Buenos Aires – When Barrio Chino first sprang up over in Belgrano East, it was predominately Taiwanese. Over time, other Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans moved into the neighborhood, creating an international Asian community. However, the Taiwanese have continued to exert the strongest influence, and gradually the other groups moved to their own locales. In the south part of Barrio Flores, the Koreans have a concentrated community variously known as Coreatown, Pequeña Corea (sometimes, for unknown reasons, by their English names, Koreatown and Little Korea). It’s a somewhat lengthy bus ride out to the neighborhood, but we started out around noon, figuring we’d get there in time to look around and then have lunch.
While Barrio Chino is clearly oriented around not only the Chinese community, but also “outsiders” and tourism (signs in Chinese, Spanish & English), Coreatown is not. The majority of signs are in Korean only, with no translations into anything else. The heart of the community is the intersection of the streets Castañares and Carabobo, the latter being the main commercial strip of the neighborhood. Carabobo, by the way, is difficult to translate as anything besides “the face of foolishness.” It’s also the name of a state in Venezuela. I don’t know if there’s some sort of history behind the naming of this street (or the state), it would be interesting to know! The other thing we immediately found is that the Korean community there is extremely suspicious of non-Koreans. The commercial portion of the neighborhood is little more than restaurants and markets, yet most doors were locked, and the shopkeepers just blantantly ignored our existence when it came to be buzzed in.
Immediately off of the bus stop at the core corner, is a small restaurant, the name only in Korean, at Carabobo 1688. It was open, though required being buzzed in (look for a blue and white sign hanging under the awning, should you decide to go). On entering, the proprietress demanded loudly to know what we wanted. When I said we were there for lunch (all eyes in the restaurant were on us at this point), she offered us a table, but then launched into a rapid-fire explanation of how we were unlikely to like Korean food, there was no menu in Spanish, and so she’d just have the kitchen make us some fried chicken. I explained that I like Korean food, have had it many times in other cities, and that it was Henry’s first time, so we’d like to have a more typical Korean lunch. You’d think she might brighten up at the thought, but no, she declined and flounced back to the kitchen.
We were about to get up and leave when the cook wandered out into the dining room. I waved her over and explained again, throwing in words like “kim chee” and “bulgogi” and “bibimbop” to show off my vast knowledge. She was far more amenable and proceeded back to the kitchen. First out was an array of kim chee (as a note, I’ve been informed, kim chee does not mean pickled spicy cabbage, it’s a selection of preserved dishes of various types). This included the familiar spicy cabbage, equally spicy green onions, sesame doused watercress, sweet cured black algae, caramelized fish, sweet pickled burdock, and a light mushroom and pepper salad.
Following this we received two bubbling bowls of spinach soup. This was laced with green onions, small zucchini, and just a bit too much hot pepper and salt. Koreans do seem to like salt, I’ve noticed that in New York restaurants as well. Soup often is already salty, and is served with a large bowl of salt on the side to add more if you like. Despite that, the soup was really quite tasty and would be worth reproducing with a more balanced approach.
Our final course, bulgogi, or barbecued beef, required firing up the tabletop burner with a griddle on it. A plate of way too many small steaks (I think despite my request for 1 portion, we got 2), frozen rock-hard, and a bowl of salt, was dropped off at the table. A platter of lettuce leaves for wrapping the beef was brought a few minutes later. I tossed a few of the steaks on the grill and soon that wonderful aroma of seared beef filled the air. Cutting them into pieces with the shears that were provided, I wrapped them in lettuce leaves after a sprinkling of coarse salt. Yum!
My only real negative to this place, other than the initial attitude (which was mitigated by the way as patron after patron, on leaving, stopped at the table to ask us if we were enjoying our Korean food), was the bill. By New York standards, 44 pesos or $15, isn’t much for such a lunch. By Buenos Aires standards, and especially for an out of the way neighborhood, it was outrageous. I asked if she was joking and she just stood there with her hand out. I don’t know if we were charged more than members of the community, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I blatantly picked up the remaining 2 frozen steaks from the platter, wrapped them in napkins, and stuck them in my jacket pocket, much to her obvious annoyance.
At the next-door vegetable market I bought a daikon to cook later, and transferred the steaks to the plastic bag… at least a couple of steak sandwiches out of this will take the sting out of the price.