The hidden joy of Mexican-Seoul food

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by Eric Ginsburg

The sign out front and the name of El Nuevo Mexican Grill don’t hint at what’s tucked into a small food court in downtown Greensboro’s financial district.

Greensboro is rife with hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants, most of them just trying to get by, with a few offering excellent fare but most hovering around “good enough.” So when I repeatedly campaigned for a fast-paced burrito joint downtown — something akin to Carrburritos, Mamacitas or Cosmic Cantina in other North Carolina cities — and a reader told me such a place existed in what feels like a wildly outdated food court, I kind of brushed it off.

Big mistake.

What makes El Nuevo special isn’t that the food is delicious — which it undoubtedly is — but something more unique. It’s that El Nuevo Mexican Grill, a burrito place with a sombrero on the wall and a red chili pepper logo, is actually a Korean fusion restaurant.

Yep. In Greensboro.

Above: Kim, Kye and Lim
Above: Kim, Kye and Lim. Here: the bulgogi burrito.

But El Nuevo isn’t some hip new place, decorated with unfinished wood and mason jars, sporting a high-minded design aesthetic and utilizing white college kids in the kitchen. It’s run by three Koreans, looks like it’s straight out of the ’80s and opened almost three years ago.

When Gilbert Lim, who owns the restaurant with his wife Young Kye and business partner Taeyeom Kim, first learned of the popularity of Korean-Mexican fusion food, he tried it at home. He knew food trucks and creative chefs were pushing the blend in big cities around the country, but he had never tried any of their creations. Pairing primarily Korean-style meats with ingredients common in Mexican cuisine, he quickly saw the genius of melding the two.

Lim had never run a restaurant before, or even worked in a commercial kitchen, but when he realized nobody in the area offered the fusion-style meals, he took a risk.

People around here aren’t very adventurous eaters, he said. And Lim is far from the only one to point out that Triadians are overwhelmingly creatures of comfort. Occasionally people walk inside El Nuevo and, confused by the menu and possibly by the sight of Koreans behind the counter, turn around.

Here’s the thing: I hadn’t tried their food until a week ago, and I’ve already been back twice. It’s fantastic, and everyone I’ve talked to who’s been agrees.

Anthony digs in
Anthony digs in

My friend Sam, a graphic designer, is the one who helped push me through the doors for the bulgogi burrito. My friend Dee, a law student, enjoys the vegetarian burrito. My friend Anthony, our sports writer, loved the flight of spicy Korean pork BBQ tacos. And Councilman Justin Outling said he and his wife are regulars, adding that the restaurant is a hit in his law office and to be sure to ask for some kimchi.

As I talked to Lim, while Kye and Kim ate lunch after the rush ended on a recent afternoon, two new customers interrupted to say how much they liked the chicken and quesadillas, vowing to come back. If people give the food a try, Lim is convinced, they’ll probably return. They usually do, he added.

When El Nuevo first opened in January 2013, almost nobody seemed to know anything about Korean food, Lim said. That’s changed, thankfully, but coupled with the lack of adventurous eaters in the area, helps explain why they’d market it primarily as a Mexican food place.

The menu is continually evolving, but the proprietors try to maintain a home-cooked feel.

“We try to develop our food and styles,” Lim said. “We try to develop it every time, to change it a little bit, to perfect it.”

Spicy Korean pork tacos
Spicy Korean pork BBQ tacos

The menu contains a few choices for drab eaters — a hamburger, a beefsteak sub, fried chicken wings. But the rest of the items celebrate Mexican or Korean food, and usually both. The chimichangas come with a spring roll-style wrap, making it crispier. Tacos or burritos come with bulgogi beef — that’s Korean BBQ, folks — spicy Korean pork BBQ, grilled or spicy chicken, tofu or veggies, or shrimp. As evidence of the evolving options, the menu doesn’t list a Korean noodle dish posted on the wall or a bibimbap-style bowl with Mexican and Korean veggies.

The bulgogi burrito is the best seller, and with good reason. Burritos are like Legos, Lim said, allowing people to build theirs exactly as they’d like it on top of the tortilla wrap base. And it’s his favorite thing they offer, too.

Lim makes his with steamed white rice — they also provide fried rice — which is a combination of jasmine rice and sushi rice to make it stickier, he said. He prefers pinto beans to black beans because they’re sweeter, and Lim adds pico de gallo, corn, a little cheese, sour cream and guacamole. El Nuevo makes some of its own sauces, including a spicy Korean-style sauce, he said, but Lim puts sriracha in his bulgogi burrito.

“I’m surprised when I eat it,” he said. “Bulgogi is the symbol of Korean food, and it mixes very well with Mexican food. That’s why I select the bulgogi burrito.”

The trio makes their own chips each morning, fries their own burrito bowls and uses fresh vegetables. The difference in quality is tangible.

In all the excitement over new, hip, flashy things happening in Greensboro, especially downtown, I forgot the beauty of why I fell in love with this city in the first place. Its charm is often hidden, and it’d be easy to pass through without detecting it. But when you take the time to seek it out, to dig it up and try something new, this city will often amaze you.

That’s what this Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant, operating quietly and unglamorously behind the scenes, in the center of the city but without a street-facing storefront, proves. And I’m convinced, like Lim, that if you try it, you’ll be back soon.

 

Visit El Nuevo Mexican (and Korean) Grill at 114 N. Elm Street (GSO) or find it on Facbeook.