Sunday, March 28, 2010

Birthday Burrito

March 28, 2010

My birthday had been a long but enjoyable day. One of the things that I had done that day between my classes was research a Mexican restaurant I had heard about here in Seoul. The night I had hung out with Ben and his friends one of them told Ben about this restaurant called TomaTillo and said it reminded her of Chipotle. That was all I needed to hear to give it a shot. There are three locations in Seoul the closest of which to me is a 67 minute train trip plus walking on both sides of the trip. I thought I would make the trek to go and find this place as a birthday present to myself. I mapped out the trains I needed to take and roughly where it was by the final train station. Before going out for the night with Grace and her friends I planned to get up a little early so I could get to TomaTillo for an early lunch, 11 or 11:30am. I wanted to avoid crowds assuming there are any crowds at a Mexican restaurant in Seoul. But once I got home at 2am after the bars I changed my mind and I made no demands upon myself to get up at a specific time on Saturday.

I slept in fairly late, around 11:30am and I woke up hungry. Of course the first thing I thought about was TomaTillo but that was at least an hour and a half away assuming I had no problems finding it and I just couldn't wait that long. So I ate a sandwich and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my day. I intended to write about the night before so I sat down to write but then I just decided to leave. I did not know how many days I would have to myself as my circle of friends grew and as my school responsibilities increased so I set off to find my birthday burrito.

The second ride on the subway was easier than the first due to the simple fact that I knew what to expect. The trains still had a good amount of people on them but they were never as full as they were the night I met Ben. The ride itself took about an hour and 20 minutes. I had trouble finding one of the trains, which I needed to transfer to at one of the stations. But I got to my destination. I then found myself in a very large train station with stores and a food court. It was like a mall underground with a train station in it. My only real landmark for finding TomaTillo was a bookstore. I knew it was to the West of the bookstore. The first place I came up had a bookstore right next to it but it was not the same name I had written down for the bookstore. So I went back to one of the station maps and found the bookstore I was looking for, it was on the opposite side of the station. So I went there. The bookstore was large and had multiple exits. I just picked one and went up to the street. When I came out I looked around and I had no idea which way was west. Getting lost in an underground train station and randomly picking an exit near your only landmark makes it difficult to keep your bearings. On the street there was a map of the area. I looked at the map in confusion. Something seemed off from the picture I had in my head but I decided to follow how I understood the map and walked the direction I thought was west. After less than 5 steps I went back to the map. It just felt wrong. I finally saw in the corner of the map the directional compass. The top of the map was not north it was south. So I quickly understood that west was to my left not my right and so I changed my path and as I walked it felt right. I was surrounded by huge buildings and had no real idea of how I was going to find this place but as I pondered this I saw it. It was less than half a block from the bookstore exit I had come out of.

As I entered the first thing I saw was the menu posted on the wall very similar to the way Chipotle’s menu looks. It listed the items you could buy (burritos, tacos, enchiladas, nachos and salads) and what was included in each item. There was a cafeteria style line, just like Chipotle, where you order at the beginning and pay at the end. But even in my excitement I was worried about ordering. All the workers were Korean and I still had not been brave enough to go to any restaurant by myself except McDonalds where I could just say a number. But I had to get a burrito. As I approached the girl smiled at me. I smiled and said burrito. See grabbed a tortilla and asked me what meat I wanted. Her English was broken but clear. Now the first difference between TomaTillo and Chipotle was that the items you picked (burrito, taco, etc) came with set ingredients, like at a restaurant so if you did not want something on it you had to tell them. So even though it looked like I was going to be able to walk down the line and point at what I wanted that was not how it worked. You ordered and then they made it and gave it to you. So I told them no sour cream. Everything else looked fine even though I did not know exactly what I was getting. There were no choices concerning the types of beans or salsas or anything like that. It came with rice, beans, meat of your choice, lettuce, salsa, onions, cilantro, and cheese. They handed me the burrito wrapped beautifully in aluminum foil. As I sat down I actually had to hold back a tear of joy looking at what lay in front of me. Now it was not as large as Chipotle’s burrito, really none of the portions in Korea are as large as in America but that was fine. After a few more seconds of reveling in the moment I took my first bite and it was great. The rice in the burrito was Spanish rice like you might get as a side item or make at home. The beans were pinto beans, not my favorite but good all the same. The cheese was a mix of cheddar and jack cheese. And the salsa was quite spicy with a consistency very similar to the hot salsa at Chipotle. I tried to eat it slowly and I think I did, at least relatively slowly considering I was by myself and eating what was my favorite meal since arriving here. Now this was not a burrito as good as a Chipotle burrito but similar to the pizza I had at Mr. Pizza based simply upon the circumstances it was probably one of the best burritos I have ever had. In the end it had taken me 2 hours to get there due to missing a train and wondering around the station trying to figure out where the restaurant was and in total I ended up spending around 15 dollars for both the meal and travel. But as I sat there enjoying my coke I knew it was worth it. I was able to have free refills so I had a few cokes before I left and then headed back to the train station.

As I walked in I decided to go into the bookstore and look for a gift for Jong Woo. I had already been trying to decide what to get him and I was leaning towards a DVD or book. So I walked in. The first section I was in was called the foreign section which I quickly found out meant books in English. They had a huge teaching section filled with ESL books for students and teachers and a fairly large kids section. I started looking at the kids section in English. As I looked at all the books I realized how little knowledge I had of kids’ books anymore. I recognized some of the titles but none of them were ones I would pick out for Jong Woo. So many of the kids' books seemed too short and simplistic for Jong Woo who is ahead of the game not just with kids in Korea but also for kids his age in the US. So I looked through the teen section and ended up picking up a book called Artemis Fowl. It was book I had at least heard of. It looked fun and was a New York Times Best Seller so I thought those were all good signs. I then went over to the Korean kids section and tried looking around. I became lost fairly quickly. I had no idea what kind of books Jong Woo liked to read. I also looked at the comic book section because I had actually seen him reading comics before but I faced the same problems. I could not read any of the material and I had no idea what kind of comics he liked. So I decided to go with the English book. I looked it over some more and saw that it was likely going to be a difficult read but thought he would still like it. So I bought it and headed home.

I as walked up to my apartment I saw an orange sticky on the door knob. I grabbed it. It was a note from Seo. It said she had stopped by and that they were going to have dinner that night for Jong Woo at 7pm and asked me to come if I could. I looked at the clock and it was 6:45pm. I had left at 1:15pm that afternoon so my entire trip had taken five and a half hours. I admit part of me did not want to go. I had spent the train ride home preparing to write about the night before and thinking about watching a movie or just relaxing. I had not been able to do “nothing” since Thursday. But that feeling passed quickly and I turned right around and head back outside to Seo’s home.

I knocked on the door right at seven. Jong Woo answered and shouted, “You came!” He then told me that they had stopped by my apartment three times to invite me to the party that night. I apologized and then told them what I had been doing. As I came in I soon saw more people then I knew. Seo’s sister and her family had come. Seo’s mother-in-law smiled at me, Seo’s husband welcomed me in and Sally (Seo’s 4 year old daughter) jumped on my leg while saying, “Zach.” I was then introduced to Seo’s sister and her husband as well as their two children a boy the same age as Jong Woo and their older daughter Cindy who is 15.

They asked me more questions about my trip that day mostly about what a burrito was. I tried to explain it to them with some success. Seo and Jong Woo kind of knew what it was. Basically they knew the word tortilla and that food was then put inside of it. I described what went inside the tortilla and then tried to explain what salsa was with varying levels of success to the different listeners. Soon Jong Woo pulled out a board game for us to play while dinner was being finished. As they set it up it looked a lot like Monopoly but not quite. There were only four colors of properties, each side being one entire color instead of two different colors per side. So right away I was wondering how building things (houses and hotels) worked. I then received a yellow rocket ship for my piece. Everyone was a rocket ship and there was a space station in one of the corners. All the properties were city names. The funny part about that was just like in Monopoly the properties increased in price and value and I got to see what cities they equated with Baltic Ave. verses what was Park Place and Boardwalk. Cities like Manila, Istanbul and Hong Kong were all on the cheap side of the board and then on the expensive side you had European cities. The only American city was New York and it was what would be Park Place in Monopoly. And no surprise Seoul was Boardwalk. It took the boys quite a while to count out all the money so that we could even start. After about two times around the board we had to stop. I had ended up in their version of jail, landed on the space station and bought only one property by the time we had to stop. But my one property just happened to be New York City. Go America.

Dinner went by fairly smoothly. I got to have seaweed soup and like almost all the soups I have had here it was quite good. After dinner Jong Woo opened his presents. He got various toys, a globe, new shoes and my book. I explained to Jong Woo how I got the book and why I picked it and he said he liked it and that he would try to read it. I told him I wanted to read it too so maybe we could read it together. He liked that idea. Soon he was playing with his cousin and his new toys. Seo then looked at the book, opened it and tried to read some of it. She soon pointed at different words asking what they meant. Her sister was sitting there too and Seo would translate to her what I was saying. We also looked at the globe and talked about where different things were. After a while I talked with Cindy the daughter of Seo’s sister. She had only spoken in Korean up to that point but seemingly out of nowhere she spoke to me in English. It did not take long to realize she spoke English very well. She told me that she went to a foreign language school. What that means here is that she goes to a school where every subject is taught in English. So math, science, social studies, etc. are all in English. She said even in her Korean class all the directions are given in English.

I was admittedly growing a little tired and was ready to go but then Seo pointed at their computer and asked me if I needed to use the internet. I thanked her and said I would like that. I told her that I thought I would have a lot of emails for my friends saying happy birthday because even though it was my birthday here in Korea on Friday at that time it was Thursday for most of my friends so they would have sent all their emails the next day when it was Saturday for me. I opened up my email and sure enough I had received numerous birthday congratulations and well wishes. I showed Seo and she laughed. I did not take the time to respond to them all rather I just took a quick read of them so as to enjoy them. I’ll respond on Monday. I also checked out some sports scores and saw that the Nuggets finally won and avoided a four game losing streak. I got off the computer and then thanked Seo and her entire family for allowing me to be a part of their night. I wished Jong Woo happy birthday again and he again promised that he would work hard and read the book. In a weird way I kind of felt bad. I wanted to get him a gift but in a way I just got him more homework. Sally grabbed my leg again and said good-bye and then I was off.

As I walked in the door it was about 10:45pm. I sat down looked at the computer and knew I was not going to be writing anything that night. I still had not documented Friday so I was falling behind especially knowing how long these entries would likely take. But I did not care I popped in the movie Gladiator and was soon lost in the story of a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator and gladiator who defied an emperor. A striking story even when you already know how it ends. So just like the night before I was not actually falling asleep until around 3am. But even as I lay down to finally try and sleep I could not help but smile as I thought about my birthday burrito that I enjoyed but 12 hours earlier. Thank you TomaTillo

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  1. Haha.. great stories. Glad you were able to find the burrito place. Which station did you stop at to find it?

    Not sure how your Korean is coming.. but the website for Tomatillo is kind of funny with the name. It says To Ma Teel Lo - Maek Shi Kan Gu Reel. Tomatillo Mexican Grill.

  2. Glad you are enjoying them. I stopped at Jonggak, it is the stop just north of the City Hall stop.

    I would like to say I have mastered Koran but that is not the case. some days are better than others but right now I feel like I got nothing.