Mexican food in Korea has come a long way, baby.
Words by Jyoung-ah Kim
“Are you a Mexican or a Mexican’t?” Johnny Depp’s words from Once Upon a Time in Mexico seemed all too appropriate when I started this project to find out just how far we’d come in Korea from the collapse of Taco Bell in the 90s to its return last year.
I managed to compile a relatively large list of places that had promise, but as I travelled around, to my despair, I realized many had closed down: The Taco in Gangnam, Casa Loca in Yeouido, and Taco Chido’s in Hongdae, to name a few. (Pancho’s in Itaewon also closed recently, but let’s face it—any foodie worth their nachos wouldn’t have graced its doors.) But despite my frustration, I did manage to find new places that had appeared to fill the void, and let me tell you: the future is exciting.
So where can you find the best Mexican food in Korea? The answer is my house, but since that is not an open invitation, I’ve rustled up a list of places you can hit when you have a hankerin’ for some South of the Border fixin’s.
10 Taco Bell
It’s back and for a reason! No, we do not consider Taco Bell to be Mexican food in Texas, or anywhere else for that matter. The brown mush doesn’t look like meat, but that’s not the reason why we like it and keep going back for more. It’s because when we douse vinegary hot sauce on those cheap tacos filled with meat-substitute and plastic cheese, it somehow hits the spot, bringing us warm memories of home and childhood.
127-27, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
9 Dos Tacos
One of the last standing of the first generation of Korean Taco joints, Dos Tacos still delivers on what Mexican food should look and taste like. However, they lack the quality of meat and cater to Korean tastes with shredded cabbage and cold squeezed yellow cheese, so it’s lower on the list. The best location is Gangnam—the other spots just don’t live up to the original.
#104 Dessian Luv, 1303-35 Seocho-dong, Seoul (13 other locations including Hongdae and Jongno)
8 Hello Steak & Taco
Guest submission by Bryce Weibley
OK, it’s not the catchiest name for a Mexican restaurant, but this cozy joint in Haeundae New Town lets the food serve as the hook. The proprietor, Moon Brooks, brings 20 years of cooking experience in the U.S. to this top choice for Mexican in Busan, and it shows. From enchiladas to steak to tostadas, Hello Steak & Taco cooks up some tasty fare at reasonable prices. Wash it all down with pitchers of blended makkeoli (rice wine) cocktails.
202 Sejong World Plaza, 1479-3, Jwa-dong, Haeundae-gu, Busan
7 Grill 5 Taco
They’ve brought the fad from Cali of marrying the Korean kimchi and pepper paste flavors with Mexican food, and it’s not bad. I would say they definitely lean more toward the Korean flavors than the Mexican flavors I craved. Nevertheless, they pull it off well. It’s different and worth a try. In particular, have a go at their kimchi quesadillas.
519-13 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Someone mentioned Tomatillo is just a lower grade of Chipotle, but that lower grade is above par in Korea. They have better ingredients such as shredded pork and homemade roasted salsa compared to the first round of Mexican restaurant attempts, and they have a spacious, comfortable interior. They definitely cater to the business lunch crowds with changing lunch specials, ranging from affordable fajita platters to taco platters with beans and rice.
B1 Gangnam Finance Center, Yeoksam 1-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (other locations in Gwanghwamun and Itaewon)
5 Taco Rico
They have great ideas on the menu and good execution of the dishes, but the lack of quality in their meats and ingredients left me a little disappointed. The horchatas and margaritas are true to their taste and the guacamole was impressive with large chunks of avocadoes. It helps that the main chef is from Mexico. Also, check out their queso fundido (mushroom and chorizo fondue).
818-8, Yeoksam 1-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
4 Taco Amigo
I remember when they first opened and I was not impressed, but I’m very happy that I went back. They’ve got the most authentic Mexican cuisine; the owner said that they often cater to the Mexican embassy, and I can believe it. Their menu proves it with mole, tamales and tortilla soup. Biting into their enchiladas took me straight back to Casa Tia’s. Good vegetarian options, too.
02-749-5253, 130-34, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
3 Gusto Taco
With every bite into their taco or burrito, you can taste the painstaking hours the owner put into developing the rich tastes and recipes through sourcing quality ingredients and slow-cooking the meats. The owner proudly mentioned that he does not use any ground meat and he is constantly bettering the homemade tortilla recipe. While the small, four-stool interior gives off a fast food ambience, the food is anything but. gustotaco.com 02-3142-8226, 342-16, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul
2 On the Border
It breaks my heart that I am putting a chain that I would never patronize back home so high up on the list, but it must be done and y’all know why. Bottom line is, the food is good, the margaritas fulfill their duty, and it’s a comfortable place to sit with a group of friends. True, it is pricey. Well, at least you get unlimited good salsa and homemade tortilla chips!
#B112 Times Square, Yeongdeungpo-dong 4-ga, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul (other locations in Sinchon, Apgujeong, COEX)
1 Vatos Urban Tacos
Three boyz from the US saw a need and decided to do something about it with quality ingredients and culinary art skills. Because it’s so new, their menu is still changing and perfecting itself. As of my visit, they’re serving traditional carne asada tacos with homemade tortillas you could find on the streets of Mexico alongside more innovative options such as samgyeopsal tacos and kimchi fries. As strange as it may sound, it works, and it works damn well!
vatoskorea.com 02-797-8226, 66-8 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul