One of the spiciest foods I've ever eaten was a bowl of tteokbokki in Seoul. The neutrality of compressed rice and paper-thin fish cake strips did little to absorb the all-out sear of a merciless Gochujang red chili sauce.
I literally broke a euphoria-inducing face sweat there, as I did to a much lesser degree on a milder off-menu order at the newly opened Taste of Korea Express. Owner Ramona Burns says she's happy to fulfill tteokbokki requests here and at her original Taste of Korea location on Peterson Road. She's also willing to whip up bright orange kimchi pancakes whose tangy softness, dipped into a peppery jalapeño-soy-vinegar mix, traditionally marries gorgeously with makgeolli, a Korean rice wine we sadly can't get here.
So there are basic fountain drinks instead, 50 cents extra with generously portioned entrée plates, which are only $7.95 for two meats, plus either fried or white rice or japchae (addictive, clear sweet-potato noodles tossed in olive and toasted sesame oils) and a small tri-compartment side of fermented cabbage, bean sprouts and cucumbers. The spicy pork and spicy bulgogi best the regular bulgogi, and spicy and teriyaki chicken.
The beef's tenderized with Mirin rice wine, and then ginger, garlic, onions, red peppers and chilies and spices come in to steal the show. In the pork, (not-so) secret ingredients of applesauce and Pepsi, in restrained amounts, add sugars and surprising complexity, while thin carrot strands gift crunch.
Slender sticks of pickled radish do the same on the badass bulgogi burger (successor to Burns' "bulgogi hoagie" at her original Orange Plate Cafe), which is more like a Philly, with strips of the spicy or regular beef piled on a buttery, toasted French roll, made a touch gooey with a mild shredded cheese mix. Add commercial shoestring fries or get them as a Cheesy Bulgogi Fries with Sriracha special, which is exactly what it sounds like, and completely gut-bomb satisfying.
In that vein, yaki mandu are your basic fried pot stickers for soy dipping, and hot wings are overly mushy with a Korean barbecue sauce that could rely more heavily on its Gochujang spike. For a fresher bite, the kimbap, commonly called Korean sushi, but with sesame oil subbing in for rice vinegar, proffers two rolls stuffed with egg, cucumber, fish cake, carrot and pickled radishes.
The bibimbop ditches the stone bowl in favor of a metal one, but still shines as a colossal mound of rice, bulgogi slivers and more pickled veggies topped in a runny fried egg and sesame seed rain.
As for dessert, my friend goes crazy over the packaged Choco Pies. They're the history-rich treat essentially banned by North Korea to stifle a growing black market and capitalist cravings, launched en masse inside giant helium balloons by South Korean activists intent on sending sugar love over the border. Yeah, it's a generic moon pie, but treat it respectfully.
I could do without the blaring Court TV and soap operas, and less air conditioning in the spacious dining room of red-and-white-checkered floors that lead to the counter-service hot line. Also, the word "express" is used liberally, as a to-go order took 20 minutes and most food was cooked to order.
But I'm completely fine with that when it generally tastes this good. Burn or bury me with food, and I will return and relive.