B’Mucho Cantina in Hongdae – more specifically, Yeonnam-dong, the new hipster hangout just to the north – has been on my radar for a while, but it took me until this month to get along there. I’m now cursing the delay, because it’s a terrific spot.
With the weekend almost upon us, here’s a quick shout out for a new late-night food option in HBC. One corner of Fat Cat, the very nice cafe / restaurant formerly known as Indigo and Il Gattino, is now occupied by a takeaway sandwich window, styled as a “Food Truck” though there are no trucks to be seen.
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed. Fat Cat continues to serve excellent sandwiches in the same premises, and Leo Jehn runs a cocktail bar upstairs, which also offers sandwiches, empanadas and other snack foods.]
Open from 6pm every day (except Monday) and until 3am on Friday and Saturday night, proprietor Leo Jehn is serving up three varieties of filled baguettes to the hungry revellers of HBC, and I’m pleased to say that they definitely hit the spot.
There’s a Mexican chicken sub, with home-pickled onions, a bit of melted cheese, and tomato slices which Leo marinated, if I recall what he told me, in raspberry vinegar.
Just mildly spicy, I drizzled a bit of extra sriracha on there once I got home to amp up the chilli level. As ever with things Mexican, it tastes a lot better than it looks.
The star, for me, was the meatball sub (above). Three golf-ball sized meatballs with great texture and a hint of crushed red chilli in there, and a slather of marinara sauce.
I might have preferred a bit more sauce, but as Leo pointed out, these sandwiches are made for eating on the go and packing the baguette with another ladleful of piping hot tomato sauce would probably be a recipe for disaster. After making the sandwich freshly to order in front of you, it spends a couple of minutes in the oven to crisp up the bread and heat up the filling.
There’s also a tandoori chicken sub which I haven’t yet tried. All the sandwiches are 7,000 won and that represents fine value for money. They’re easy to eat, pleasingly filling, and a godsend for those of us who have to work (or play) late on a weekend night. Recommended.
- Category: Sandwich
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Meatball sub (7,000 won)
- Directions: Fat Cat is on the main HBC drag, just opposite Bonny’s Pizza.
- Hours: 6pm – late Tuesday – Sunday, with 3am closing time on Friday and Saturday nights.
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.
Rumours have abounded in recent months of a new taco place in the middle of nowhere, at least from a culinary point of view. So when details of Villa Guerrero were posted up on social media for the third or fourth time, I resolved to get on the subway to a station that didn’t even exist a year or two ago, and check it out.
I’m going to cut the “dance of the seven veils” shit and get to the point. Villa Guerrero’s carnitas tacos are the absolute bomb, as Americans say. The meat is chopped to order, with a combination of soft, slow-cooked pork, some skin, and various other bits and pieces that are best not to inquire into but which add considerably to the overall effect. If you are squeamish about stomach lining, tongue or anything else, just ask them to leave it out. Then they add onion, guacamole, though they were out on Friday lunchtime when we visited, and copious cilantro (coriander).
The tacos came to the table quickly – we got lucky, apparently, since they were out of their regular five inch tortillas, so we got extra big tacos for the same price. The meat was juicy, unbelievably moist and tender, and packed with flavour. Goddamn, it was good. The sort of food you look forward to eating again, even as you’re eating it the first time. To adapt Raymond Chandler, this was a taco to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.
We also ordered some chorizo tacos (above), made with Villa Guerrero’s handmade chorizo meat. This was something wonderful as well – oily, as you can see from the photos, the chorizo oozed paprika-red juices all over the plate. A hint of spice but no more, and messy, but really good. They weren’t as special as the carnitas, but I’d have these again in a heartbeat. Both the carnitas and the chorizo tacos are 4,000 won each. Superb value, even if we got unusually large portions on the day we were in.
The star, for me, was the carnitas. I went with my coworker, who’s quite new to Korea and was craving something that didn’t come with rice. Having ordered six tacos in total, and consumed four in the space of about thirty seconds, I nobly gave him the choice between the remaining chorizo and carnitas taco. He went for the carnitas in a nanosecond. I was quietly sad, but resolved to go back again this week without the selfish bastard, and eat six carnitas tacos all by myself. I really think I can do it.
- Category: Mexican
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Carnitas taco
- Subway: Samseong Jungang Station (삼성중앙역) exit 7.
- Directions: Samseong Jungang is a new station on line 9, on the way to Coex. Come out of exit 7 and turn left at Woori Bank. Villa Guerrero is 50 yards down the road on the right.
- Hours: 12-2:30 for lunch and 6-10pm dinner, Monday – Friday. They don’t open on weekends, and when they run out, they’re out! Check out their Facebook page, website or follow them on Instagram at @vgtacos.
Throughout Gyeongnidan and HBC, new restaurants and cafes are popping up faster than moles on the golf course in Caddyshack. The latest opening is Cali Kitchen, which marks the first foray into bricks-and-mortar for Chuck Chun, who brought us the popular pop-up Chuck’s Table in recent months.
Unusually for the area, Chuck has decided to open on a Monday, which is great news for us long-suffering HBC residents whose days off fall at the beginning of the week rather than the more usual weekend. So I dropped in to see what was what.
[UPDATE, JULY 2017: This location has now closed, with Cali Kitchen reopening a little further up the street in more spacious premises. See my review for more information.]
Cali Kitchen occupies the spot previously occupied by a trendy curry place much beloved of the Tasty Road crowd, but apparently not beloved enough. That accounts for the slightly odd blue chocolate-box decor, which may or may not survive into the future.
The menu’s still very much in its introductory soft-open phase (as are the prices, possibly). Burgers, burritos and chili all feature, as do some good beers. I decided to get a burrito, with a choice of carnitas or carne asada. The carnitas was recommended to me, and I am a sucker for slow pulled pork, so that was what I picked, with some extra guacamole packed in there for an extra 3,000 won.
Good choice. The burrito came out freshly made to order with a little side dish of salsa. I was pleased to see that it was properly Andy-sized.
Biting into it gave me a good hit of coriander (cilantro) and plenty of soft, succulent pork. There were some black lentils in there rather than the more traditional beans – a change-up of which I thoroughly approve – as well as some corn, which personally I’m less wild about, but whatever. The ratio of fillings to rice was also pleasingly generous.
As I went on, the guacamole began to assert itself – lots of garlic in there, it was far better than some of the anaemic guac you get here in Seoul.
Sold. A really good burrito. The owners were friendly and chatty and I didn’t want to leave the airconditioned goodness of Cali Kitchen. I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves and grows into the neighbourhood. With Revolucion just up the hill for an after-dinner beer, this neighbourhood continues to move onward and upward.
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: The burritos. Mind you, it’s the only thing I’ve tried, so who knows?
- Subway: Noksapyeong exit 2
- Directions: Come out of Noksapyeong exit 2 and walk up towards Namsan / HBC. Cross the road at the underpass and walk up Gyeongnidan-gil. Turn right at Maloney’s Pub, and Cali Kitchen is just a few metres further, on the left hand side.
- Hours: Open 7 days for lunch and dinner, with a mid-afternoon break. Check out their FB page for more details.
The good news is that while we await the opening of the new Noksapyeong branch of Apgujeong’s Coreanos Kitchen, there is another new taco place in the area most frequented by foreigners, and it’s pretty damn good. The bad news? It’s on the US base at Yongsan, so unless you have base access, or access to someone with base access, you’ll have to give it a miss. Fortunately I fall into the latter category, and am not above bribery as a means of getting to good food. So, armed with a promise to pay for dinner, I inveigled myself onto US soil and headed on down to the new USAG Yongsan branch of Gusto Taco with a friend in uniform to show me the way.
This being the US base, everything is denominated in dollars, though you can pay in won or by card as well. Gusto Taco is known for its tacos, but also does quesadillas, taquitos, nachos, burritos, and so on. Regular readers, if there are any, will know that I am a diehard Don Charly fan, but this is far more like American food than Mexican – and none the worse for it.
The manager recommended the chipotle pork tacos (above), so they were our first stop, along with some chicken tacos by way of comparison. The pork is slow-cooked for hours before being shredded, and it showed. It was soft and tasty; the meat was possibly, dare I say it, a little dry, but it was a damn fine taco nonetheless.
Still hungry – give me a break, I hadn’t eaten all day – we went up to the counter for round two. This time we added some huevos rancheros tacos to the mix, as well as a chicken burrito.
I’m not a big fan of burritos; I find them just a bit bland compared to the concentrated flavours in other Mexican food. I have to say that I thought this was pretty good – again, generously filled, lots of rice but also plenty of chicken, and not too much lettuce and beans, in stark contrast to a lot of Korean burritos which pile on the tasteless filler like there’s no tomorrow. At $9.50, it’s not terribly cheap, but it hit the spot.
By now I was beginning to get seriously stuffed, but there was just space for the huevos rancheros (above) – chorizo, egg and salsa, to those of us who don’t speak Spanish. This tasted to me exactly like a bacon and egg taco; it was a bit like eating a full English breakfast in a corn taco shell. That’s a compliment, by the way.
The restaurant itself has a somewhat… canteen-y feel. It’s functional rather than comfortable, bright and cheerful, and good for larger groups and families (both were in evidence on the day that I visited). By the nature of its location, it’s not really somewhere you’ll go to linger for hours, unless you have a few friends on base and can knock back a few beers. The service was extremely friendly and efficient and we were made to feel very welcome.
The last bit of good news, then, is that even if you can’t get on to the base at Yongsan, you can still enjoy Gusto Taco’s original location near Sangsu station in Hongdae. I haven’t been to that outlet, but on the basis of my visit to this one, and the reports I have heard from Hongdae, I can certainly say that I’ll be paying it a visit.
This is a much more American experience than Don Charly, but there’s no reason one can’t have two Latina mistresses, is there? The food was fresh, fairly priced and very satisfying, and marks another step forward for Mexican food in Korea. Me gusta.
- Category: Mexican/American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Chicken taco
- Subway: Samgakji (삼각지역) exit 13, Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 1
- Directions: Gusto Taco is a little way past the Dragon Hill Lodge on the South Post at USAG Yongsan, in the USEA building near Jamba Juice and the Korea Palace “Fusion Korean” restaurant. To be clear, you’ll need base access, or a friend who does.
- Hours: Monday – Saturday 11am -9pm, with extended hours and Sunday opening planned in the future. Check out their Facebook page or their website for more details.