La Lucha translates to mean ‘the fight’ in Spanish. As the name suggests, looking for decent Mexican food in South Korea can be a fight that you can’t always win. I was able to find one of the good ones with my friends this month. Having recently opened toward the end of August, La Lucha brings a much welcomed addition to Mexican cuisine in Seongnam. Owners Christopher Gordon and wife Areum Kang are a local family who resides in Bundang. They are joined with Chef Ryan Wesley Phillips who takes special care in ensuring that the quality and taste is of the highest standard. Many locals will already be familiar with the pub Dublin’s, which has been operating by the current management for the past six years and is located across the way from the restaurant. La Lucha offers a diverse menu that will continue to grow in the coming weeks.
I had the pleasure of checking out their food and atmosphere over the weekend while I was in town for a friend’s birthday celebration. Walking in, I really liked the restaurant because of their use of art and music. It has a modern vibe with an homage to the traditional abstract colors of Mexican art. Candy skulls and serapes decorate the walls. The seating layout allows for small and large groups to enjoy a meal separately or together depending on the nature of the group. Tables can be joined together or divided to account for this, which was useful for our party of 16 friends.
As of now, they offer tacos, sopes, burrito bowls, flautas, fajitas, tortilla soup, nachos, and queso and chips. They plan to have a Lamb Shank Birria Plato, Mexico City style Gorditas, and Chile Verde de Puerco in the near future, with heartwarming soups, chilis, and consommés as winter approaches. This is a welcomed selection, especially because their carnitas are made in a Northern Mexican style and the birria is from Jalisco on the west coast. As far as Gordon knows La Lucha is the only place where you can get both sopes and flautas. I ordered the shrimp sopes with a Negro Modelo. It was tough choice for me because normally I would order a Tecate since they are so uncommon in Korea, but it had also been awhile since I drank a Modelo. I enjoyed the food and drinks with my friends, but when I saw some of the birria or lamb tacos come out for another friend, I immediately knew I would order for the next time.
I had the chance of learning about the passion and vision behind La Lucha while sitting down and having an hour long conversation with both Gordon and Phillips. Gordon and Kang were inspired to open the restaurant because of their love of Mexican food. After traveling back to the U.S. in March to attend Gordon’s sister’s wedding, they were re-inspired with a trip to a Mexican restaurant and fell in love with the fresh tortillas, the pork chop, and just how such a simple arrangement could have such great flavor. While the management and staff don’t come from a harsh background of Mexico or the upper echelons of the one percent, they wanted to bring the same authentic feeling, but with a different style to the suburbs in South Korea.
For Gordon, La Lucha means fighting the good fight for quality, freshness, and bringing proper Mexican food to the suburbs. He believes that fighting doesn’t always have be something that is negative. La Lucha embraces this struggle and it can be seen in their menu. In Korea it can be quite difficult to find foreign restaurants that use fresh ingredients. Their tortillas are made from high grade flour, and homemade lard, which are used for the sopes and future items to come. The meats are purchased through local Korean butchers. Both the corn tortillas and meats are cooked and seasoned in-house with ingredients from the U.S, Mexico, and Korea.
Phillips has lived in Mexico and Brazil, prior to coming to Korea, and has several careers and hobbies that surround the culinary field. They include being a professor, a chef on Arirang TV’s Cooking Possible, a radio talk show host on Yes Chef, a chef at La Lucha, and a gardener on his 18,500 square foot organic farm in Bearfoot Gardens. While Phillips has a lot of ventures, he is primarily focused on La Lucha. Phillips curates his farm, where the peppers and sauces are directly from. He has plans to include more produce into the menu. Herbs from the farm are already being used in the carnitas, birria, and barbacoa. Fresh seasonal tomatillos can make some appearances as well as elote for a limited time. This cornucopia of background, talent, and business connections make La Lucha what it is.
Phillips’ friend George Durham is the owner of the Salt House in Korea. He provides La Lucha with their unique Jeju black pig ham which is cooked with their beans with a hint of Philips’ Moritas chilies. Chilies that are produced on the farm include Chocolate Habaneros, Peach Ghost Scorpions, Ghost Reapers, Lemon Habaneros, Scotch Bonnets, Mulatas, Pitangas, Nagas, and more. Phillips likes to combine these flavors using these smoked chilies, which are common in chipotles, but offer a smoky, spicy, and a little sweet taste to the beans.
Gordon, Kang, the chefs, and servers ensure that customers are being well served, dealt with, and satisfied. Gordon mentioned that the 16-hour work days can be challenging and I had a chance to see for myself what he meant after our meal ended. My group decided to start going to several pubs in the area including Dublin’s. I didn’t know it at the time, but the management also owned Dublin’s. I ordered a double shot of Jameson because they have it fairly well priced. After taking a couple sips of my drink, I looked up to see Gordon behind the counter. I had to make sure that this was my second drink of the night because I could have sworn he was across the plaza managing La Lucha. I introduced myself and we began talking about how recently the restaurant opened and how its first week was going.
La Lucha hosts a unique blend of Korean, English, and Mexican influence that can be seen in the music that’s played, the menu, the languages being spoken, and the interior design. I didn’t think I would have such a good experience for my first time in Bundang, but places like La Lucha and Dublin’s off of Seohyeon station make it that much more welcoming for anyone for a craving for Mexican food and drinks. Their menus come in English and Korean which is spoken with their bilingual and sometimes trilingual staff. Being able to accommodate such a large group was really impressive and I was happy how nice the staff was. I am already planning to return so that I can get that Tecate and tacos with my new friends Gordon and Phillips. I think I found my go to restaurant in Bundang. Salud!
Bundang Line Seohyeon Station 서현역, Exit 5
Walk out of exit five and come out of the Bundang AK Plaza. Walk forward for about 50 meters and look up. It will be on the right hand side. It is across the way from Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts if further reference points are needed. Happy eating!