Emerging from the last stop of the A line at Avenida Carabobo, deep in the heart of Flores, I found myself in a neighbourhood far removed from the barrios I normally frequent, yet still strangely familiar. This middle-class barrio straddling the north-south divide of Avenida Rivadavia, with its quiet tree-lined side streets and wafting smells of ethnic food, couldn’t help but remind me of a certain community much closer to home.
Flores, it struck me, is a lot like Queens. I’m not talking about “Palermo Queens”; I mean Queens County, New York, that ethnically diverse borough home to hundreds of different immigrant communities, and all the tasty food they brought with them.
North-eastern Queens in particular is home to a thriving Korean community, and that’s the neighbourhood I was reminded of heading towards Una Canción Coreana, one of Flores’ newest restaurants.
Flores is certainly not lacking in Korean eateries. The southern half of the barrio is sometimes called Pequeña Corea and it’s evident, walking past the Korean Evangelical churches, the advertisements in hangul characters, and the kioskos blasting ‘Gangnam Style’, that Korean-Argentines are a well-established presence in this part of the city. Foodies are spoiled for choice when it comes to authentic Korean food, but what sets Una Canción Coreana apart is the effusive friendliness of the staff and honesty in the food’s preparation.
The two-and-a-half-month-old restaurant is a family-run operation, and as soon as you enter the modest space you are made to feel like part of the family. The owner, An Ra, happily showed us to our seats, asked how we had found out about Una Canción Coreana (‘occidentales’, or westerners, are by no means a rarity but still outnumbered by local Korean-Argentine customers), and then proceeded to decipher the all-Korean menu for us, plate by plate.
Canción’s menu comes in just short of ten dishes, but we were assured that only the cook’s absolute best recipes were included. All the food is prepared, starting at 9am, by a Korean grandmother, An Ra’s mother-in-law Joo Seoung Ja. Rather than include every Korean staple and risk not doing a plate justice, An Ra and her husband Víctor have opted for quality over quantity. So what if I had my heart set on bibimbap? Grandma can’t do it all, but what she does, she does well.
Before our main courses we were offered an on-the-house appetizer of phachon, a sort of flour pancake with green onions and soy sauce for dipping. Having worked up an appetite from the long walk down Carabobo, we made quick work of the light, crunchy pancake, and would have devoured it even faster if we were any more proficient with chopsticks.
Next came the entrees, straight from Grandma’s skilful hands. Bulgogi, a classic dish of grilled marinated beef strips served in broth with a side order of fluffy, sticky rice, will remind you that Argentines are not the only culture to do beef right. The kalguksu, or ‘knife-noodles’, are freshly hand-made and served, like most Asian noodle dishes, in an intimidatingly large soup bowl. The broth is made with egg, sesame seeds, and green onions, and comes with a side of spicy gochujang sauce for those who enjoy breaking out in a sweat while dining.
The side dishes, or banchan, are just as important a part of any Korean meal as the main course. I’ve been to restaurants where the table was literally covered in little white bowls of salty fish, crunchy seaweed, and the ubiquitous kimchi. At Una Canción Coreana we were treated to three different helpings of spicy kimchi, made from seasoned and fermented cabbage and daikon radishes. The acidic pickled crunch of the radishes in particular was a welcome contrast to the sweetness of the bulgogi.
Everything at Una Canción Coreana is reasonably priced and most main courses will set you back about $60. A few larger dishes such as samgyetang – a whole boiled chicken stuffed with rice and served in a ginseng broth – are priced at around $150 but are big enough to share.
As for drinks, the beer list is unfortunately limited. “Import problems”, Víctor told us when we asked if any Korean beer was available. They do offer wine and soju, however, a Korean vodka-like spirit traditionally made from rice, for $50. By the end of our meal it was clear which tables had been hitting the soju.
The dessert menu is non-existent, as Koreans do not typically eat dessert. Instead we were served a pot of green herbal tea, which gave us the excuse to stay a little longer, digest, and enjoy the familiar atmosphere.
A trip to Una Canción Coreana is worth the long trek, not just for the food but for the chance to explore a new barrio and get to know one of the city’s thriving but lesser-known immigrant communities. The restaurant’s simplicity and authenticity are its greatest assets, and there’s just something about having a grandmother cook for you that’s comforting, no matter what the cuisine.