Carlos Eats Seoul: Chois’ Tacos Burrito Challenge Preliminaries in Sinchon

This is a guest blog written by Emanuel – a friend from USF who is studying abroad with me in Seoul, South Korea. He participated in the Chois’ Tacos Burrito Challenge and made it to the semi-finals. Chois’ Tacos has been in making tacos and burritos in Sinchon for years.

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Me and Carlos go way back. At least three months. Maybe even more.

Actually, we met at a Christmas party a few years ago, and hadn’t realized that we were both coming to Korea until a month or two in advance of our leaving. We recognized each other in one of the orientations where they tell you not to commit grand larceny and not to inappropriately touch the locals, and knew we were in for a treat.

Fast forward a few months to a brisk night in Seoul, South Korea.

As we rounded another street corner, coming closer for the destination for that night, Chois’ Tacos alongside one of the main commerce streets in Sinchon, I reflected on our coincidental visit to Korea, and how it ended up in a group of international students walking to an eating contest preliminary. Of all the things to do in South Korea, stuffing your face full of burrito at an alarmingly gluttonous rate was not exactly on the travel brochure. I don’t think it’s on any brochure, actually.

So we get to the burrito joint, and the owner, Chois, is already making burritos for two entrants who are to go just before us. The deal is this: eat an entire large burrito in two minutes or less, and it’s free. Place in the top 15 of qualifiers, and you’re invited to the prestigious contest that Sunday. A a quick glance at the board showed a slew of names recognized for their triumphant efforts – thirty or so names below the two minute barrier, etched in permanent marker for all eternity. Or until the ink wears out. Whichever comes first.

Among the names, at the very top, laid Someone Somebodicus from the USA. I can’t remember his name, but that was probably it. Clocked in at 1:11, his herculean effort was recognized as the quickest time set. We joked about his American origins, and after a few fat jokes from the Europeans in the group, realized that we’d be lucky to break two minutes and get our free burrito, let alone put Somebodicus in his place.

The two Korean entrants had just finished at a rapid pace of about two and a half minutes. Their red, strained, and painfully taut faces reconciled the pain me and the other entrants were about to endure. For sure, we wouldn’t be able to break two minutes. Some of us began to falter and wonder if competing was even worth it – after all, if you’re going to buy a burrito, you may as well enjoy it.

No one chickened out, however. We all took our seats, paid our respects to the pile of meat, cheese, and random assortment of vegetables wrapped in tortilla in front of us, and grabbed them like the hungry, angry, and determined men that we were. I took a sip of water to wet my gullet, put on my serious face, and brought the burrito to my mouth. The gaping maw of despair and darkness that is my mouth readied for the imminent feast. “Forgive me lord, for I realize not the tortuous and disgusting things I will wrought upon this innocent burrito. I am but only a hapless man.” I thought to myself.

I was not going to pay for this burrito, even if it killed me. I may enjoy eating, but I largely enjoy not paying for things even more. And I also forgot my wallet. I took a deep breath, looked at Mr. Chois as he readied the stopwatch, and reminded myself that obviously, placing in the top 15 was impossible, but if I had to pay for this burrito, I’d surely be tired from all the running from Mr. Chois, because he did look like a nimble fellow.

He said go, and I shoved the burrito in my face. Bite by bite, I slid the bits of cooked flesh and assorted plants down my throat at an alarming rate. Something took hold of me, and I became a burrito eating demon. I don’t remember much from the actual feast, but when I came out of my crazed haze of hunger and darkness, all I remember was cheering. And before I knew it, my hands were empty, my mouth half full, and as I swallowed the last bit, I shouted “Chois’ Taco!” and my time was set.

One minute, and twelve seconds.

Not only had I broken the two minute barrier for my free burrito, I’d placed second in the preliminary, guaranteeing my seat in the competition on Sunday, as well as a complimentary five free burritos for my performance.

It was, without a doubt, the happiest day of my life.

The burrito was good. It was hearty. It was delicious. It was all a man could ask for. Well proportioned, cooked to serve right in front of you, and in a lovely little shop by the street, at a reasonable price at around $5.5 USD. The steak used was actually cooked perfectly, even if it was going to just be shoved into my face at seventy six miles an hour, which leads me to believe that it’s probably even more scrumptious when the chef knows the eater will probably get to take their time and enjoy it.

Restaurant Name: Chois’ Tacos

Cuisine: Mexican

Neighborhood: Sinchon

Address: 13-27 Changcheon-dong, Seodaemun-gu (서대문구 창천동 13-27) +82 2 362 2113

Directions: Take the subway, 2 line/Green line, to Sinchon Station. Go out exit number 3 and head towards Yonsei University. At the first intersection with a traffic light turn right. After about 100 meters, Chois’ Tacos will be on your right.Phone Number:Website:

Mema’s Alaskan Tacos closing shop, last day to visit October 14th

Mema’s Alaskan Tacos, a popular taco eatery in Ybor City that opened shop in 2004, is closing down and having their closing bash Friday, October 14th, at 4:00PM. There will be a limited menu with tacos, nachos, burritos, and beer. They will stay open until they run out of food and beer. Restaurateur Sean Godin’s grandmother, Mema, learned how to make their tacos in Alaska during the 1950s.

Mema’s Facebook page reads:

“To all of our loyal customers.I want to thank you for the good times. Our closing is an unfortunate result of many things, most of all the deadstill economy and rising prices. Rather than sacrifice quality and service, the decision was to close the doors. So, thank you Tampa, for everything.”

I personally was only able to visit Mema’s Alaskan Tacos once during my many years of living in Tampa, but the experience was a positive one. I still remember the great taste of their chorizo taco and the refried beans. For many years I remember reading the raving reviews online (over 100 on Yelp) and always being curious about the late-night taco shop in Ybor City. Mema’s Alaskan Tacos will be missed and I am sad I will not be able to have their tacos one last time  before they close shop.

Carlos Eats Seoul: Visiting Taco Bell (타코벨) in Sinchon (신촌동) during their grand opening

It was hard to miss Taco Bell on their Grand Opening Day in Sinchon (신촌동) last Friday. Employees walked around with signs pointing towards the restaurant and a man dressed as a taco greeted and waved at people walking through the city. Music played outside the store and employees outside gave away free tacos or soft drinks to visitors just for stopping by (this reminded me of the Panda Express grand opening at USF earlier this year). Some girls were in love with the taco bell man and the amount of buzz seemed to be marketing working its magic.

I was one of the lucky ones who won a taco and I literally jumped up and down when I won. The employees at the booth were very friendly certainly did their part to make visitors feel more welcomed.

This scene looked familiar. The menu items were a little different, but mostly just the same items you will find in the U.S.A. with different combinations of items.  I decided to order Combo #3 (called sets in Korea) for around 5,000 won, which consists of a Crunchwrap Supreme and nachos with a soda. There was an electronic television to the side showing Americans eating tacos and burritos. The turn-around time was quite short and before I knew it I was heading to the drink machine to pick my beverage. The good thing about Taco Bell in Korea is the prices are actually similar to the prices in the United States and not marked up (Burger King being my prime example).

This is a sight you will rarely see in South Korea. Most fast food places (even McDonald’s and Burger King) remove the self-serve beverage machines when they enter foreign markets. Essentially it means you get less for your buck, though it is probably healthier to have less soda. Regardless, I was excited to use this machine I had not seen since my arrival (with the exception of Shake N’ Burger in SK Global House at Yonsei – meh) and quickly poured myself some Mountain Dew. Oddly, there is no Mountain Dew Baja Blast in Korea (my favorite flavor and one of the main reasons to go to Taco Bell in the U.S.A.!). I hope Taco Bell Korea will consider bringing this flavor to Seoul if their new stores succeed.

Like most fast food chains and coffee shops in Seoul, Taco Bell is 3 stories high and has plenty of seating arrangements on the second floor that overlooks Sinchon. It makes fast food seem so much fancier when you compare it to the Taco Bell locations in the United States that are so uncomfortable that you are almost always inclined to make an order to-go. There are even comfortable booths you can relax in at fast food chains in Korea.

The taco itself tasted remarkably similar to the ones in the United States. The shell was slightly less crunchy, but the cheese tasted better. The meat and other ingredients were the same. The Crunchwrap Supreme was as tasty as in the U.S.A. and was oozing out cheese.  They supplied you with 2 sauces of your choice (I normally go with mild) and the taste was slightly different, but similar. The nachos were average and the cheese dip was satisfactory. Overall, a cheap and enjoyable fast food meal and cheaper than most competitors in Korea.

Restaurant Name: Taco Bell (타코벨)

Location: Sinchon (신촌동)

Cuisine: Mexican

Website: http://www.tacobellkorea.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Taco-Bell-Korea/194679020581660

Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/theboldchoice

Carlos Eats Seoul: Taco Bell (타코벨) Grand Opening in Sinchon 09/16/11

Many food bloggers in South Korea report an increasing interest in Mexican food throughout the nation as many local chains begin to pop up around Seoul. It certainly makes sense for a popular franchise, such as Taco Bell, to expand into the country. However, Taco Bell previously failed to expand into South Korea with 2 locations in the 90s and closed down in China back in 2008. The change in interest in foreign foods and increase in foreigners visiting South Korea may also play a factor, in addition to the powerful marketing today with the use of the internet and blogs to make food trends.

Taco Bell suffered serious losses in the United States after it was falsely sued in January for only having 35% meat (the lawsuit was later dropped) though international locations did better financially. The move to Seoul is a big step with only 250 locations out of the United States as of September 2010. The price of Mexican food can be pricey in South Korea and a cheap resource like Taco Bell is certainly welcome by me. Also: Taco Bell is perhaps the only fast food chain in Korea that offers free refills on soft drinks. There are only 3 Taco Bell locations currently open in Itaewon (이태원), Hongdae (홍대), and Sindorim (신도림). The next location will have its grand opening this Friday, September 16th, in Sinchon (신촌동) by UPLEX  just a short distance from Yonsei University and Ewha University.

Website: http://www.tacobellkorea.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Taco-Bell-Korea/194679020581660

Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/theboldchoice

Carlos Eats Seoul: Tacos Chidos (타코스치도스) Fresh Mexican Grill in Hongdae (홍대)

Money has been pretty tight in Seoul as I wait for my financial aid to arrive from my home university. I have had to make it by on things, such as tuna kimbap, ramyun, pizza, and various other cheap things you can find in convenience stores (the college student lifestyle indeed). My awesome parents back home in Tampa dropped me some cash the other day and I decided I should probably have one good meal to keep myself a little happy until my scholarships and aid come.

I was craving Mexican. Tacos & Rice was the first thing to come to mind, but I was thinking more of a sit-down environment and found Tacos Chidos (타코스치도스on my food blog friend Seoul Food’s blog. Some Korean food blogs with amazing food pictures I found on Korean search engines Naver and Daum led me out the door and on my way to Hongdae on a food adventure.

I ended up lost looking for the restaurant for about an hour, but used the mental map in my head and some friendly locals to find the nightclub Harlem in Hongdae. Once you are at the club you walk down the street and make a left into an alleyway and you can find Tacos Chidos near the back of Kraze Burger. This area is surrounded with students and is right next to Hongik University so if you don’t see any students you know you are probably going the wrong way.

When you enter you will see about five or six tables and a bar. I decided to sit at a table. A waiter was quick to bring me a menu and bring me some complimentary chips and salsa. One of the first things I noticed was the free Wi-Fi and a waitress was nice enough to set me up on my iPod Touch with the password. Another cool thing inside the restaurant was Spanish-style wall paintings and Spanish music playing inside the restaurant which created a nice atmosphere, especially to a Hispanic diner.

I decided to order the ground beef burrito for 10,900 won. The cheapest burrito is the bean burrito for 8,900 won, but I like some meat in my burritos. Tacos range from 6,000-8,500 won and for that price I think it is probably a better deal to get a burrito. The enchiladas also caught my eye with chicken for 10,900 won and beef for 12,900 won. I also ordered a Coca-Cola for 2,500 won and a side of guacamole for 1,000 won.

In Tampa there are few places where you can get a small sample of guacamole and if you do find it then the guacamole is some ridiculous price like $3 or $5 so I was happy to try the guacamole at Tacos Chidos. I was quick to finish the chips and salsa and when I finished the waiter came and refilled it for me. At first I was confused and thought maybe I was being charged for this and when I noticed that this was just the waiter servicing me well, then I really wanted to tip the waiter (unfortunately in South Korea tipping is considered rude). The tortilla chips tasted fresh and the salsa was a little spicy with a nice aftertaste to the chips.

The burrito came out quickly. I read the cuisine was Tex-Mex and normally I am not a fan of this type of Mexican cuisine, but I was surprised when I discovered the savory taste of the meat and ingredients inside the burrito. The rice and beans were both satisfactory, certainly not authentic Mexican cuisine but still enjoyable. The side of guacamole tasted fresh and was a nice addition to the rice, beans, and burrito. The sauce on the burrito was slightly spicy, but added a nice flavoring. The tortilla used for the burrito kept in tact and didn’t fall apart when I started to dig in. Many of the flavors here reminded me of Miguel’s Mexican Restaurant in Tampa. Different than California-style Mexican food and places like The Taco Bus.

One of the waitresses was watching me eat and brought me a complimentary side item of jalapeños. Although I don’t eat spicy food I couldn’t help but be astounded by the great service at Tacos Chidos. When I finished my meal the waitress came by and offered to refill my chips again for me despite my empty plate. The waiter refilled my drink every time he saw it low and never proceeded to try to rush me out of the restaurant with my check. The great service and enjoyable Mexican food really made my time at Tacos Chidos memorable and I suggest you check it out if you have a chance.

Restaurant Name: Tacos Chidos (타코스치도스)

Cuisine: Mexican

Neighborhood: Hongdae

Address: 마포구 서교동 361-8 경서빌딩 1F Seoul, South Korea

Phone Number: 02-3143-3618

Other blogs about Tacos Chidos:

http://www.cyworld.com/sosweet22/7224339

http://deltion.blog.me/40124231603

http://blog.naver.com/osunsimi/129309600

Carlos Eats Seoul: Taco & Rice Mexican Fusion (Edae)

After a few days of living in Seoul some friend and I took the Ewha Station back to Yonsei University. It is a bit of a faster route then walking through Sinchon and far less crowded. On the way we passed by a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Taco & Rice. It had all the signs of a good restaurant: crowded locals, location away from main street tourist traps, and a large menu of food that looked appetizing.

I finally had the chance to try it a few nights ago while walking home to Yonsei University. The employees speak a decent amount of English and are helpful when you order. There are about 3 seats there if you want to relax and eat there as well. The prices are reasonable as well and you’ll find many other Mexican-style joints in town charge more. A taco is 3,000 won and 5,000 won for a set, while a burrito with rice inside is 3,300 won and ~5000 won for a set depending on the size. A set includes some potato wedges with ketchup and a medium soda. They package the food nicely if you take it to-go.

I tried the taco and was surprised at the good quality of the beef and how fresh the ingredients inside tasted, even the tortilla was surprisingly fresh. The salsa inside had a small kick to it, but it wasn’t your usual Korean hot sauce – a credit to this stands effort to not simply please regular Korean taste buds, but offer something different.

It does not taste better than some of the Mexican places in the United States, but for South Korea Mexican fusion it quickly became a favorite for me. They even use cilantro in their tacos & burritos – a sign of authenticity. I went back to try the burrito with rice and it was great. The burrito wasn’t too different from the taco. They have sour cream on the side for 400 won and I might add some next time. Their nachos are 2,300 won and they also have quesadillas with beef or chicken (chicken is cheaper as beef is more expensive in Korea).

Restaurant Name: Taco & Rice

Cuisine: Mexican

Neighborhood: Edae

Address: 서울 서대문구 대현동 56-74번지

Phone Number: 02-3291-5050

Daum ID: http://place.daum.net/place/Top.do?confirmid=13323958

Directions: 1) Take subway line 2 to Ewha Station exit 2) Go straight for about 3 minutes. It will be down in an alley on your left.

Other blogs about Taco & Rice:

http://www.cyworld.com/romiezzang/6536691

http://www.cyworld.com/dowhatuluv/6530861

http://blog.naver.com/PostView.nhn?blogId=maroo8&logNo=90094691220

http://yurimjeong.blog.me/70091020318

Photo Credit: Toan Nguyen