There is a chaotic charm to dinner service at Mexico’s Na De Fo. In the expansive, brightly lit dining room Mexican waiters in black vests shuttle platters of banchan and white rice to tables of Japanese businessmen, Korean families, gringo tourists, and local foodies. Bottles of soju clatter on the metal tabletops as patrons turn thinly sliced beef tongue or marinated meat over charcoal grills. A Mexican league soccer game plays on the televisions overhead. On any given Friday night dozens of Samsung executives might descend on the already busy restaurant. Recently, some minor K-pop stars and their entourage dined at Na De Fo during Mexico City’s first KCON Korean Wave music festival.
Na De Fo is one of the few places in Mexico City that doesn’t feel like Mexico City at all, and yet it could exist nowhere else. Located on an easy-to-miss half block on the southern edge of the Zona Rosa district, it was for many years a destination principally for immigrant Koreans and a few in-the-know culinary adventurers. Over the past decade it has become one of the best known and most vibrant Korean restaurants in the capital.
Like most Koreans here, Na De Fo’s omnipresent owner Joo Sung Lee originally came to Mexico from Seoul as a businessman, 20 years ago. More than a decade later he bought the year-old Na De Fo from its original owner, and he didn’t change the name—a decision Lee and his family now laughingly regret, since the name translates roughly as “Na’s Place to Drink.” Considering how much energy Lee and his family have poured into Na De Fo, “Lee’s Place” would have been a far more fitting choice.
“My mother jokes, ‘Why don’t you and your sister go open a restaurant and this time call it Lee De Fo?’” says Lee’s son, Seung Mook, who goes by Daniel. But, Daniel explains, there was already publicity and signage for the name Na De Fo, and at the time Lee couldn’t have expected he’d have so much success as a first-time restaurateur.
He owes that success in part to his wife, Keum Ja Kim, who took over the kitchen at Na De Fo shortly after Lee bought the restaurant. Kim grew up in the small town of Jecheon, South Korea, and was an accomplished home chef before she started helming a busy commercial kitchen. Though she now has a well-trained staff to do the bulk of the labor, she continues to put the finishing touches on every dish, including massive batches of kimchi (the restaurant sells it in addition to serving it with every meal) and handmade ssamjang, the thick, spicy paste ubiquitous in Korean cooking.
Creating authentic-tasting Korean food with the products available in Mexico City is not a simple task, and it requires both culinary ingenuity and lots of imports. At Na De Fo noodles and meat come from the U.S., while a Japanese purveyor provides the Korean rice. The silver exhaust vents that hang over the tabletop grills are also imported, from Korea, as are fruit wines and soju. Sometimes the family brings hard-to-find spices back in their suitcases after visiting Korea.
In the past five years more and more Mexicans, as well as foreign tourists, have found their way to Na De Fo. “Now, lots of Mexicans come here, particularly on Sundays. … And I don’t know how they find out about us, but there are a lot of people from the United States, too,” Daniel tells me. The menu, which Lee originally printed in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, is now offered in just Spanish and Korean, with pictures of the food for those who don’t speak either language.
Daniel, currently a student at Mexico’s prestigious Universidad Autónoma de México, is tasked with the menu’s Korean-to-Spanish translations. It’s not always an easy job, since a number of fermented, often pungent traditional Korean dishes are foreign to a Mexican palate and hard to describe. When he was trying to think of a good description for a particularly malodorous soup—which, Daniel assures me, is delicious and very good for you—his mother joked that he should describe it as “the flavor of death.”
Cutting across Mexico City’s central districts from east to west, the Paseo de la Reforma is a long, monument-studded boulevard built by President Porfirio Díaz in the middle of the 19th century. In the ensuing years many of Mexico City’s wealthy families moved out of the increasingly crowded centro histórico and into the grand European-style neighborhoods cropping up along Reforma, including Colonia Juárez, south of the boulevard. Even after years of disrepair, it’s easy to imagine the beautifully crumbling Juárez as it was in 1900.
While much of Juárez went into decline after the Mexican Revolution, the Zona Rosa, a small district on the far western edge of the neighborhood, became a famous meeting ground for bohemians and artists in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Old mansions and carriage houses were turned into bookshops, bars, and galleries, most of which have long since shuttered.
As its posh artistic years faded into history, the Zona Rosa’s historic streets slowly filled with strip clubs, sex shops, convenience stores, and fast-food chains. Many historic buildings were abandoned altogether. Despite the decline, the area remains iconic to the city and is a center for gay nightlife, especially along the street Amberes.
On the weekends the Zona Rosa’s multistory dance clubs start pumping earsplitting techno in the early afternoon and don’t close till dawn. Just around the corner from Na De Fo, a rather rowdy nightspot was recently closed by the city government after a homicide on the premises.
It is a bit peculiar that Mexico City’s decidedly low-profile Korean community has settled largely in the semiderelict, flashy Zona Rosa. “The neighborhood is full of bars, especially gay clubs and shops for the gay community. It’s a completely sui generis place, because the two communities don’t have anything in common and they share a space,” says anthropologist Sergio Gallardo García. Gallardo has been studying the Korean community for years, both at the Universidad Autónoma de México and now at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores de Antropología Social. He says the Zona Rosa’s prices dropped precipitously after the earthquake in 1985, when many of its historic buildings were abandoned, providing Korean immigrants with an attractive but inexpensive neighborhood to start building a community in the early 1990s.
In those days there were fewer than 600 Koreans living in the capital, a number that has since ballooned; estimates from local publications put the figure at around 8,000 today. According to Gallardo’s research, the Zona Rosa got a major influx of Korean residents after the Argentine economic crisis in 2001, when Argentina’s well-established Korean community began to relocate to Mexico. “South Korea invests a lot of money in maintaining a link between Korean communities throughout the world,” Gallardo explains. “The community in Los Angeles, in New York, in Mexico, in Argentina maintain communication. So in looking for a way to escape the crisis, they knew that in Mexico there were plenty of opportunities.” He gives me the address for an Argentine restaurant called La Bodega Parrilla Argentina, located just outside the Zona Rosa and owned by Koreans.
Today, Gallardo says, “the Zona Rosa has a new economic reality. It’s an expensive district again, but nonetheless it remains a place of great attraction for Koreans.” While there have been a small number of Korean businesses in the neighborhood since the 1990s, there are now dozens of Korean restaurants, delis, and supermarkets in the area, including the three-story shaved-ice, boba-tea, and iced-blended-coffee emporium Coffee Kkot. In a big city, where immigrants tend to blend into the society, Pequeño Seúl (Little Seoul)—as the Zona Rosa is sometimes nicknamed—stands out as a visible community that has now fully established itself in central Mexico City.
“In the past few years the government has provided incentives for Korean businesses in Mexico,” says Esmeralda Arenas, the secretary at the Asociación Coreano de México (Korean Association of Mexico). As a result, Arenas tells me, the Korean population is becoming much larger and will probably continue to grow. “For example, the new Kia plant in Nuevo León brought a lot of Koreans to Mexico—and not just people working in the plant, but the suppliers they use are also Korean, which brought even more people here,” she explains.
Arenas, who studied the Korean language for six years before joining the staff at the Asociación Coreano, has also noticed an increased curiosity from Mexicans about Korean culture, mostly thanks to K-pop and contemporary Korean soap operas, which are the “main point of attraction, mostly for girls.” She notes that the city government has also done its part to encourage cultural interaction, hosting cultural festivals to promote Korean music, dance, and clothing. Arenas, with a friend, made a series of Facebook videos reviewing local Korean restaurants; she recommends I try a basement spot called Mapo Kal Bi, right near Na De Fo, for its authentic eats.
Even with the new prominence of the Korean community in Mexico City, what you find walking the streets of the Zona Rosa is just a small piece of the whole. Pick up a copy of El Coreano, a free Korean-language newspaper distributed throughout the Zona Rosa, and you’ll see ads for Korean doctors, importers, and real estate services, none of which bother with street-level advertising. I had heard rumors that there are Korean restaurants and nightclubs, out of sight, that only welcome Koreans. Daniel Lee confirms that one such establishment is hidden speakeasy style at the back of a gay bar.
The restaurant Myeong Dong Guan is located just off the Paseo de la Reforma, on tiny Oxford Street. With a bare-bones six-table dining room, it feels like the type of hole in the wall that New York foodies might track down in the outer boroughs, not your typical restaurant in central Mexico City. The restaurant is owned by a Korean couple who moved to Mexico after 20 years running a restaurant in Paraguay. They are seasoned restaurateurs, and the food reflects that, with a multipage menu featuring noodles, soups, barbecue, bibimbap, and Korean-style Chinese food, in addition to off-menu special orders that customers often request.
As a waiter, I’m accustomed to a client who doesn’t know [about Korean food]. I’ll explain what’s in the dish. There are places that don’t do that.
Juan, a waiter at Myeong Dong Guan, has worked at other Korean restaurants in the neighborhood, and he tells me that there is more variety on Myeong Dong Guan’s menu than he usually finds on Mexico City menus. The dolsot bibimbap, a warm bowl of white rice topped with an array of steamed mushrooms, seaweed, bean sprouts, and other vegetables, gets a kick when mixed with spicy red gochujang sauce. More unusual is a plate of jajangmyeon, which Juan describes as a type of Chinese mole made in the Korean style. Served with noodles, it does remind me of the richness and complexity of the traditional Mexican sauce with its dark color and complex flavor, though it’s less spicy and sweeter. Later I learned it is made with black soybean paste.
Though Myeong Dong Guan feels quieter and more tucked away than Na De Fo, Juan tells me that a lot of Mexicans and foreign tourists find their way to the restaurant. “Mexicans come here, and they can stay for hours, chatting, with no problem. In other places, after a certain time they ask you to leave because you’ve stayed too long,” he says. “As a waiter, I’m accustomed to a client who doesn’t know [about Korean food]. I’ll explain what’s in the dish. There are places that don’t do that.”
Just around the corner from Myeong Dong Guan, a small Korean supermarket is stocked with soy sauce, chili paste, daikon radishes, and other East Asian staples. When I buy a box of mochi ice cream, the cashier—who doesn’t speak Spanish but does a fine job communicating kindness with smiles—makes funny faces at my 3-year-old son. Walking toward home, we pass the K-beauty shop Missha, still open in the early evening, catering to a few curious Mexican clients.
Aside from Lee and Kim, Na De Fo’s staff is entirely Mexican, from the dishwashers to the dining room. Victor, an affable man who lights and maintains all of the restaurant’s charcoal grills, is one of Na De Fo’s longest-running employees; after close to 10 years, he’s friendly with customers and has even come to understand spoken Korean. When I ask him why Na De Fo has become popular with Mexicans, his answer is unequivocal (if a bit biased): It’s the barbecue.
“The tabletop grilling is what draws most Mexicans’ attention. They come to grill and because they like the whole system,” Victor says, pointing to the silver exhaust vents that swing over every table at Na De Fo. He adds that it’s not just the grill, but the food itself is unusual for Mexico City, noting the way meat is folded into lettuce leaves rather than bread or a tortilla.
Certainly at Na De Fo the thing to do is grill. Though the menu offers soups, fried rice, and other Korean staples, barbecued meats and seafood are the restaurant’s focus, and, Daniel is quick to point out, every table is equipped with a charcoal grill, never supplemented with gas. The charcoal does impart a nice flavor to sweet, thinly sliced marinated beef; when the meat is folded into a lettuce leaf with a touch of Kim’s handmade ssamjang, the result is a satisfying mix of sweet, spicy, charred, and savory. Follow it up with a bite of vinegary house kimchi, and your whole palate is awake.
It’s also a form of communal dining that, while foreign to most locals, has an inherent appeal. Though customs differ, Mexicans and Koreans intersect quite neatly in their penchant for lingering over long meals, be they fueled by mezcal or bottles of soju. In providing a place for such camaraderie, Na De Fo excels. It’s bustling but unhurried, a place to spend an evening, not just a meal.
It’s a mood Na De Fo’s owners knowingly foster. During dinner hours, Joo Sung Lee is almost always standing at the entrance greeting diners or seated at a table with the many Korean patrons who have become his friends over the years. “It’s very common in Korea to drink with the man of the place,” Daniel explains, telling me that it’s largely his parents who have made Na De Fo so popular. “I feel things have gone well at the restaurant because of my parents,” he says. “Lots of people, when I meet them, they tell me, ‘Oh, your parents are so nice.’ ‘Oh, you’re [Lee and Kim’s] son! They’re so nice.’”
Remarkably, in the almost 10 years since Joo Sung Lee and Keum Ja Kim took over Na De Fo, they have never closed the restaurant—not for a single day—and Kim says she plans to work until she’s 70. After that, they hope to return to South Korea to retire. When I ask Daniel if he thinks his parents will really leave Mexico after so many years, he isn’t sure. That day is years in the future, and for now, Mexico is home.
Originally published on Roads & Kingdoms on Jun 27, 2017.