Back in November of last year, when Mexican restaurant El Pino 323 opened in a little hole in the wall space near Aeogae station, I wrote in my review that “I wouldn’t be all that surprised if they are expanding or moving to a bigger location before too long”. You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that the tacos and enchiladas being dished up by Chef ‘D’ Morales would quickly draw a wider audience than could fit into a slightly poky basement room next to kimbap joints and nail salons.
Fast forward nine months or so and the prophecy has come to pass even more quickly than most of us would have expected. El Pino 323 has outgrown its original location, and moved on to bigger and better things. Now in a bright and airy second floor space near Noksapyeong station, the new version of this restaurant could scarcely look or feel more different, but the food continues to be some of the best, if not the best, Cali-Mex food to be found anywhere in the city.
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.
I’ve been too busy to post anything substantive over the past week or two, but busy mostly eating rather than anything else. If you are on Instagram and follow me (@sojusunrise) you probably see a stream of calorific goodness and wonder how I am still alive. (Those of you who know me personally will know that it is touch and go…)
So here are a half-dozen bite-sized chunks of what I have been eating since the Lunar New Year. A couple of these establishments are new, while a couple are merely new to me, but all of them will be hearing from my lawyers in the event of my death from massive food overdose, which is probably imminent. Forgive the occasionally blurry iPhone pics – I am still working on an old 4S so if I don’t have my real camera with me it’s basically like shooting in a fishtank.
Little Baja, Itaewon
The newest place on this list by far, Little Baja opened up during February in the increasingly trendy lanes behind Itaewon’s main drag. I remember when this whole area was a wasteland of crappy flats and dark alleyways, but no longer. Little Baja serves exclusively seafood tacos, and is a great place to pop in for lunch. I had the fish taco and the shrimp taco – the former was pretty good, the latter was fantastic, in a slightly crispy corn taco piled high with cabbage and home-made sauce. Both were about 4,000won (I forget exactly, but in that ballpark). Recommended.
Directions: In the back alley behind McDonalds in Itaewon, walk along until you hit the CU Mart. Little Baja is on the street heading down opposite that, 50m on your right.
Baby Greek, Seollung
Baby Greek is hidden in an anonymous basement food court in an office block in the Seollung area. It’s basically the most unpromising site for a Greek gyros place you can imagine, and despite working 5 minutes from here, I’d never have had a clue it existed were it not for Gemma’s blog post about it a while back. I finally got myself here this week, and I’m glad I did. Easily the best gyros in Korea, the chicken was juicy, the bread perfect, the tsatsiki fresh and garlicky and tasting like it’s made with proper Greek yoghurt, not the rubbish you usually find here.
My family have lived in Greece for 35 years, so I’ve had a thousand different gyros in a hundred different places; this is a lot better than a lot of cheap gyros you get in Athens, and for 6,000 won I was totally stuffed. I hope the owner is plying her trade above ground before long, so let’s give her some love.
Directions: Yeah, just get Gemma to explain it. Avoid going at 12 noon because every salaryman in Seollung descends on this small basement food court and there’s not a wipe-down table to be had.
Following a discussion on a Facebook page (Sandwich Lovers Seoul), I dropped in to Beirut during the week. It’s a tiny place – three small tables – on the way up to the mosque in Itaewon. The lamb sandwich runs 5,000won and contains minced lamb keema, a couple of different types of pickle, tomato, mayo and a little onion. The bread is freshly baked to order, so you’ll wait about ten minutes to get your sandwich. It’s totally worth it, I think.
The end result is tasty although in comparison to the gyros I had in Baby Greek it was far less filling and I was still hungry afterwards. Worth a visit if you are nearby, though I wouldn’t go to Itaewon specifically to eat it.
Directions: On the left as you walk up the road towards the mosque. See the Itaewon map at the end of this post.
Hassan Haider has been serving up hotdogs from this funky hole in the wall in Gyeongnidan since the turn of the year, give or take. The interior is pretty much a meat-lovers’ paradise, because he shares space with a butcher, so you’ll be munching on your hotdog with sides of beef hanging in plain view. I loved it, though I’m damned if I was able to get a decent photo of these bad boys.
The fennel sausage is topped with creamy garlic slices, and my favourite – the cajun hot link – just defies explanation or description. Hard to eat but easy to finish. Hassdog is constantly looking to improve the recipes so the menu is definitely subject to change. If you haven’t been here yet, you should.
Old-style beef restaurant (옛날막고기), Yongsan
I took advantage of a nice crisply sunny day last week to wander down to Yongsan for some shopping, and dropped in to this little Korean restaurant for some lunch. It was exceptional. It’s a meat-based menu, with a nice interior quite unlike your usual stripped-down gogijip aesthetic, and apparently very well known in the area for its pork and beef. I had a spicy pork stir fry (jeyyuk-bokkeum, 제육볶음, if my spelling isn’t letting me down) and it came out with a whole heap of banchan, a great little doenjang-jjigae (됀장찌개) loaded with more pork, and a clucking ajumma who was clearly delighted to see a foreigner chowing down like a local – offering me, with great ceremony, a fork that looked like it had been sitting in a drawer since the Park Jung-Hee era.
When I see articles saying that Seoul is one of the 10 most expensive cities in the world, and compare it with my experiences in places like this, I just have to snort with laughter. This meal cost me 6,000 won and it was as good a lunch as I’ve had all year. Of course if I’d known exactly what the name meant – it doesn’t really translate into English – I’d probably never have gone in. Glad I did. Super.
Directions: Come out of Samgakji station exit 4 and walk down towards Yongsan iPark mall. It’ll be on your right. From Shin-Yongsan station, come out of exit 6 and walk up in the opposite direction until you see it on your left. You will need to read Korean to be sure which one it is, though, as there is very little written in English.
Guilty Pleasure, Itaewon
Not new, but new to me. Guilty Pleasure takes a little finding, but this is a great brunch spot. Our party had Eggs Benedict, which comes with beetroot-cured smoked salmon (I was wary, because I loathe beetroot, but it was really good), the brunch platter of eggs, bacon, biscuit and gravy, and some fabulous truffle-flavoured scrambled eggs with duck prosciutto, to which I added an order of chips. I didn’t partake of the cocktails as I had to head off to work soon afterwards, but from what I hear, they are also pretty good. I’ll come back here again.
Dongin Dong, Seollung
My absolute favourite spicy galbijjim place in Gangnam is the mighty Dongin Dong in Sinsa, which is worth a trip across the city (I reviewed it here). This outpost may be related to the original, it may not, I’ve no idea. It’s very close to my work, though, so after classes one night this week I headed across with a couple of fellow teachers to introduce them to the joys of spicy beef and jeon. When I specifically asked the sajangnim to make it spicy, his raised eyebrow was worthy of the most supercilious Paris maître d’ – and when it came out, sizzling in its cast-iron pot… great Odin’s raven, it was spicy. Beads of sweat formed on our brows, and we sucked down makgeolli like men who had just crossed a desert on camel-back.
The jeon is not in the same league as the pancakes in Sinsa, where they bring out great heaping mounds of pork, oysters, tofu and courgette all battered-up and fried, but the galbijjim is arguably better. I love this place. Not cheap – the set of 2 portions galbijjim and a selection of jeon runs 49,000 won – but so worth it.
Directions: From Seollung subway, head out exit 2 and after about 50m turn left at Linko onto the main food street. After another 100m or so, you come to another food street heading down to the right. Turn down there, and Dongin Dong is on the left about two-thirds of the way down, on the left, with a white sign and some benches outside. Again, it’s all in Korean (menu included), so you need to read Korean, bring a Korean, or just point at the set menu on the wall and hope for the best!