▲ A wealth of colors, tastes, and smells Photo courtesy Arepa Grill
Over near one of Jeju’s most commanding natural wonders there’s some new food being made with real authority. Seongsan Ilchulbong, or “Sunrise Peak”, has just become that much more worth the trip now that Arepa Grill opened up.
Arepa is a type bread. It’s also an institution in Venezuela. These tasty pucks of flatbread are a part of daily life in many countries in south America and the Caribbean, and they fit comfortably into any meal - breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Made from maize flour, they adapt beautifully to whatever accompanies them - eggs, meat, veggies, cheeses, fruits - the list is inexhaustible. Elonys Lopez imports yellow bags of P.A.N. white maize flour by the trunk-full.
Elonys and his wife Sung Dong-hee (Sophia) have been making Venezuelan inspired cuisine at their newly opened eatery for about a month now, but the start of this culinary adventure began a couple years ago.
They were in Panama when they saw an advertisement for the “Hungry Chef” contest.
One of Jeju’s new concept hotels, “Playce”, was sponsoring the event. The top five winners would be given a fully loaded business space - including major appliances and interior designs according to their specifications - for free. All they asked for was rent.
The concept was that these five shops would be part of the hotel’s plan to provide guests with everything they needed in one convenient location.
▲ One of five small eateries right next to one another Photo courtesy Arepa Grill
This included the contest winners, plus Osteria il Dito, a larger dining area serving Italian food, the Spinning Wolf pub, with a massive sound system for live music, Dorell for coffees and teas, and a small shopping area - all in the same compound as the accommodations.
It was a fantastic opportunity, but there was just one problem. In the beginning, Sophia - and I quote - “couldn’t boil water”. However, food is in her blood - her mother has degrees in ancient and modern Korean cuisine.
With Elonys help she executed a Rocky-style montage of cooking, and I’m here to tell you that Sophia can kick some ass in the kitchen.
The management at Playce agreed. Sophia submitted not one, but four dishes to the contest and won hands down. She and Elonys were soon moving to Jeju and Sophia began designing the interior of their new business as they got ready for the grand opening.
▲ Empanada and Arepa Photo courtesy Arepa Grill
When Arepa Grill began serving the public, so did Mr. Breadley, an artisan bakery, and 떡다이브 (“tteogdaibeu”, or Rice Cake Diver), a little shop selling Korean classics like spicy tteok-bokki and fish cakes.
There’s also 샤오츠, or “Xiaozu”, for authentic Taiwanese and Hong Kong style noodle soups and other Chinese snacks, and 알이즈웰 (literally All Is Well) oven pizzas.
While I enjoyed everything I tried from these shops, it was the food at Arepa as what really stood out for me.
The empanadas - fried pastry pockets - were crunchy, golden, and melty. They went beautifully with a side of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice made from raw cane, lovingly crushed in front of you while you wait.
There are also five different arepas to chose from. I had the “Lucky is Lucky”, filled with a Korean style pork, mozzarella cheese, and sprigs of green arugula. It was a lovely Jeju interpretation of the arepa tradition.
▲ The Parker and Dona Venezuela Photo courtesy Arepa Grill
I also noshed “The Parker” - chicken, tomato, arugula, cheese, and a homemade avocado spread, which was excellent too. However, the “Doña Venezuela” was my personal favorite. Shredded beef cooked Venezuelan style with cheese and fried banana.
Bananas and beef was a new combo for me.
I’ve enjoyed plantains in the past, but they are an entirely different kind of ingredient than the Cavendish group bananas you can buy in most grocery stores. Starchy plantains, or “cooking bananas”, are next to impossible to get in Korea, so Sophia decided to give regular bananas a shot.
You know what? It works. I was shocked and awed.
Like kimchi and vanilla ice cream, I would have never put bananas and beef together in a single dish, but they really actually compliment one another.
The mild sweetness of the Cavendish only revealed itself in hints, gently urging the salty, cumin of the beef to new levels of complexity. It was excellent - made all the more enjoyable by the discovery of something so unexpected and new.
The menu at Arepa Grill is small but robust - everything is between 3,000 and 7,500 won - so it’s easy to sit and enjoy a full selection of their good eats. Make sure you try everything, including the three sauces at the counter, two of which are homemade innovations.
Arepa Grill is a friendly, unexpected, colorful splash of South America. Sophia and Elonys are affably relaxed and enjoy introducing people to a cuisine they love.
The Playce compound is a fantastic base of operations for any activities in the area, but with the work Arepa Grill and the other eateries are doing - not to mention a regular selection of live entertainment - Seongsan-eup is now a destination for more than just climbing the tuff cone at dawn.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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