should take the precaution of checking their Facebook page, and/or their Instagram (where you can also see lots more photos) – business has been so good that they’ve been selling out every day. Delivery phone number is 070-8987-6248.