Across The Border

by Alexlyn Dundas

Photography by Elly Hu

Last summer, two new restaurants opened in Allston, swiftly ushering the KoMex trend into the hip neighborhood. Originally a West Coast phenomenon—see chef Roy Choi’s famous Kogi food-truck empire—KoMex, a fusion of Korean and Mexican cuisine, was a welcome addition to an area familiar with both Asian and Latino fare. OliToki and Coreanos have both settled comfortably into the Allston food scene to make their mark on this cool new trend.

OliToki is located a few blocks west of Packard’s Corner. Nestled in between reigning giant Shabu-Zen and rising star Dolphin Bay, it packs a lot of personality into a small space. OliToki is electric with its neon pink and yellow drawings from customers on a chalkboard wall, color-changing LED lights, four giant TV screens and Bob Marley classics playing in the background. So much is happening aesthetically that it is easy to forget that the draw is the novelty of enjoying Korean-inspired Mexican food.

The first two TVs display the menu on screens mimicking the chalkboard theme. Step One: “Pick Yo’ Dish” from one of six entrees that include Loaded Taco-Tacos and the Quesa-kimchi-dilla. Step Two: choose between chicken, bulgogi marinated beef, spicy pork or crispy tofu for protein. Step Three: round out the meal with your choice of avocado, fried egg or an extra helping of meat.

This three-step process also applies to a staple of Korean menus: chicken wings. The chicken is offered in five different sauces and seven different sizes. Whether or not one is sharing, the portions at OliToki are sized for a filling meal.

OliToki leans more towards the “Mex” half of KoMex, using Korean spices to add new flavor to common Mexican dishes. The “Burrito-rean,” for example, is a favorite of James Ko (CAS ’17), because of the addition of kimchi fried rice to a burrito.

“Kimchi fried rice is one of my favorite Korean meals,” said Ko. “Wrapped in a corn tortilla with corn, cilantro, cheese and sour cream, it’s Korean food that’s easier to eat.”

While OliToki is more street-style cool, Coreanos’s minimalism stands out amidst the bustle of Harvard Avenue. The white subway tiles lining the walls, wood surfaces, white stools and relaxed indie tunes playing in English or Korean transform Coreanos into a trendy cafe.

Everything about Coreanos corresponds to a hip millennial’s lifestyle. On most nights, the restaurant sees regulars dropping by on their way home from work. These customers might opt for a heartier meal from the Korean portion of the menu, which offers classics like grilled bulgogi, kalbi short rib, bibimbap, tteokbokki rice cakes and Korean fried chicken.

The perfect start to a Friday night out, the fusion half of the menu makes it easy to pop in and quickly grab a bite. The stars on this half of the menu are the corn tortilla tacos and ginger slaw with pork in a spicy red sauce or chicken in a sweet and mild white miso sauce.

A visit with friends calls for an order of the kimchi fritas, french fries topped with kimchi, cheese, an egg and a choice of bulgogi, kalbi, chicken or pork. Against the minimal backdrop, all of the color within Coreanos can be found in the vibrant green scallions and bright sauces of the food on each table.

Other than delicious food, Coreanos sells an atmosphere that is attractive and inviting. The space is comfortable, has good service and a cool vibe.

“I don't even like ordering over the phone for pick-up because I like being in the space that much,” said Kai Lun, a regular at Coreanos. “After a few visits, the staff will remember you.”

Atmosphere is where OliToki and Coreanos differ the most, despite both being KoMex restaurants. More “Mex” than “Ko,” OliToki offers quick and easy food meant to be brought home for a night in with Netflix. Coreanos, on the other hand, is more “Ko” and offers a space to meet and share a meal, similar to traditional Korean restaurants.

“The casual dining experience is a huge plus,” said Trisha Emmylou-Briones (CAS ’14). “I choose between [Coreanos and OliToki] based on their menu offerings […] but I'm more likely to go further for Coreanos because I prefer their food selection.”

The success of these two restaurants is both in following the KoMex trend and their creative interpretations of full-service Korean restaurants and small, quick Latino eateries. Tacos and burritos are convenient vessels in which to serve bulgogi and kimchi without the hassle of maneuvering chopsticks, stone pots and plates of side dishes. Through KoMex fusion, OliToki and Coreanos add a fresh dimension to Allston’s food scene.