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DIY Kor-Mex in Grand Rapids

by Mark Hoffman

first posted: 3/6/2018

last updated: 3/11/2018

Grand Rapids is lucky to have three good Korean grocery stores, Seoul Market, Lee's Oriental Market, and Olympic Market. However, all three are in one part of town. This makes frequent Korean grocery shopping rather inconvenient for many of us Grand Rapideans. If you often want to cook Korean, but only can get to a Korean grocer once a month, then you should look for a Mexican grocery store closer to home. The dozens of local Mexican grocer will usually carry several cuts of meat that are useful in Korean cooking, including thin-cut skirt or flank steak for bulgogi; tablitas (cross cut beef ribs) for kalbi, and pork belly for samgyeopsal-gui.

Mexican grocers are also great places to buy affordable spices and fresh-baked goods. As a westsider, I frequent Supermercado Michoacan at 602 Leonard St NW.

Shopping in the Mexican grocery store may temp you to experiment with Korean-Mexican fusion cooking, or Kor-Mex. Kor-Mex, started in LA with Korean Taco trucks and has spread eastward. It has now been exported to Seoul and Singapore by Korean-Americans. Unfortunately, it has not yet reached Grand Rapids. (At least, I have not spotted a Korean Taco food truck. But it may be out there somewhere.) Thus, you will have to make Kor-Mex meals on your own. Here are some recipes that you might try.

Chilaquiles made with gochujang

If you already have favorite Mexican recipes, then you can improvise your own Kor-Mex dishes. To start, try using any of these simple substitutions.

  • use bulgogi for the meat in tacos or fajitas

  • use Korean-flavored ground beef in tacos or burritos

  • add chopped kimchi to the ingredients

  • substitute gochugaru for chili powder 

  • substitute gochujang for chili sauce

  • substitute plantains for Korean sweet potatoes.

If you are starting with a Korean recipe, then one of these simple options will add Mexican flavors:

  • add cilantro, chopped red onion, chopped jalapenos pepper, and cotija cheese or queso fresco cheese to your recipe's ingredients

  • include Mexican items such as fried ripe plantains, avocado, pickled jalapeño peppers, pico de gallo, and esquites (Mexican corn salad) among your banchan (Korean side dishes)

  • substitute a salsa roja for the gochujang when making ssamjang

  • include a salsa verde.among your Korean dipping sauces

Carnitas slow cooked with Korean spices and spread over shredded and fried Korean sweet potatoes, topped with cilantro, mozzarella, and cotija cheese.

With a bit of experimentation, you will likely hit on an exceptional combination. (The world is still waiting for a "Wet Korean Burrito" recipe.)

Although the pairing of Korean and Mexican ingredients may seem odd, some argue that Kor-Mex is a natural evolution in American cuisine, rather than a contrived culinary fusion by ambitious gourmet chefs. 

Alice Shin, creative director at LA’s Kogi (operator of food trucks and two restaurants), wrote on the company's blog, “We didn’t go in here thinking, ‘Let’s bring Mexican and Korean together because it’ll be weird and cool.’ The thing is, Mexican and Korean flavors coming together is only a natural progression. For generations, Chicanos and Koreans have lived side by side in K-town. Tortillas are commonly found in supermarkets around here — and it wasn’t uncommon to bring a bag of those Mission tortillas to a Korean barbecue in the height of summer. What do you think happened when those Korean people ran out of rice? That’s why we don’t call it fusion. But what we do call it is Angeleno."

Slow-cooked, Korean-flavored pork and beef ribs served with sides of kimchi, pickled radish, black & jasmine rice mix, fried plantains, guacamole with tortilla chips, and Mexican corn salad.

When Sid Kim, the Korean-American co-founder of Vatos Urban Tacos in Seoul, was on Judy Joo’s Food Channel show, he explained the natural affinity of Korean and Mexican. “So if you think about it, Mexican food and Korean food are very similar. … a lot of the flavors are very similar: a lot of the meat, a lot of spices, and the way we eat barbecue here [in Korea]. We take a green leafy lettuce, or a red leafy lettuce, and we take a perilla leaf like this. This is essentially our tortilla.  And what do we put in it? Pork. What do Mexicans put in it? Pork. Carnitas, right? Braised pork. And then we put in some vegetables. Usually they put in onion or cilantro. We put in some scallions, some green onions. They put in hot sauce. We put in hot sauce, our own version, which is called ssamjang. It’s a taco, basically.”

With many wonderful Mexican grocery stores in Grand Rapids, Kor-Mex may be the most practical and exciting way for lovers of Korean flavors to get their weekly fix.

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