Sunday, April 14, 2013

Vatos Urban Tacos

Last weekend, I finally got the chance to visit a restaurant I have been dreaming/drooling about for the past month, Vatos Urban Tacos. A small and very new restaurant in Itaewon, I have heard nothing but wonderful things about the place. There is always a bit of a wait  if you don't have a reservation, and the last time I tried to visit the wait was almost an hour long and we were too impatient to wait it out. This time, I visited on a Sunday with my friend Katie for dinner. They quoted us a wait of about half an hour but it ended up being barely 10 minutes before we got a table.

The Vatos menu, which details what country each meat comes from.
Cute idea!

Free chips and salsa for starters, of course.

Katie and her Texas Long Island Tea.
My fantastic Watermelon Wheat.

Me enjoying my Watermelon Wheat.

Katie in the middle of the busy restaurant. Every table was packed, and there were others waiting to take their places the whole time we were there. Despite how full they were, our food and drinks came incredibly quickly, arriving about 10 minutes after we sat down. Pretty impressive, if you ask me. I've worked in plenty of busy restaurants before, and that is definitely a difficult feat to accomplish when you are as slammed as this place was.

Vatos hasn't been open for too long. They opened in November 2011, and within eight months they were named the #1 Hottest New Restaurant in Seoul by CNNGo. Their slogan is "Eat, drink and chill". This ideal definitely played a key role in the formation of the restaurant. The restaurant has a nice, relaxed vibe to it, the waitstaff was very friendly and helpful, and their drink list had a fantastic selection.

There are three men who founded the restaurant: Kenneth Park, Juweon Jonathan Kim, and Sid Kim. Kenny, from California, is the mastermind behind the food. Vatos uses fresh ingredients, and they even make their own tortillas. Juweon, raised in Texas, is the genius behind the drinks. And Sid supplies the business know-how. If you want to know more about the business, watch this video on Youtube:

For an appetizer, this place is quite well-known for its Kimchi Carnitas Fries (described as "seasoned French fries covered with braised carnitas, sauteed kimchi and melted cheese. Topped with sour cream, Vatos sauce and chopped cilantro and onions" in the menu). I guess I will just have to go back again, sometime very soon, so that I can try them. It is definitely a Korean take on Mexican food, and I hear they are delicious.

Instead of this popular dish, we decided to start off with a spicy queso dip. It was pretty tasty.


I chose to get the Braised Carnitas Tacos. Described in their menu as "slow braised pork shoulder with a hint of citrus and our house blend of seasonings. Served with chopped onions, cilantro and Vatos hot sauce", this was definitely a good choice.

Vatos has a lot of choices that meld the Korean with Mexican style of food. One example of that would be the Galbi Short Rib Tacos, which are "marinated short rib with ssamjang aoili, Asian slaw and roasted sesame seeds". There are also the Korean Style Pork Belly Tacos, "crispy pork belly marinated in a Cumin-soy glaze with gochujang vinaigrette, Asian slaw, chopped onions & cilantro, perilla leaves and roasted sesame seeds".

Vatos was superb. We did not have to wait an absurd amount of time to get in, but I would definitely recommend a reservation, especially with a large group of people. The restaurant's ambience made for a nice, relaxing meal which was easy to enjoy. The food was incredible, the drinks were tasty, and the waitstaff was kind and helpful.

If you live in Korea and suddenly find yourself craving one of these amazing dishes, check out the restaurant's website at And if you, for any reason, find yourself skeptical of my rave review, check out some more (usually fanatical) reviews from Trip Advisor at:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sushi Night

I realized that I haven't done a post on food in quite a while, so here is one that features some of the best sushi that I have ever eaten. 

The restaurant is only a few blocks from my apartment in Byeongjeom. It's owned by a very hard-working Japanese man that is extremely friendly and talented.

Friday night after work, I met up with my friends Esteban, Zelri, and George (in the picture on the left). We had pleasant conversation and ate a great dinner.

Zelri took this photo--beautiful setup.
Everything we needed to start.

I'm usually the one taking the photos,
not the one in them,
so it was almost weird to have Zelri take this picture of me.

This is our fantastic, hard-working sushi chef. He runs the place by himself, which means he works at least 14 hours a day and does all of the cooking, preparation, cleaning, and other business duties. Despite this rough work schedule, he is always very kind and friendly, as well as more than willing to answer any questions his customers might have.  He studied the craft of creating sushi for several years in Japan, and is an extremely skilled chef. He is also very kind in that he just keeps serving you sushi until you tell him that you're full. And it's a heck of a bargain--you pay about $12 and get unlimited, high-quality sushi. I love this place.

This gentleman specializes in nigiri sushi. This is a Japanese sushi is made with sushi rice and fresh fish. The sushi rice is hand formed into a small clump, and the fish is sliced and pressed on top of it. Nigiri sushi is commonly called two kinds sushi because it involves two ingredients:  sushi rice and a single topping. The topping is also known as neta, and usually takes the form of a type of seafood such as tuna, eel, haddock, shad, snapper, octopus, or shrimp. Depending on the type of fish, it may be served raw in thin slices, grilled, or batter fried. Because the fish is clearly on display, and often served raw, cooks select fish of the highest quality and cut it meticulously so that it is aesthetically pleasing and healthy to it. 

It's served with a variety of sides and condiments. Condiments available included wasabi, soy sauce, pickled ginger and some gim (seaweed papers). I usually avoid the pickled ginger and only eat gim with a side of rice, so I only used wasabi mixed with soy sauce to spice things up a bit.  We started off with a fish broth soup.

We started off with some flatfish, served atop sushi rice with some wasabi.
This particular one is quite chewy.
It's good, but not my favorite as far as textures go.

Next came raw tuna.
It had a great flavor, and it was nice and tender.

After that was a nice salmon roll, which tasted absolutely fantastic.
Cooked shrimp followed shortly.

This one is George's favorite.
I think it was salmon with a light, sweet sauce,
and cooked just a tiny bit with a little blow torch.
It tasted pretty fantastic.
Next was eel,
which is toasted right before it's served.
This one is my favorite!

After that was raw shrimp,
which is not my favorite.
I ate it last time I went to this place for dinner,
and it was quite slimy and fishy.
I declined to eat it this time.
Zelri wanted me to use this poor,
uncooked grayish shrimp as a mustache.
This is what she got.
George was not quite as unwilling to eat the raw shrimp as I was.

After all this, we were finally full. We told our talented chef that we couldn't possibly eat any more, but he gave us this one last item. It was a perfect end to the meal, salmon that had a slightly sweet sauce on it and lightly grilled with a blow torch. 

It was a really great dinner, with fun conversation with friends and delicious food. I'm glad we could get together!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

North Korea is NOT a Threat

Photo taken at the DMZ.
Boys having fun on one of their tanks!
I can hear the roar of jets, most likely military jets, flying overhead as I sit down to write this post. They have been performing drills seemingly nonstop for the past few days, and I find the sound to be more heartening than threatening. The nearest military base is in Seryu, which is a few miles away (about 15 minutes via a walk to the subway station and riding one stop over). This military base is also the place I should go to in the case that war truly does break out. 

While I am skeptical that there is any true threat, I do have an escape plan. I am registered with my consulate (if you haven't done so already, US citizens can register at I am on their list to receive updates on my safety. As a matter of fact, this is the last email that they sent me:
The U.S. Embassy informs U.S. citizens that despite current political tensions with North Korea there is no specific information to suggest there are imminent threats to U.S. citizens or facilities in the Republic of Korea (ROK).  The Embassy has not changed its security posture and we have not recommended that U.S. citizens who reside in, or plan to visit, the Republic of Korea take special security precautions at this time.  The U.S. Embassy takes as its highest priority the welfare of American citizens in Korea.  Should the security situation change, the Embassy will issue updated information.
North Korea has a long history of doing exactly what they are doing right now. They make threats, they increase tensions, they shoot off rockets and claim that they are going to fire them at South Korea. And as soon as the tension is so high you think war is imminent, they acquiesce to China and the US, graciously accepting their food aid and money in exchange for ending their rocket testing and nuclear program. People in North Korea are starving. The state has an iron grip on their food supply, and there are areas which experience "micro famines". Reports of cannibalism are not unheard of, and there have even been recent reports of this happening. Check out this article entitled "The Cannibals of North Korea" from the Washington Post: North Korea is not in good shape right now, and they are looking for handouts from other countries to keep their people from starving.

Walking around South Korea on a daily basis, there is no sign of panic. The weather is finally warming up. The Maehwa blossoms have bloomed, and the cherry blossoms are starting to hit their peak--Korea is absolutely beautiful in the spring. The only people talking about North Korea on a regular basis are the expats, who have an onslaught of panicked friends and family back home pleading with them to come back home, come back to safety. And some of them do. I heard of a friend of a friend who, at the urging of her mother, informed her school that she was going back home on a Monday and left that same week on Thursday.

This past weekend, North Korea warned all foreigners to leave the country because they cannot guarantee our safety. (If you haven't heard this, check out the following article from the New York Times: A heartening quote from this article says, 
The Korea Tourism Organization said the latest torrent of North Korean threats has so far had little effect on that industry, with the number of Chinese visitors doubling during a vacation period last week, according to Lee Kwang-soo, a spokesman for the group. Still, it was taking precautions, reaching out to foreign tourist agencies to inform them that it was safe to visit South Korea, he said.
As far as I'm concerned, I am safe here. There are military bases very close by, the US and South Korean military have been drilling together, and the Korean news outlet has issued assurances that they are prepared for anything that might happen. And if that safety net fails, I do have an escape plan and I am registered with my embassy. So I will continue having fun with friends, going out for dinner (especially at my favorite Indian place, pictured left), doing touristy things, and taking thousands of pictures.

You might be wondering, what action will be enough for me to leave South Korea? If the DMZ is closed, then I will leave. I will be on a plane immediately; in fact, I already have a list made of the quickest things I can pack in order to flee if need be. For now, though, I think that this increase in tension is simply macho posturing by a spoiled young boy that isn't getting what he wanted.