El Pino 323
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: No money, free food or other inducement was asked for or received in return for this post. Soju Sunrise will always explicitly state if this is the case.]
As the premises have expanded, so has the original husband-and-wife team that ran the restaurant; with D’s wife Kendra now running the front of house, there’s a small army of cooks, waitresses and even a bartender to cater to the customers old and new that are packing out the new El Pino.
El Pino is named for a famous landmark in east L.A., and its owner-chef is an adoptee brought up by a Mexican-American family whose life story is a whole other blog post in itself. ‘D’ is an uncompromising guy who cooks his food his way; so far, it seems to be working for them. El Pino is pretty busy even before the official opening, which is planned for mid-September.
They are still in the final stages of a long, summer-long soft opening at the new location so the menu continues to evolve – I’ll update this post with the official menu once it’s been finalised. But it focuses on the same sorts of dishes that were a staple of the previous restaurant – tacos, enchiladas, and rice bowls of various kinds – with new twists and variations on the food that was such a hit previously.
There’s carnitas, steak, chicken and shrimp tacos on offer. Some of them come with avocado, others topped with guacamole, or just simply garnished with onions and cilantro. Tortillas are made in-house every morning.
They are generously filled and are priced between 12,500 and 14,800 KRW for a plate of three, depending on which variety you order.
New to the menu, and new to me, are lamb tacos (above) – I’d never thought the taste of lamb on a tortilla was something that I’d be interested in, but D was kind enough to give me a plate of these on the house on my most recent visit, and I’m glad he did. Subtly spiced and garnished – a winner.
There’s also a selection of rice bowls, some served with tortillas, which are more filling. This steak tortilla bowl (above) was priced at 15,500 KRW, and as you can see there’s a pretty healthy serving of meat, with plenty of rice nestled underneath.
The undoubted star dish of the original restaurant, for me, was the enchilada, a thing of great beauty and magnificence. I’m glad to say that the enchiladas remain peerless; so packed with flavour, and topped off with a salsa verde or a rojas chilli sauce, they are always a winner, the sort of dish you look forward to eating again even as you’re tucking in for the first time.
If you can get one topped with the homemade mole sauce, do – it’s rich, velvety and spicy, and it brings a whole new dimension to the dish (as well as a few extra bucks on your bill).
Typically served with beans – pretty much the only beans that I eat – D changes things up from time to time by serving the enchiladas with elote corn, above. I’m less of a fan, but that’s more because I don’t like corn than because it’s not good corn. Dishes do change quite frequently, as they like to keep things interesting.
A new addition to the menu is worthy of comment because it’s pretty spectacular. El Pino’s tortas (above) – Mexican sandwiches to you and me – seriously threaten Casablanca‘s crown as the best sandwiches in Korea.
I don’t think mere photographs can do justice to these huge, loaded, overstuffed beauties. The bread is made in-house, and the carnitas torta (16,000 KRW) is slathered in green chile pork to give the whole thing a glorious, citrussy bite. It may be too big for a lot of people to polish off on their own, but a perfect size for me. I now dream of this sandwich.
In addition, there’s a chicken torta topped with bacon and avocado (14,000 KRW). Again, I didn’t know that bacon was a thing in Mexico, but apparently they love it. I love it too, so it’s a great match. Along with the brunch items that may be in the pipeline in the future, all this represents a welcome addition to the usual roster of tacos and burritos found elsewhere in the city.
The new El Pino also has a full bar, with a selection of good beers such as the now-ubiquitous Hand & Malt as well as a strong range of tequilas which I usually steer well clear of, but they do a pretty good margarita which will start you off right for 10,000 won.
In the interests of balance, it should be said that dining at El Pino can be a fairly expensive business. The torta (14-16,000 KRW) is filling enough to be great value, for me, and smaller appetites will be happy with tacos priced at 12,800 KRW. But bigger eaters will spend more at dinner time, and with the top-end enchiladas coming in at 25,000 KRW, add a couple of beers and a margarita and you can easily walk out the door having spent 40 or 50 a head, which isn’t in everyone’s price range.
Having said that, if you’re willing to pay 20,000 at On The Border, you should be willing to pay more for actually good Mexican. And this is, no question, the best in town.
As El Pino is still in soft opening, you should check their Facebook or Instagram pages for more info on opening times (details at the bottom of this post). They’ve recently been on TV and the secret is well and truly out, so if you rock up at 7:30 on a Saturday night, expect to wait a while. A midweek or lunchtime visit, if you can, would be smarter.
All told, I’m really glad that El Pino is in my neighbourhood and doing so well. Their Cali-Mex food is a cut above almost all of the competition and if you’re happy paying the prices to match, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic meal.
- Category: Mexican / American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Brisket enchilada
- Subway: Noksapyeong Station (녹사평역) exit 2
- Directions: El Pino is on the main road just up from Noksapyeong Station. The easiest way to get there is to come out of exit 2 and walk up the road towards Namsan until you get to the underpass. Cross under the main road and turn right, and El Pino will be on the second floor just above Dream of Seed, in the building next to Southside Parlor.
- Address: 서울 용산구 녹사평대로 220 2F
- Hours: At the moment, El Pino opens for lunch from 12 – 2pm Wednesday – Saturday, and for dinner service from 5 until 10pm Wednesday – Sunday. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Sunday lunchtime. These times remain subject to alteration so keep an eye on the social media pages below. It gets very popular, so if you go at peak time on a Saturday evening, or half an hour before their scheduled closing time, don’t be surprised if they are full or sold out. Check out their Facebook page or Instagram for updates and more info.