3.181 Kimchi Carnitas Fries

Cycle 3 – Item 181

4 (Wed) July 2012

Kimchi Carnitas Fries

4.0

at Vatos

-Itaewon, Yongsan, Seoul, Republic of Korea-

with CJH + CSW + HSE + KIT + LHS

Judging by the throngs of customers – lining up every day of the week, 1800 to 2200, despite wait times of up to 2 hours – and the scores of internet reviews – overwhelmingly positive – Vatos appears to be the hottest restaurant in Itaewon these days.

When we arrived at 1845, the line was already 7 parties deep.
We were seated at 1950.

Vatos is a Korean-Mexican restaurant.  Specializes in tacos, specifically “urban tacos,” small ones, like the ones sold from carts on the streets of Tijuana or East LA.  The thin hand-made tortillas were a proprietary blend of corn and flour, flavorful and light.  Half of the offerings could be categorized as classic Tex-Mex/Baja California, like the chili con carne or deep-fried fish.  Several fusion items with Korean seasonings.  Not surprisingly, the Korean-American owners hail from Texas and Southern California.

For this post, I decided to highlight the Kimchi Carnitas Fries for several reasons.  One, they were probably the best dish of the evening.  The integration of spicy/salty/sour/sweet sautéed kimchi and fatty/fluffy braised carnitas, plus the crispy fries, crunchy onions, tangy sour cream, and zippy hot sauce, was perfection.  Two, the fries seem to represent the restaurant’s raison d’etre. I suspect that the concept of the restaurant, which opened last year, was inspired by the Kogi taco truck craze that had made international headlines a couple years ago.  And three, today being the Fourth of July, I wanted to feature an American item.  Of course, neither kimchi nor carnitas per se may stand for Americana in the same way that meat and potatoes do, but perhaps the pairing of such unlikely partners signifies the American culinary spirit just as well.

Complimentary chips and salsa, both made in-house – that red salsa was awesome, virtually identical to the one from Rubio’s in San Diego.

The tacos were the best that I’ve ever had in Korea, among the best in my life.  In particular, the Chili Lime Shrimp was divine.  The fusion items, like Galbi Short Rib or Korean-Style Pork Belly, were not as good as the traditional items but interesting and worth trying.  A dangerous combination of tiny and tasty, the prices ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 won for a 3-taco set didn’t look too steep until we got the bill and realized that we’d ordered 14 sets for the 5 of us.

Chili Lime Shrimp Tacos (4.0): divine.
Korean-Style Pork Belly Tacos (3.0): reminded me of something that I made (see 3.016 Sourdough Sandwich with Pan-Grilled Pork).
Chicken Quesadilla (2.5): good, but nothing to rave about.
Carnitas Taquitos (2.5): the carnitas were much better employed in the fries and tacos above.
Corona-Rita: Corona bottled beer + frozen margarita, their signature cocktail, which actually looked much more impressive than this angle would imply.

(See also FOOD GLOSSARY)

(See also RESTAURANTS IN KOREA)

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