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Chili heat marks most memorable plates at Sura Korean 

click to enlarge Pork, squid and cabbage merge in a chili bath. - RILEY BRATZLER
  • Riley Bratzler
  • Pork, squid and cabbage merge in a chili bath.

When last here — a dilapidated strip mall with oddly robust and abundant speed bumps, behind a 7-Eleven near the airport — I came for Dami Korean, a bright spot that held out for many years. Replacing it (as of November), and like it, Sura Korean defies the drab surroundings once you enter its humble fluorescent-lit dining room, furnished with tasteful artwork, an Asian-style room divider and a long rock-and-bamboo fixture.

It's not that modest decor, nor the newly arrived hibachi tables (being brought in near closing time as we're spooning our significant leftovers into boxes on our way out) that define that brightness though. More specifically, it's the mix of traditional Korean fare and fusion plates with alluring, colorful presentations and bold, spicy flavors that leave a lingering reminder of meals both enjoyed and sweated over.

The sear always starts with the fermented tang and chili pepper sting of cabbage and daikon kimchi, served as part of the complimentary banchan spread (small bowls of side items for snacking and intermixing with entrées, similar to the way Indian cuisine relies on condiment arrays of chutneys and sauces). And we know full well what we're getting into with an appetizer order of tteokbokki (one of the hottest items I've ever eaten, encountered on a trip through Seoul), composed of delightfully chewy fish cakes and compressed rice, usually in a gochujang (Korean chili paste) sauce. If you're the type to order your pad Thai "Thai hot," this is a plate for you.

At Sura, owner Miyong Morris — a military wife who ran a Korean eatery in Louisiana for around 15 years — tells us she drives to pick her own Pueblo chilies, which she then dries and grinds for use in her spicy dishes. She's not forthcoming with all her recipe tweaks and secrets, though she does whisper about the use of soju (a clear rice liquor, sometimes made with other grains or potatoes) in one strategic place. Which is to say there might be more to the tteokbokki's sauce and the others I'm about to describe, than I know. Even her son Bobby, one of our servers and a part-time cook, can't answer all our queries, as he describes his mom's in-pan assembly of each sauce, to-order — a freshness that shows at the table.

Two of our entrées ($12.99 and $14.99 and each big enough for two) incorporate variations of a vibrantly red chili sauce with equal, excellent potency: the jjam-bbong and ojingeo-samgyupsal. The first arrives as a giant broth bowl bearing spaghetti-thick wheat noodles under cabbage strands, squid bits and a couple each green-lip mussels and whole shrimp (good but for the deveining I had to attempt at the table). The second, our favorite, hosts squid and cabbage again, but with pork pieces and green onions, and Miyong does share that a bean paste thickens it while honey sweetens and soy darkens it, with touches also of sesame oil and seed garnish.

For those not seeking spice, start instead with a thin, orange kimchi pancake and head toward a bowl of Korean ramen with bulgogi, the popular, semi-sweet, tenderized meat atop a more Japanese-style beef broth with crinkly noodles. Or get the Chinese-like tang-su-yuk, featuring pineapple slivers, peppers, onions, carrots, gelatinous black seaweed bits and airy breaded pork pieces in a more goopy sweet-and-sour sauce.

It's the approachable fusion items like this that may find the most traction in the area, but I'll stand by seeking Sura out instead for the more moving and scorching chili-influenced items.

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