Post-95: “All Cooks From Mexico” (Or, Dipping a Toe into the World of Off-Base Military Life in Korea)

I unexpectedly wound up at a Mexican restaurant near Osan Air Force Base Sunday, after I met my friend Jared.

The restaurant has an actual Mexican manager and actual Mexicans doing the cooking, which is something I’ve otherwise never seen or heard of in Korea (i.e., despite the recent rise in the popularity of Mexican food, managers and cooks everywhere else are Korean). On the advertisement for the place, near the entrance, they boast about it:


A Mexican Restaurant in Osan, South Korea
Slogan: “Authentic Mexican Food / All Cooks From Mexico”

We got there in the automobile of a fascinating man named Seungbae, Jared’s friend. Osan is something approaching an hour’s drive south of central-Seoul. This was, I do believe, my longest-ever car ride in Korea.

Both Seungbae and Jared speak Spanish well. Seungbae studied it in university. Jared lived in Mexico for two years, and is fluent. He even taught Spanish in the USA. The two of them had been to this restaurant before. Seungbae introduced Jared to it in 2010, from whom I’d listened back then, in awe, about the “real Mexican cooks”.

Seungbae graciously paid for the meal. He had an ulterior motive for the trip, though: He tried, at length, to enlist the support of the Mexican manager for his latest money-making venture, the details of which I zoned-out on a little bit. All I know for sure is that it’s connected in some way with Mexico, and he needs a Mexican contact. The manager was a kindly, portly, soft-spoken dark-skinned man (who I’d have believed were Arab, if he’d claimed to be). He was born in Mexico but he’s lived in both the USA and Mexico at various times. He seemed to lean more “American” than “Mexican”. (Then again, I’ve never been to Mexico, never even to Texas, and hardly ever to California, so what do I know.) He spoke English well, but only fully-relaxed when Seungbae and Jared addressed him in Spanish.

PictureForeigners attached to the U.S. military in the “Ville”
outside Osan Air Base, near clothes shops

This Mexican restaurant exists on a promenade adjacent to Osan Air Force Base, in which foreigners easily outnumber Koreans. What kind of foreigners? Some were obviously soldiers/airmen (judging by the haircuts) or their dependents, some were obvious military contractors, but a large share of those I saw were “hangers-on”, like this Mexican manager and his cooks. Many were (to me) of really indeterminate origin. Foreign businesses, and business catering to foreigners, define this street. It is a world unto its own, nothing like the “other Korea” I live/work in.

Jared (who was once in the U.S. Army in Korea) says these areas are called “the Ville” by soldiers. (The now-trendy, but once infamous Itaewon neighborhood, in central Seoul, started out the same, as Yongsan Army Base’s “Ville”, but is now something else entirely. The Itaewon of the 2010s has a Muslim atmosphere on the whole, actually, but that’s another story).

In the leisurely two hours or so we were in the Mexican restaurant, I saw perhaps ten groups of foreigners in and out, versus a single pair of Koreans, women in their 20s. The foreigners all seemed attached to the U.S. Military, either as enlisted men/women or contractors.

PictureA man of indeterminate origin rides a
“lowrider” motorcycle through
the “Ville” outside Osan Air Base
[June 2013]

This Mexican restaurant at which we ate would be wildly out of place in Korea anywhere except “Ville” areas, or possibly Itaewon (which, again, started as a “Ville”), it seems to me. Whether it would be “not out of place in Mexico” is less clear. Jared, who’s spent a good while in both Southern-California and Mexico, said it was much more like a California-Mexican place that a Mexican-Mexican place. I guess I could’ve surmised that. The place did have a recognizably “American” feel, but certainly was not-quite-as-American as on-base restaurants. I’ve been fortunate enough to have eaten two or three times “on base”, via my uncle (who gets sent to Korea as a contractor sometimes) and my cousin-in-law (who was at Kunsan Air Base last year). I tell you, earnestly, that to walk onto a U.S. Military base in the Republic of Korea is to walk into the USA itself.

At Jared’s suggestion, I drank horchata, a smooth and sweet rice-based drink, which I must confess to have never even heard of before that day. This horchata easily beats the Korean rice-based drinks I’ve tried, soju and Sikyhye.  Seungbae got a Margarita at the recommendation of the manager. Here is a picture of the food, before mine arrived. Jared (across the table) has tacos. I don’t remember what Seungbae got, but it looks good. In Jared’s hand is a horchata. I got one, too,

Mexican Food in Osan

One reminder that this is Korea was the bell on the side of the table. Very useful. I’ve rarely seen any in the USA.
One reminder that this place serves non-Koreans almost entirely: No kimchi at all was served.

The meal was good; seeing the Osan “Ville” was fascinating, riding such a distance in a car in Korea was novel, and the conversation provided by Seungbae (who spoke at length about Korean history and any other topic that came up) and Jared (who always has something interesting to talk about) was pleasant.

It was a good trip. It reminded me of being in the USA.