News about the closure of 44-year-old Korean Village in Malate surprised and saddened past and present patrons. The restaurant is considered an institution in the area and a pioneer in introducing Manileños to Korean cuisine.
“They were able to survive the pandemic, so why close now?” some people asked. ANCX reached out to the restaurant to find out the real reason it’s closing shop, and we were able to speak with Filipino-Korean, Ponciano “Ponce” Tallo, who has seen the growth of the establishment since Day 1. He is the only son of the founding couple behind Korean Village—Emily In Suk Yim-Tallo, a Korean, and Teodorico Tallo, a Filipino.
“It is true that we are closing,” the now 58-year-old Ponce confirms. “Our official last day is on Sunday, February 26.” He cites his precarious health condition as the reason behind the decision. He suffered a stroke many years ago and has not fully recovered despite undergoing physical therapy. “Nakakalakad ako, pero extra effort, medyo limping,” he says, adding he also feels weak physically.
Last year, he also started complaining about an obstruction in his vision, and so he consulted a retina specialist whose findings showed he has diabetic retinopathy. A complication of diabetes, the condition “can cause blindness if left undiagnosed and untreated.”
“I already underwent a laser procedure but I’m not satisfied with the result,” he tells us. “There is still an obstruction in my vision.” His attending physician suspects Ponce’s condition may not only be due to diabetes but also stress. “I told my doctor I don’t think I’m that stressed, and he said, ‘Probably you need to rest or take an early retirement.’”
Closing Korean Village was a tough decision to make, Ponce says, but he believes it’s for the best. He needs to make his health top priority. He broke the news of the closure to his employees early this month and they were, as expected, saddened by the announcement. Ponce’s wife, Rachel, however assures that their staff are taken care of. “May housing na sila dahil sa assistance ng mother-in-law at asawa ko through PAG-IBIG, at may mga paupahan [apartment] na rin ang iba,” she offers. “Nakapagtapos na rin mga anak nila sa college dahil sa malaking naitulong ng restaurant sa kanila.”
The birth of Korean Village
The Korean Village matriarch Emily In Suk Yim hails from the northern part of Korea. “When the communists took over, the first targets were the land owners on the north side,” says Ponce, offering a glimpse of his mother’s story. This is the reason his ancestors escaped their native land and moved to Korea’s southern part.
Teodorico Tallo, on the other hand, was a US Federal employee. A native of Macrohon, Maasin, Leyte, he was assigned to Korea when the war broke in the early 1950s and that was where he met Emily. At that time, Emily worked as a cashier at a US military commissary store. The two eventually got married and bore a son they named Ponciano.
The Tallos also spent years living in Vietnam when Teodorico was assigned there. In 1971, they finally decided to settle in the Philippines. It was in 1974 when the couple decided to venture in the restaurant business by putting up a hole-in-the-wall called Pine Tree beside the Malate church. “My mom grew up in an environment na puro mga pine trees,” offers Ponce, explaining the restaurant’s name.
Pine Tree originally served continental food, and then switched to offering dishes buffet-style. Despite the shift, business wasn’t so good so Mrs. Tallo came up with an idea: what if they introduce the food she grew up with? But thinking the Filipino palate may not be ready for the spiciness of authentic Korean kimchi, the lady dialed the spice down a bit. She started putting out Korean dishes like bulgogi and beef stew and observed that Pinoys seemed to happily lean in to their sweet-savory flavors.
In 1977, however, the Tallos needed a new location to operate; their lease was ending and the building administrator refused to give Pine Tree an extension. Luckily, they found a space along Adriatico Street. With a new address also came a new name. In 1978, Korean Village was born.
“At that time, the area was known as a designers’ haven,” recalls Ponce, then in his early teens. “We took over the former boutique shop of Rusty Lopez. Nandun sa area ang shops nina Ben Farrales, Christian Espiritu, Ernest Santiago.”
Malate and Ermita were bursting with life. There was also an influx of tourists during this period and the Tallos wanted their restaurant to appeal to Japanese and Korean visitors. “I remember noong panahon na yan, may mga tourist buses na umiikot within the tourism belt area,” Ponce tells us.
The traffic along Adriatico Street in the late 70s to early 80s had a lot to do with Korean Village’s success. “During the height of tourism in the Philippines, yung mga patrons ng Korean Village, grupo-grupo yan pag dumating,” he recalls. “We’re talking of less than 50 people in one bus. Kapag bumaba sila, naku grabe, nagko-cause sila ng traffic sa Adriatico.” Ponce happily recalls how customers would patiently wait for vacant seats just to taste his mother’s cooking.
The restaurant soon caught the attention of many Filipino veterans from the Korean war, former Filipino diplomats that worked in Korea, as well as the Filipino employees of Korean Airlines. They made up Korean Village’s crowd of regular diners during those early years. Eventually, locals who sampled their food got hooked on their menu’s sweet, spicy, savory, and tangy flavors.
Meet Mrs. Tallo
His mother Emily was for a long time the backbone of the family restaurant, says Ponce. Up until 2016, the matriarch was solely responsible for the quality of the food that came out of the Korean Village kitchen. She passed away in 2019. Her husband, Teodorico, died earlier, in 1995. He was in charge of operations.
“My mom was the shy type pero super terror,” remembers Ponce. “Kailangan pag nag-utos siya may resulta agad. Ayaw niya yung aabutin ng siyam-siyam.” But she was also a kind woman, he says, and believed good begets good.
Ponce’s wife, Rachel, remembers her mother-in-law as generous, understanding, and observant. “She was a good person but not the type who would let things slide. Hindi rin siya yung mapang-uring tao. And she was also a very loving grandmother.” Rachel would sometimes help Emily with the inventory and accounting. She also learned a trick or two from her mother-in-law about preparing Korean food. “Like when is the right time to take out the kimchi from the freezer, and when to put them back para di umasim.”
The older Mrs. Tallo’s Korean upbringing trained her to be knowledgeable in work in and outside the home. “She knew how to till the land, she knew how to harvest the crops, how to cook the food, and maintain the house,” says Ponce. This is also why at a very early age, she knew how to prepare traditional Korean side dishes, which are a staple in Korean homes.
“Magaling ang taste buds ni Mommy. What was really amazing about her is that even yung pagkain na hindi siya familiar, once you let her taste it once, she can already duplicate the taste of the dish,” recalls Ponce, who loved his mother’s Korean beef stew and ox tongue barbecue.
Ponce became actively involved in the business in his early 20s, through the persuasion of his father. Teodorico first assigned him to become his mother’s official driver, then Ponce would later take charge of buying ingredients. “Along the way, little by little, I had to meddle in the operations of the restaurant. But when it comes to cooking, that's where Mommy would set the boundary. Only she herself would be the one in charge of the kitchen.”
In 2007, the structure where Korean Village ran in Adriatico Street had to be torn down to make way for a condominium building. So the Tallos had to move the restaurant to its current location in Nakpil Street. The establishment was then rechristened Nakpil Korean Village.
Like his patrons, Ponce is saddened by his decision to close the restaurant. And while he’s overwhelmed with everyone’s support and the clamor not to close, he says he has to face the reality of his current physical limitations. His children are still quite young—one’s in high school and the other in college—and while he would have wished they acquire an inclination in the future to continue the legacy of their grandmother, it might be best not to impose on them.
But at the moment Ponce has a simple wish: that people will remember there was once a restaurant named Korean Village who served “authentic, traditional Korean food” at the heart of Malate. Of course, he’s also hoping to recover soon from his ailments. “Who knows,” he says, “if I get better, we can still reopen.”
Photos courtesy of Ponce and Rachel Tallo