Prior to going to Brazil, I didn’t know there was such a big Asian population in the city of Sao Paulo. Although, I do realize, you can find Asian people anywhere in the world; so with that being said, I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised. But anyhow, in Sao Paul, there exists the largest Koreatown in all of South America. I’ve always known Brazil had a long history of Japanese immigration(that’s why Lyoto Machida exists), but I did not know that the recent wave of Brazilian immigration has brought about a large influx of Koreans and Chinese.
The Bom Ritero neighborhood in northern Sao Paulo is one such immigrant neighborhood. Originally a heavy manufacturing and industrial based neighborhood, Bom Ritero(pronounced bomb hi-chee-ro) has not only gained status as the official Koreatown in Sao Paulo, but also a neighborhood where you come here and eat the funkiest Korean-Brazilian bulgolgi this side of the Mississippi. It may be normal to the Brazilians, but as a Californian, it is super funky to me.
When compared to bigger and more well known Koreatown inLos Angeles, Bom Ritero is significantly smaller. Unlike Los Angeles, where, by going into a shopping plaza/mall, you’ll instantly feel as though you have been transported back to Busan, South Korea. Here, even though the streets are littered with Korean shops and the people walking around are Korean, it still feels distinctly Brazilian out in Bom Ritero. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but perhaps its the Chinese restaurant that is owned by Koreans and staffed by Paraguyans that is throwing me for a loop. Or that a Korean church located in the heart of Sao Paulo serves Mexican food(complete with pinata) as part of its fundraising campaign. Yeah. It is experiences like this that tells you, you aren’t standing on the corner of Vermont and Olympic anymore.
Being out here in Sao Paulo’s Koreatown, it would make total sense to eat at a Korean restaurant, right? Only because I am assuming(as a loyal reader) you really care about what we think. So with that, we are treating this post like a written mok-bang for your enjoyment.
We had our guide/fixer, Esther Kim, take us to a traditional Korean restaurant called Restaurante Seok Joung(I think I went to college with this guy) which serves traditional Korean dishes that we all have grown to love – bulgolgi, pajeon, and many other courses you can find at Playgrounds in San Francisco. The menu looks familiar, the decor looks slightly familiar, all in all, its starting to feel right at home.
A mix of old and new buildings make up the vast majority of the neighborhood. Often times, residential buildings and commercials are nearly indistinguishable with each other. There is a definite “working class” vibe as you walk through the streets, with young Koreans speaking Portuguese to each other while the older generation will intersperse their communication with Korean. Yes, I feel weirded out by this even though I totally get it. I guess as an Asian American in California, you just become numb to the fact that everyone that remotely even looks like you can speak English. Whereas in Brazil, nope, not the case.
For some inexplicable reason, traditional Korean beers(Hite, OB, Cass) were not readily available. Weirdly enough, the beer of choice is Stellar Artois, which is pretty good in its own right, but without Hite as part of this meal, a part of me just died.
By American standards, the prices at Seok Jeoung are reasonable, although a tad more expensive than the Korean meals you will find in Northern California and in Southern California. A standard bulgolgi dinner(which they categorize as churrasco Coreano) with side dishes will run you 80 reals($26.17). Not the cheapest thing I have ever seen, but they need to recoup the cost for the “exotic” ingredients that aren’t found native to the country right?
To me, the most interesting facet of this meal is the way that bulgolgi is prepared. Just as how bulgolgi is slightly different once it crosses the Pacific, its even more foreign when it snakes its way down to South America. While at first glance this looks like something you can get at BCD Tofu, the taste and texture is what makes this bulgolgi so different. In the US, I’m use to having bulgolgi that is more soy sauce+sugar base, a semi sweet sauce that is very different than the authentic stuff I had in Seoul. In Brazil, the meat tend to be more smoky and instead of being sweet, a distinctive charcoal flavor is evident on meat that is a bit more “crumbly” than anything I’ve had in the US or Korea. Like much of the meats in Brazil, the dishes here tend to be more salty.
Even though its different, it is still very interesting to see how a beloved favorite is adapted for local taste.
There were a small selection of banchan(side dishes) that came with the meal and even that was a bit different. Although I’m not expecting the kimchi to be world beaters here, I will say that the spiciness level has been tuned way down in South America. I guess its really catering to the local taste, but its not like you can’t tell this isn’t kimchi. Would I venture to say its the best I’ve ever had… probably not. But hey, for a country where the Korean population is pretty small, this isn’t bad.
Pajeon was included as part of the banchan, so that was definitely an added bonus. While the Coca-Cola can was trying to tell me something, but I have no idea what.
Valiant effort, but it doesn’t quite stack up to what you can get in Los Angele’s Koreatown or even the El Camino strip in the San Francisco Bay Area. Having said that, we do realize the beauty of food is the fact that its made to deliver a localized experience given the accessibility to certain ingredients and cooking methods. While I can’t say the bulgolgi and the accompaniments are my favorite versions of Korean food, they are not bad.
Seok Joung – Restaurante Coreano
Rua Correia de Melo, 135 – Bom Retiro