Sunday, May 05, 2013

I have been to the Dos Tacos mountaintop

Mexican food in South Korea seems to be making something of a comeback. Years ago, Taco Bell tried and failed to gain a respectable foothold on the peninsula; eventually, it slunk away in shame. Now, however, the mad chihuahua has returned, along with a wave of Tex-Mex, faux-Mex, and fusion joints. Among the more popular joints these days are Vatos Urban Tacos (about which I've already written), which represents the more artisanal, cutting-edge end of the spectrum; and Dos Tacos, which is decidedly less self-conscious and more laid-back—like your typical American taco joint, but with politer, perkier service.

I took a cab from my place to the Gwanghwamun district, which is famous for its huge, imposing statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin. Dos Tacos is not far from Admiral Yi; it sits alongside the Cheonggyaecheon, the old stream that used to be covered over by real-estate development, but was re-exposed to daylight by then-mayor (now ex-President) Lee Myeong-bak, who Had a Vision. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the stream project; many merchants who had set up shop for years along the resurfaced path of the stream were forced to leave so that their market street could be torn open, generating a firestorm of complaints. But Mayor Lee rode through the flak, staying faithful to his purpose. In the end, the new, revamped Cheonggyaecheon opened up to modest applause; the first batch of fish, dumped into the stream in the optimistic hopes of populating it, all promptly died. But months later, as the stream flowed and began to reacquire plant life along its banks and algae along its bottom, the watercourse became oxygenated and thus friendlier to fish. Another attempt was made to repopulate the stream, and this time, lo and behold, it succeeded. The Cheonggyaecheon was a legitimate stream again. With its walking paths, which are lighted at night, the stream has become a widely accepted landmark of which Seoulites are justifiably proud. Much of the brouhaha surrounding the stream occurred after I had left Korea in 2008; it's astonishing to see how much the area has changed. Some of these changes aren't for the better, though: at the head of the walking path stands a horrifying spiral sculpture that looks, to me, like the excrement of a magical beast: a candy-colored unicorn turd (here). If the purpose of this sculpture is to be memorable, then I suppose it's succeeded. Otherwise, I consider the turd-spiral to be a poke in the eyeballs—a blight that should be torn down and replaced with something more understated and Korean.

My cabbie this time was all too willing to engage me in conversation. He pressed me with all the usual questions that cabbies ask fat foreigners:

"Where are you from?"

"Where are you living now?"

"What do you do?"

"Are you married?"

And of course: "I'm very sorry, but how much do you weigh?"

Which led to: "Do you have any plans to lose that weight?"

So I sighed as we got into the subject of sports and weight loss... yet fucking again. I don't know why I even bother to take taxis anymore, because I know I'm just going to be needled and preached at. We took a strangely winding path through Seoul, one that passed over long, serpentine neighborhood roads and wended through a shopping/restaurant district. The cabbie extolled the virtues of Korean mountains and told me that my weight would just—boom—drop right off once I tackled a few of the larger local peaks. He did seem to have a pretty extensive knowledge of all the paths of the various mountains; his discourse on Bukhan-san was almost encyclopedic. It was a relief, though, when he shifted to a non-health-related topic, at which point my comprehension of what he was saying plummeted to about thirty percent. I did a lot of nodding during that portion of the ride, but I did go back and forth with the driver about which sort of woman I wanted to marry—Korean or "foreign." I told the driver that any woman was fine by me. Despite having just lectured me on my fatness and need for exercise, the driver praised my looks and called me a mi-nam (미남, 美男), which literally means a "beautiful man." I thanked him, awkwardly, both because it was strange to be called handsome by a man, and because it was strange to receive such praise after having been told I was fat. Not that I see fatness and good looks as mutually exclusive, mind you, but you have to admit that they rarely go together.

Eventually, the cabbie got me to Gwanghwamun. He deposited me across from the unicorn turd, and I had barely gotten out of the taxi when Tom called to ask where I was. He was on his way to Dos Tacos as well, accompanied by his retinue: his wife Sherny, his baby son Thomson, Sherny's best friend Gale (Filipina like Sherny), Gale's German hubby Mathias (mah-TEE-ahs), and their son Matthew. Today is Children's Day in Korea, along with being Cinco de Mayo and the day for some sort of international food festival. Tents and picnic tables lined the Cheonggyaecheon; the smell of food was everywhere. I walked along the north side of the stream toward Dos Tacos; Tom called me again to check on my progress. It turned out that Tom and his group got to the resto only a couple of minutes before I arrived; Tom was standing guard outside, waiting for me to lumber on up.

Dos Tacos was open this time, which was good. I got to meet all the new people (Gale, Mathias, Matthew) along with Sherny and a sleeping Thomson. Gale and the burly, beer-loving Mathias live and work in China; Gale speaks some Chinese and more than some German. Little Matthew, who is about five and who has the luxury of picking what language to speak, seems to speak primarily in English.

The Dos Tacos menu was pretty straightforward: tacos on one page, nachos on another, burritos, chimichangas, and flautas on other pages. No "KoMexican" fusion could be seen anywhere; the whole thing was purely American-style. The prices weren't as inflated as they were at Vatos Urban Tacos, and the fare turned out to be good, with decent portion sizes (I ordered a chimichanga with extra beans and avocado). Comparing Dos Tacos with Vatos isn't easy; as I told Tom, there's a certain apples-and-oranges factor, since the restaurants were obviously aimed at different respective target markets. All the same, I could tell that Dos Tacos had larger portion sizes, and they also allowed for free drink refills, a lowbrow perk that I, eternally thirsty, genuinely appreciated.

I learned a bit about my dinner companions. Mathias told me about how an old Korean man in Pagoda Park grabbed his (Mathias's) crotch after Mathias told him he was German. I also learned that Sherny's strange and unique first name was the result of a doctor's mistake: the sloppy cursive for "Sherry" had been misread at the hospital, and she's been "Sherny" ever since. Gale told us a bit about her supervisor's job at the restaurant-microbrewery she works at in China, in a large city near Hong Kong (I can no longer remember its name). Little Matthew, meanwhile, had his face buried in a smart-phone video game; at irregular intervals, he would intone, "Police Captain!" at the screen.

After about an hour, I said my goodbyes. Tom walked me out of Dos Tacos and gave me a T-Money card that he had simply found on the street. "I don't know how much money is on there," he said. "Text me back when you find out." He told me that I could catch the 160 bus back to my place, and after I'd said goodbye to him, I tried to find the stop but failed. So I took the subway instead, using the found T-Money card. Turned out that the card had about W23,000 on it (about 21 current US dollars), which was amazing. Someone, somewhere in Seoul, is cursing his or her luck right now.

So now I'm back home and about to dive once again into my YB-related remote work. It's slow going, but somebody's got to do it, right? My job interview with Chonnam University happens this coming Tuesday, in principle at 10AM. No one from the university has emailed back to confirm the date and time, so I can only hope that Chonnam and I are, in fact, communicating. And now, au boulot. My only regret about dinner: I failed to bring a camera.


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