Considering the success of foreign fast-food chains in Korea, Taco Bell is something of an anomaly. After all, it’s not just mega-giants like McDonald’s or Burger King that have found a solid customer base here; there doesn’t seem to be a department store in Seoul without a Popeye’s Chicken, and both Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins thrive as part of Korea’s café culture (maybe even more so than in the U.S.). On the other hand, the two Taco Bell locations in Seoul—the first opened in Itaewon last July, and now there’s another in Hongdae—are careful attempts by the company to expand once again into the R.O.K. minus the mistakes that cost its disappearance from Korean soil in the 1980s.
Taco Bell only has 240 restaurants in 19 companies outside of the U.S. When this statistic is set comparatively against the rapid globalization of other food brands, it seems that cheap Mexican fare isn’t quite as easily exported as hamburgers or fried chicken. This would make sense as one of the reasons that Taco Bell in Korea has been so slow in re-emerging, as well as the explanation behind these two locations. Itaewon is full of either international consumers, or consumers looking specifically for an international experience of some kind anyway. Hongdae is one of Seoul’s youngest and eclectic neighborhoods, and not only is it a popular night spot for foreigners, another burrito place, Dos Tacos, has already expanded successfully onto the exact same street.
The Korean Taco Bell experience isn’t particularly extraordinary—if you’re craving a terrific burrito, I would suggest either going to Dos Tacos (originally located in Gangnam but now with restaurants in a few other major neighborhoods) or taking a chance with smaller, hole-in-the-wall Mexican places that are scattered around the city. On the other hand, it is an interesting experience to try out Taco Bell in Korea (and as with all fast food, it’s terribly convenient).
It’s clear that the restaurant keeps to its promise of low prices; the most basic tacos and burritos are only 1,500 won and none of the a la carte items surpass 5,000 won. The combo pricing is generous as well, and apparently Taco Bell is the only fast food chain in Korea that offers free refills on soft drinks. Both the Itaewon and Hongdae locations are all about the interior décor as well: they offer walled booths and gleaming red seats, television screens embedded into the walls that play a constant loop of Taco Bell commercials, and wide sunny windows or atmospheric lighting. It’s a clear difference from most bleak, shabby Taco Bell locations that can be found in America, but the Korean executives clearly know their customer’s values and also their own clear necessity to step up the competition.
Consider its cheap pricing and perhaps for the comfort value of the brand, Taco Bell’s food isn’t too bad. The meals don’t scrimp on ingredients, so thankfully the Fiesta Burritos give a balanced ratio of meat to rice/beans, and the vegetable toppings are fresh and plentiful. I remember the frenzy that the opening of the Itaewon location inspired last summer; the place was constantly packed and sometimes there were even lines reaching to the door. The majority of that welcome I can probably attribute to nostalgia for a familiar food item.
I would definitely urge any Seoul residents to satisfy Mexican food cravings somewhere else, though. With the recent expansion of Dos Tacos, it’s not difficult to find a moderately priced burrito in any of the popular hangout spots. There are also a few Tomatillo Grills located throughout—for example, this Chipotle-ish brand (with a la carte-priced margaritas) can be found in Gangnam’s financial district and also further up north near the Jongak subway station. To be honest, I’m always a bit suspicious when I find independent Mexican restaurants in Korea, but I suspect that hitting up these spots might be extremely rewarding and fun—I’m always hearing rumors about how they’ll give you a customer discount if you can order in Spanish, and so on.
It’s not any secret that South Korea isn’t the place to be for Mexican food, but the country is doing its best to catch up to the demand. If you’re a burrito lover—which of course, we all are—then the key is to refuse the easy way out (Taco Bell) and take on the initiative to hunt down a much better meal.