How hot is it? Oh, don’t even ask! This summer has come in with a blazing red bang, just in time for me to abandon my cushy air-conditioned cubicle for three weeks in the wild, doing a field study of the roaming American teenager. What was I thinking? Who knows! Sunstroke’s got the best of me.
But I made a relevant discovery when our dining crew was doing an ice cream taste test for CityBeat’s Hot Issue — spicy food hits the spot when it’s hot. The internal inferno meets the external sizzle and — zap! — you’re all a-tingle! So, in addition to my current fling with Lime Jalapeno and Thai Chili Mango gelatos from Dojo, I was happy to stop by Sung Korean Bistro downtown for a dose of hot-cha-cha.
Sung’s been mentioned in several recent “Look Who’s Eating” features in CityBeat; it’s a place where chefs go on their night off. The space is quite chic — although a little on the loud side — and the crowd on the night of our visit was hopping with at least three tables celebrating special occasions. I also noticed several lone diners who looked like they were enjoying a comfortable evening.
I guess some of the celebratory air floated our way, because we both got the urge to go bubbly. Hubby sensibly ordered a bottle of San Pellegrino ($5) sparkling water, and I decided on a small bottle of sparkling sake, Hana-Awaka ($14). It was pretty, pink and delicious, with overtones of sweet plum. Something nice and girly as a counter to the heat!
For his appetizer, Hubby chose the traditional Yachae Pajun ($13) scallion pancake, a veggie version with loads of mushrooms, onions, carrots and peppers. There’s also an option with shrimp, squid and crab — the Haemul Pajun ($15). If you’re a fan of Banh Xeo, the Vietnamese crepe, you’ll find that the Korean pancake is heftier, more omelet than crepe, with much the same excellent flavors but easier to dip and devour. Though I liked the soy and rice wine dipping sauce’s little red pepper kick, I wanted to take my appetizer choice up a notch on the Scoville scale.
Sushi’s not classically Korean, of course, but the sushi chef at Sung was rolling out a lot of orders. Our server did her level best to talk me out of trying the Sung’s Spicy 911 ($15), a fusion roll with fiery ingredients. I could not be discouraged and was happy with my choice. The spiciest thing about this tempura shrimp and avocado roll was the roasted hot pepper sauce, which packed a pretty good punch. As I watched a nearby table open their flaming sushi roll, the “I Love You” special, I felt that my selection had been almost conservative.
For our entrée choices, we stayed with our game plan. I went the hot route, and Hubby went traditional with classic Dolsot BiBimBap, the rice dish served in a sizzling stone bowl. I thought this would suffer from his choice of chicken instead of beef, but it didn’t. The chicken was shredded, not chopped, and not overcooked. BiBimBap is one dish where I’m not put off by undercooked egg — by the time it’s all stirred in, the heat of the bowl completes the cooking. Even the leftovers were tasty and it’s nice that Sung offers a brown rice option to healthy things up.
There’s a lot to explore on Sung’s menu. I was really tempted by the Jab Chae ($16) stir-fried sweet potato noodles and the grilled shrimp skewers, Saewoo Ghochi Gui ($20). Even the cold rice noodles with bean sprouts, radishes, cucumber and spicy chili sauce, Bibim Gukso ($16), would have made a good hot-day choice. In the end, I carried on with my fiery plan and got a big bowl of Kimchi Jigae, a peppery hot kimchi soup with tofu and seasoned pork. This is truly a “bowl of red” that makes American chili look tame. The broth is an intense red, fired up with gochujang, fermented hot red pepper paste — the perfect 10 on my personal heat index.
Whew! Time to cool off with dessert. The green tea ice cream ($6) would have been a perfect, quiet conclusion, but I decided to try something more complex. It was a toss up between Chocolate Delight ($8) and Coconut Pineapple ($8), and the latter won. I loved the description of “caramelized rum pineapple,” which turned out to be perfectly gooey and just short of too sweet. Nothing hot about it!
Maybe Sung should consider adding Dojo’s zinger gelatos to their dinner finale offerings. After all, some like it hot!
Go: 700 Elm St., Downtown
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4:30-11:30 p.m. Saturday
Accessibility: Fully accessible
Red Meat Alternatives: Many, including seafood and tofu