A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 12/12/2013.
By Kim Young-jin
Making corn tortillas from scratch is one of those endeavors that seems so laborious, few ever try it.
Corn kernels must be ground down and cooked into “masa.” This is made into dough, pressed into discs and cooked again.
For American Aaron Allen and his wife Kwon Hye-jin, owners of Mexican restaurant chain Gusto Taco, the process takes eight hours. And they think it’s worth it.
“We wanted to make something as authentic as you can get,” said Allen, 45, during an interview at Gusto Taco’s new location near Sangsu station in Seoul.
Having recently opened the new, larger store ― and becoming the highest-rated Mexican restaurant in Seoul on Tripadvisor ― business is flourishing.
The couple’s unconventional path to success shows that business — and life — sometimes takes a bit of extra time to get really good.
Their journey began in 2006, when Allen, a programming consultant for financial firms on Wall Street, and Kwon, a transplant from Korea studying art in Manhattan, tied the knot and tried to start a family.
Following tests, they discovered complications that would make it difficult to conceive naturally and sought the help of one of New York’s most in-demand specialists in in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
On their second attempt, the couple ran into medical complications, adding to a long list of complaints they had about IVF services in New York.
The difficulties brought them to Korea, a country that doctors told them had the highest rates of success. Indeed, when they arrived in 2010, they found a much different experience.
“Population issues are taken very seriously here. There is a sense of national urgency surrounding fertility that doesn’t exist in the U.S,” said Allen.
IVF is a growing industry in Asia, which is plagued with low birth rates. Korea, which according to the World Health Organization has a fertility rate of 1.4, has introduced financial support for infertility treatment.
Walking along the Han River one day, the couple came up with the idea to open a restaurant.
Allen drew inspiration from the Mexican food of San Francisco, where he began his career in programming. They also had fond memories of Mexicana Mamma, the Greenwich Village restaurant where they dined frequently.
“We didn’t question (the decision),” Allen said. “For the next two years, we just did it and we didn’t sit and worry about it.”
Looking for a small space with low premiums, the couple found what they were looking in 2011 for down a quaint alley near Hongdae University.
Allen admits they were lost at first, recalling mishaps trying to grill the meat ― un-marinated ― instead of slow-cooking as they do now, and struggling with the subpar tortillas that they bought.
The entrepreneurs researched and modified their recipes, getting tips from foreign students who stopped by.
The clientele wasn’t only interested in the food. Over time, they came to know about the couple’s journey to become parents and offered support on Facebook.
Off and running
Slowly but surely, the restaurant’s brand began taking shape.
“Everything has to live up to the standard of our customers from places such as Texas, California and Mexico,” Allen said. “When those people say it’s as good as anything they tried at home or better ― that’s what makes difference for us.”
Needing a bigger space, they opened up a second shop down the road earlier this year, moving into an old house. The renovations changed everything except for the thatched, wood ceiling that gives the place a homey feel.
When they opened three months ago, some 500 people showed up on opening night.
They shared that success with their daughter, So-hee, who was born 18 months ago.
The American said he couldn’t imagine any of this five years ago.
“We walked away (from New York) because we wanted to start a family, and that was our entire impetus for doing this.
“The business was a serendipitous side effect and it gave us even more confidence one we saw things start to take off. And having the baby, it all kind of dovetails into a completely new life.”