Much to the chagrin of the expat community in Daegu, Mexican cuisine has been famed for having had slippery, greasy fingers when it comes to trying to latch onto the fickle tastes of local citizens and becoming a permanent fixture in the city’s burgeoning international food scene. When it comes to Tex-Mex (or even Koreanized Tex-Mex), the dedication of the foreign crowd here has been uncanny. Like 10 years ago, when the short-lived La Cantina opened up in Gyeongsan, well before the subway line extension, and it became a Mecca for Daegu denizens willing to make the long trip to the city’s fringe. Or when a Mexican woman opened up a Tex-Mex joint in Sangju, an hour away from Daegu, creating a buzz on Facebook followed by weekend excursions to the sticks.
If you aren’t one of the 5000-plus with access to Camp Walker where the city’s lone Taco Bell awaits, you’ve likely become naturally predisposed to compromising your tastes or having to go ridiculous distances for something a slight step up.
Elsewhere in the country, however, the Mexican craze has spread like wildfire with the likes of On The Border, Gusto Taco, El Pino 323, B’mucho Cantina, and Vatos, to name a few. But while those in Seoul and Gyeonggi have all donned their sombreros and embraced the cuisine as a permanent resident, Daegu has been like the Island of Misfit Toys and gets ignored whenever the big Mexi franchises consider heading south (Although Dos Tacos did flaunt its wares in downtown for a brief spell.).
Few have been more in tune with Daegu’s finicky tastes than Bae Jun Yong. As a former manager of the overall food court of Daegu Department Store, he’s had to oversee the revolving door of food kiosk entrepreneurs setting up shop and seeing what works and what doesn’t among Daegu shoppers. The insights he gained from that environment inspired him to scout around the country to seek a Mexican franchise that was able to hit that sweet spot where Tex-Mex authenticity is preserved and is not overly tweaked to appeal to Korean consumers. That search eventually led Jun Yong to the famed Tomatillo chain.
ChopsticksWide: What is it about Tomatillo that attracted you to the franchise?
Bae Jun Yong: While there was some concern if the big Mexican franchises would be able to uphold quality once a franchise opens up beyond their reach, after Tomatillo opened up in Pohang, their first location outside of the greater Seoul area, they proved that their high-quality recipes and ingredients would be able to strongly resonate this far away from their main base of operations. Adding to the air of authenticity, Tomatillo goes to such lengths as to employ Mexican chefs who deeply understand the expectations and preferences among Tex-Mex fans. In our case, we’ve been fortunate for the head office choosing to dispatch Gustavo Flores to us from their Itaewon branch, who will be with us throughout our initial months after opening, while another Mexican chef, Angie Silva, will continue to work in the Daegu kitchen on a permanent basis.
ChopsticksWide: You’re just slightly north of the downtown core and away from where most international restaurants tend to congregate. What made you decide to open up in Buk-gu’s new Daegu Center for Creative Economy & Innovation?
Bae Jun Yong: Indeed, most new restaurants fight each other for prime location in the downtown area. But given the strength of the Tomatillo brand and ensuing buzz that is likely to come from the Tomatillo dining experience, I felt certain that the word-of-mouth effect would induce the 20-something crowd to venture our way. We’re within a short distance from Lotte Department Store at Daegu Station, so we’re on the radar among shoppers in the area. In addition, our location is surrounded by apartment complexes as well as business offices in this new center, which can help drive our weekday lunch business, a time that usually underperforms in the downtown dining district. Additionally, a lot of great restaurants are opening up in this new facility, which is helping it become a new dining district for the local area.
ChopsticksWide: Does the menu differ at all from the Seoul/Gyeonggi locations? Also, what do you see Korean and foreign customers ordering since you’ve been open?
Bae Jun Yong: The menu of our Daegu location is the exact same as what is being served in the other Tomatillo branches. In fact, I added Pulled Pork Kimchi Fries to the menu to give it some cross-cultural appeal, which is the first Tomatillo to try this out. Also, we’ve repositioned and expanded the Chimichanga dish into an entree, unlike the other branches which sell it as part of the Side menu. As for ordering habits until now, we’ve seen our foreign customers gravitating to our taco and burrito dishes, while we’ve noticed that our Korean visitors have been trying a little bit of everything, thanks to the encouragement of our wait staff.
ChopsticksWide: Any specials going on right now?
Bae Jun Yong: As much as we feel that the food is the real draw, we’re trying to emphasize that the Tomatillo experience is much more than simply being about food. Our margaritas and craft beer selection are very popular in other branches, so we’re introducing some specials, such as a Buy 1, Get 1 Free deal involving our Pilsner and Hefeweizen beers that we have on tap. Also, it just isn’t Mexican without margaritas. So our popular Beer Rita lineup, including Tomatillo Rita, Corona Rita and Mariachi Rita, usually sell for 12,000 won per giant glass. However, we have them on sale now for 9,600 won each. Both the 1+1 deal and the Beer Rita special are available until the end of May. In the meantime, we’re thinking up new ways to pass along further value to customers. We’re even considering some catering or delivery options, and we’ll be sure to let everyone know about that and other great specials in the future.
ChopsticksWide: I respect that your thoughts are likely solely revolving around your new location for the foreseeable future. But any forecasts about a possible 2nd location in the Daegu area at some point?
Bae Jun Yong: I’m committed to making Mexican cuisine find a permanent place among the dining options of Daegu citizens. So I do have some aspirations to go beyond this first location. If I had to choose one particular area that I’d be keen on opening up in, it would be around the new Wolseong CGV out by Sangin Station, which is an area that is seeing some massive commercial growth activity right now and there are a lot of bold dining options opening up that people are flocking to. So I think that’s just one more reason why I think Daegu is ready for Tomatillo to become a regular part of the dining industry here.