Nestled between Haeundae and the end of the green line is Jung Dong, one of those unappreciated metro stops in an area so small that it doesn’t even get one of those “Please exit here for..” announcements. If it were to have one, it would probably end with “E-Mart”, as that is arguably the most prominent attraction in an otherwise unexceptional area. On my most food-crazy days though, I’d petition hard to make it “Please exit here for: Artista, the best Mexican food in Busan”.
This little gem of a restaurant is easy to miss, tucked down a little street behind a Tire Pro – you’d probably never find it if you weren’t looking. You’ll know it when you see it though, it’s the little place with a warm yellow glow that seems transplanted from somewhere decidedly more cozy.
It’s a small spot, only about five tables inside plus a few more outdoors on a narrow patio. All the food is made by hand behind the tiled bar in the tiny but functional kitchen. The restaurant is relaxed and welcoming, its mood occasionally livened up with flashes of fire from sauté pans or if you’re lucky, a private violin concert from the owner, whose other job is teaching violin lessons and playing in orchestras.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to be graced with the sounds of one of the many violins that line the walls as décor when they’re not being used, don’t despair: Artista’s soundtrack is one for the books. I’ve asked more than once if there’s a playlist I could get my hands on, only to be told vaguely that it’s all just CDs. Whatever it is, it’s gold, featuring all the best slowjams and R&B and occasionally Latin songs you haven’t heard in forever.
Then, of course, there’s the food. Admittedly, you could skip the food if you were so inclined and just choose from one of the various imported beers they stock or treat yourself to a strong margarita (bright yellow, on the rocks, heavy on the citrus) and just nibble your way through plates of tortilla chips with nacho cheese sauce that come free when you sit down. You won’t skip the food though, there’s no chance of that. Not when you see that they have fresh guacamole on the menu, that sour cream comes with everything, and that there is fresh cilantro in the building. And if you can manage to tear your eyes away from the glorious condiments page of the menu, it only gets better.
One of their star dishes is beef fajitas, the meat slow-marinated in milk then seared off with onions and peppers, served on a sizzling skillet with warmed fresh tortillas and plenty of those wonderful condiments on the side. Another favorite are their chimichangas: decadent, deep fried burritos packed with rice, cheese and vegetables. These are rich and the portion is huge, more than enough to share. Their regular burritos are impressive as well, heavy on flavour with lots of cilantro, onions and spices. In fact, the portions are great for all the food, higher in both quantity and quality than you might be accustomed to getting at some of the other Mexican-style chains Busan has to offer.
If you happen to be a rare vegetarian in Korea, consider making a pilgrimage here. The first time I went, I asked for no meat in the burrito and without missing a beat my waitress asked if I would prefer my meal vegetarian or vegan, happy to accommodate either one. Carnivores are covered too, with beef, chicken, and shrimp options for almost every dish on the menu.
The food isn’t expensive and it feels very authentic although there’s no real story as to why. I asked the manager, but was told that the owner doesn’t have a background in cooking or even much exposure to Mexican food specifically – he just decided to do his own research and start experimenting in the kitchen.
The food and flavors he came up with are so good that I’m skeptical. I kept expecting to learn that he’d lived in California or something, but apparently not. It’s not important, of course, how it got here, it only matters that it did. So the next time you’re wandering around Haeundae looking for a good bite, don’t stop on the strip. Walk the extra ten minutes to get to a place where the care and quality are obvious, the vibes are good, and the food is outstanding.
Getting there: Go out exit 2 at the Jung Dong station. Head straight until you see an automobile tire shop on the left at the first light. Hang a left there. Artista is just up on your right.
Photos by Stephanie Pellet
You can read more from Stephanie at her blog, Life in Limbo.
Artista is not an advertiser with Haps Magazine