The Soju Sunrise Interview: Jungsu Lee
Note from Andy: This is the second in an ongoing series of interviews with restaurateurs and chefs around Seoul. The previous interview was with Wahid Naciri of Casablanca and Morococo Café, and can be found here.
Jungsu Lee is from Seoul. He opened his restaurant Villa Guerrero in Samseong-dong in 2015, serving Michoacán style carnitas and chorizo tacos.
What first turned you on to Mexican food?
Actually I first tried Mexican food in Portland, Oregon. But it was only on my first visit to Mexico, aged 22, that I tasted the real thing for the first time. It blew my mind. My theory is that some people are just culturally, genetically inclined to get hooked on certain things. It’s like the way different people have different tastes in music. If you like hip-hop, it’s difficult to just make yourself ‘like’ rock music. You either like it or you don’t. For me, that was what the food in Mexico was like. I just got hooked. That’s when I knew I wanted to go back.
So you learned to make tacos in Mexico?
Yes, that’s right. The second time I went to Mexico, it was specifically to learn how to make tacos. I spent six months in Mexico City working in a taqueria. I didn’t want to attend a culinary institute or something like that – I wanted to learn by doing.
Among other things, I learned that it doesn’t really make sense to talk about “Mexican food” the way most people do. The country is huge and the dishes you get in Yucatán are nothing like Michoacán food.
What’s the significance of the name “Villa Guerrero”?
Villa Guerrero is the small town that my Mexican ‘family’ came from. It’s actually better known for its flowers than its food, but it seemed an appropriate name.
The menu is very tightly focused at Villa Guerrero – it’s basically just carnitas and chorizo tacos. Why is that?
In Mexico, of course, there are so many taco places – they are just everywhere. Some of them have lots of different varieties – like the Kimbap Chongguk of Mexico, I guess – but in my experience the best places are the ones who focus on one thing – carnitas, barbacoa, whatever – and do it really well. The same’s true in Korea as well, I think.
Anyway, there is plenty of good Mexican food now in this city, but I thought people in Seoul deserve a really good – maybe I can even say, Mexican-standard – carnitas taco. That’s why our slogan is “para citadinos” – for the citizens.
Aren’t you tempted to branch out a bit and expand the menu?
Sure, and in the future we might do that. In fact, I am planning to go back to Mexico later this year to learn some more things, refresh my memory of what the food there should taste like, and fulfill my curiosity about what’s going on over there.
Anyway, whatever we add to the menu may depend on our limitations of space, but also it’s important that it fits into our overall concept. I admire people who make fusion tacos here, but that’s not for me. I’m quite stubborn in the way I do things. I want to bring my ‘A’ game, not to be second best.
Your carnitas is amazing, and different from others I’ve had – what’s your secret?
[Suspiciously] I’m not telling you my recipe… but you’re right; our carnitas is made in small batches so we can serve it as fresh as possible. If we had a much bigger menu, the way we make them, it would be hard to keep the same quality. Working in a taqueria taught me some of these “tricks of the trade” for dealing with cooking temperatures, keeping up with demand so we don’t make too much or too little, that sort of thing.
Are your customers mostly foreigners or local people? I would have thought that offering them tongue tacos might be a hard sell.
I would say about 10 to 15 percent of our customers are foreigners and the rest are Korean people. We knew it would take some time to educate local customers about our food but it’s quite similar to suyuk (수육) or other kinds of boiled pork like morigogi (머리고기), which people are familiar with already.
What can we expect to see from Villa Guerrero in the future?
After I get back from Mexico, we’ll probably add one or two more things to the menu. We’ll also hopefully be using corn tortillas in the future – our use of flour tortillas isn’t ideal, but we now have a proper Mexican tortilla maker which we hope to start using soon.
Another Villa Guerrero, somewhere else? Samseong-dong is a bit far for some people.
That would be good, and we have some interest… if we set up a second place, we would try to do something at least a little different. But let’s see.
What do you like to eat when you’re not in your restaurant?
I love Middle Eastern food. When I was at university I used to go to Itaewon all the time for the kebabs and so on. I also love the Choseonjok Chinese food, which is really huge in Korea as well, I think.
Apart from Villa Guerrero, many people might not be aware that you have a whole other life as a sports commentator. What’s that all about?
Yes, I work for KBS sports commentating on various types of MMA fighting championships and writing about it as well. It’s just a sideline, though. I’ve lived for competitive sports ever since I was young – I barely studied in college!
Yeah, me too. Is it anything like that Mexican wrestling I’ve seen on TV? The guys with the masks? I know nothing about UFC, MMA or anything else.
Haha no – though I love “la lucha” and went to see it when I was in Mexico several times!
So if you had to give up one – the sports commentating or the restaurant – which would you sacrifice?
Are you kidding? I’d never give up the restaurant. I like the commentating, but tacos are my passion. That’s an easy choice.