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Hidden Treasure

Chungs serves distinctive Chinese and Korean specialties

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If you want to find Chung's Chinese Restaurant, you've really got to be looking for it. It's in a little plaza at the corner of Pikes Peak and Academy, hidden behind a 7-11 and a Popeye's. There is a neon sign proclaiming "Chung's," but it's dwarfed by the adjacent "APARTMENTS" sign that is easily two or three times larger. Have a little persistence, though, because Chung's is well worth the search.

Chung's does have a lunch buffet on weekdays, but don't let that deter you. This restaurant has been doing a small, well-appointed lunch buffet for several years. The owner hasn't caved in to the "more is better" mentality of the huge Chinese buffets that now line Academy Boulevard, where you can get 47 different fried items and 17 indistinguishable chicken dishes on any given day. The dishes on the buffet at Chung's are prepared in small quantities and replenished frequently, so the quality is high and the dishes are distinctive.

Part of what makes the buffet at Chung's so distinctive is the selection of Korean dishes. But if you aren't familiar with Korean food you'll need to either have a strong sense of adventure or ask a lot of questions -- very few of the dishes are labeled. Many of the Korean dishes are the cold side dishes -- lightly dressed fresh bean sprouts, emerald green spinach with a subtle smoky flavor, pickled daikon radish speckled with flecks of red pepper and more.

You'll want to be on the lookout for the red pepper flakes. When you see a lot of them, expect a lot of heat. Korean food doesn't play around at being spicy. It grabs you by the boo-boo and shakes your palate 'til your eyes roll back and your forehead sweats. But the flavors are so intricate and intense you'll love it, because it's not just heat for the sake of heat -- there's plenty of flavor behind the fire.

The regular menu at Chung's is long, and the last two pages appear to be written in Korean. I have no idea what they say, but I'm convinced they contain hidden culinary treasures, if only I have the courage to venture that far, or if I remember to ask the waitress to translate, whichever comes first.

On the Chinese side, the Hot and Sour soup is both, offering a nice, pungent way to begin your meal. The fried dumplings are nice, too, extremely crispy and huge. The Francis Chicken Wings are crispy, cooked with green onions and carrot shreds, served in a slightly sweet sauce, just enough to be sticky and fun to eat. The Curry Chicken has a rich, complex curry flavor, not too hot and spicy, full of tender chicken and big chunks of crispy onion. The Sesame Chicken while not particularly spicy either, had a wonderful and subtle sauce, not overpoweringly sweet. The sauce had lovely spicy and tart notes, softly played so that you could actually taste the nutty flavor of the sesame seeds.

Chicken lo mein was ordered for the toddler in our group, and I was mightily pleased that the noodles had been cut to a manageable length when the dish was prepared. The sauce on the lo mein was quite flavorful, and the dish was full of tender chicken, bean sprouts, carrots, onions, mushrooms and water chestnuts.

The Korean side of the menu boasts pork, beef or chicken bulgogi (or bul go gi). The meat is thinly sliced and long marinated in a deceptively simple soy-based sauce, spiked with green onions, a bit of sugar, lots of garlic and sesame oil. The meat is then grilled, along with additional green onions. If you're feeling adventurous, you could try the sauted squid or stir-fried octopus with vegetables, the Hot and Spicy Noodles with Three Seafoods or the Icy Cold Noodles. If you're a Kim Bap fan (the Korean version of California rolls, usually vegetarian), you'll have to ask. They're usually available, but do not appear on the menu.

You can also sample several different Korean soups. The Dumpling Soup with Rice Cake is comfort food from the start. A rich chicken stock, flecked with bits of green onion and bits of egg (think egg-drop soup) holds a wealth of meat-stuffed dumplings and slippery, chewy slices of cooked rice cake. (These are not those Styrofoam rice cakes you get in the grocery store for snacking.) The Hot and Spicy Beef Noodle Soup will clear your sinuses well into next week. A hearty beef broth with an intense flavor of both beef and chiles surrounds shreds of beef, green onions and long, slippery rice noodles. All the Korean dishes come with a bowl of sticky rice and several small bowls heaped with fresh and pickled vegetable side dishes.

The last, but certainly not least, great feature at Chung's is the price. We feasted one night on three appetizers and three entrees for just under $30, and another night on two appetizers and two entrees for a mere $21. Each time we had plenty left over for lunch the next day. And the buffet is only $5.25 per person, served Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

When you're looking for something a little off the beaten path, Chung's is the place to go. They do a brisk take-out business as well, so don't forget to grab a copy of the menu before you leave. Life would only be more perfect if they decided to deliver.

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