New eateries blend US, Korean palates
When you walk through the doors of Vatos, a four-month-old restaurant in Itaewon, you would be forgiven if you mistook the scene for something out of Austin, Texas: a welcoming interior of steel and burnished wood, servers that check up on you with a friendly ease, and most importantly, grilled galbi topped with a sweet ssamjang aioli and cabbage slaw wrapped in a freshly made tortilla.
Vatos introduces the Korean taco -- an idea that started with the Kogi truck in Los Angeles and spawned a national food obsession with spin-offs in every major U.S. city -- to Koreans.
"When you think about it, the taco is a very natural food to a Korean," Jonathan Kim, one of the co-owners of Vatos, said. "You're essentially wrapping and eating a piece of grilled meat, vegetables, and sauce -- just replace the lettuce with a tortilla."
Kim, who spent much of his formative years in Texas, partnered with Kenny Park, a native of Palos Verdes, a city a half hour drive from Los Angeles, to open a restaurant that would try to fill the void of "good Mexican food" in Seoul. Each plays to the other's strengths: where Kim's gregariousness befits his role at the front of the house, Park's precision and perfectionism suits the kitchen.
They wanted to create a restaurant that reflected the ethnic melange of Los Angeles.
Within weeks, Park and Kim realized they were on to a great idea. Despite only being a few months old, Vatos already boasts a long line of regulars who are willing to brave the sometimes two-hour wait time for a table, a rare occurrence in an impatient city like Seoul. On busy nights, the kitchen plates more than 400 tacos and the bar pours more than 80 margaritas.
Andrew Chung, who is ethnically Korean but calls Pereira, Colombia, his home, came in right as the restaurant opened for dinner service at 5 p.m. "(Vatos) is Latin American but with Korean taste," Chung said. "Having been raised with both, it suits my palate."
Vatos' owners are part of a growing number of Korean-American entrepreneurs and natives returning from living abroad who recognize the burgeoning Korean market is an opportune place to introduce new culinary traditions from the U.S.
Also among them is Hojune "Tristan" Choi, who opened the first artisanal ice cream shop of its kind called Fell+Cole in Hongdae last summer. Choi, a Korean native who lived in the U.S. for a decade including five years in San Francisco, translates the organic and local food movement characteristic of Bay Area cuisine for a Korean palate. Like the Vatos partners, Choi received a positive reaction within mere months.
"Korean people were thirsty for something good, authentic, and new. They live a very fast-paced lifestyle so they are good at adapting to a new idea," Choi said.
A focus on quality ingredients with a hint of nostalgia for the flavors of the U.S. has helped these entrepreneurs stand out in the diverse Seoul food scene.
Los Angeles native Michael Ahn, 30, strove to reproduce the burgers he enjoyed back home when he started MBurger, his burger joint in Noksapyeong. To ensure freshness, MBurger makes their beef patties from ground sirloin delivered daily from the butcher.
"I also realized that the bun had to be really good," Ahn said. "Other places use the ones they sell at Costco. It's really sweet and tastes like a morning pastry." As a solution, MBurger tinkered with a recipe that a local bakery now produces for them every day.
"They use real ingredients and actually care about their food," said Kazmere Hill, a U.S. servicemember from Detroit who was enjoying a jalapeno burger for lunch. "It reminds me of home."
Likewise, Karen Lee, a native of southern California, has found most of the Mexican food in Seoul lacking. "There's this sort of homogeneity in the way Mexican is done in Korea," she said. "But Vatos is doing Mexican food in a way that nobody else is doing it in Seoul. It's the closest to what I think is legitimate Mexican food."
But Vatos owners Kim and Park make no claims to primacy or authenticity, a loaded assertion for anyone not involved with the original Kogi truck. Much of Vatos' menu traverses the U.S., taking regional affects of California and Texas and incorporating them into their menu and giving them a personal stamp. Their fish tacos use dongtae, or pollack, a Korean whitefish, rolled in panko bread crumbs and then fried. As for drinks, Vatos offers classic margaritas as well as the Dos-a-rita, a familiar drink to Texans, a blended margarita with a bottle of Dos Equis jutting out from the side.
"We know we're not doing anything original," Park said. "The original concept started out with simply giving people what they wanted."
At times, though, there is something entirely new, like the crowd-pleasing makgeolita, a portmanteau of a the sweet-and-sour margarita with the milky smoothness of makgeolli, a traditional Korean rice wine.
Korean-Americans seem uniquely positioned to be a new type of food ambassador that can cater to both Western and Korean palates.
"I can translate something unfamiliar into something familiar," Choi of Fell+Cole said. Choi offers an ice cream made from samgyeopsal, called hokey porky ice cream, and a perilla leaf ice cream -- two flavors Koreans are well-accustomed to seeing at a grilled meat restaurant. "Try the two of them together and it's like wrapping pork belly in a perilla leaf," laughed Choi.
There also may be a more ineffable quality that has allowed so many Korean-Americans to succeed in Seoul. "Korean-Americans come back here and make waves because we were brought up in an environment to think creatively," Park said. "When we come to Korea and we have a new idea it's easier for us to take that leap of faith." (Yonhap)