I’ve long wondered when the Korean-barbecue trend would make its way from Los Angeles, New York and Seattle to Miami’s shores.
It’s arrived in the form of Drunken Dragon, the hot-as-gochujang space along Alton Road from the fellas who gave us the Foxhole, hidden nearby. This newcomer should be on everyone’s list to try: Drunken Dragon is fun, gorgeous, and much of the food is pretty damn good.
To find it, better have your GPS calibrated and be on the lookout for the no-name entrance under block letters that spell MARKET, left over from the previous tenant. Blacked-out storefront windows add to the speakeasy feel.
Once you get past an arrogant hostess and sexy, oversize bondage photos in the entrance, you will find a striking bar with exotic woods, intricate rope sculptures, hanging lanterns and antique-looking sake bottles displayed like an old apothecary. Herringbone-gray wood floors and low lighting make everyone look good.
The food is not by-the-book Korean BBQ by any means, with an Asian-inspired menu that draws from a trendy assortment of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, American and even Cuban ingredients.
Fried chicken wings are a must on any Korean menu these days, and here they are plump, with a shatteringly crisp shell and a serious hit of spice by way of dehydrated Frank’s RedHot.
“Crack” spare ribs have a lot going on: coconut shavings, scallions, cilantro and a deep, umami-rich coconut-chile sauce to pull it all together.
Servers seem dreadfully unprepared to help customers navigate the substantial menu. My simple queries were met with “That’s really good” or “Umm.” One waiter mumbled over dish descriptions, mangled all of the Korean ingredients, and pushed out the word “brioche” like it was some sort of disease.
A portion of the meat-centric menu is available DIY-style at several tables with built-in grills, where you’re encouraged to cook various pre-sliced cuts and dip them in different sauces. After more than three months of trying, I’ve been unable to secure a coveted table to grill my own food. My friend the hostess dismissed my disappointment, saying, “The food on the menu is exactly the same.”
Fair enough. Better to stick with the non-grilled items anyway. Like the exquisitely warming porky hotpot dotted with kimchi and lots of scallion — worth a visit.
An equally good papaya salad with threads of green papaya and long beans, cherry tomato halves and milky strands of young coconut meat is another spicy standout. A dramatic red mullet with crispy scales was fantastic, too, with its truly spicy mango salsa and mellow tahini finish.
Kimchi carbonara might have been better if the name didn’t get us expecting an eggy, pork-rich pasta-like dish. Instead, we got one-dimensional flavor and too much grease. The brioche, by the way, is missable. It makes up the base for an aioli-laden lobster salad with roe.
Fried bok choy reminded me of China Grill’s crispy spinach, though this salty indulgence gets dampened by the pouring of a plum-and-garlic sauce.
The popular Peking bao could be better, too. Two spongy, puffy buns arrived cold, dry and sparsely stuffed with floppy chicken skin and rich duck meat. A tiny dish of sweet hoisin sauce was not enough to enliven this blah staple.
For dessert, soft-serve ice cream and brownie concoctions are not worth the calories. But a fun take on Eton Mess, a British trifle, comes with crispy merengue bits, a mix of Greek yogurt and green tea-tinged Chantilly cream; it’s as comforting as a day at the beach.
Drunken Dragon’s tiki-themed drinks did not wow me. Most of them are built from mid-level Bacardi and lackluster mixers. Some good draft and bottled beers, including a Japanese rice lager, add much-needed interest to the beverages here, where green tea comes from a bottle.
Executive chef Xavier Torres definitely has mad skills in the kitchen, but at times the languid front-of-house staff and too-cool-for-school scene can prove to be a detriment.
Like all good Korean fare, Torres’ flavors at Drunken Dragon display a mix of sweet, spicy, acidic, salty and bitter. However, the food leans heavily on fried, salty and sweet tricks, and the lack of manager-like oversight in the dining room is disturbing at this (or any) price point.
The food is close to where it needs to be, but someone ought to check on Drunken Dragon’s service issues before its buzz turns into a hangover.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter: @VictoriaPesceE.