Flushing: At Sura Chung, a Menu With Enough Spice to Cry Fowl
Our visit to Sura Chung in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Flushing was initially intended as an investigation of their ojinguh bokkeum (stir fried squid, $16.99), which was recommended by a friend with a keen palate. Squid can often be discouragingly rubbery, however at Sura Chung, it was cooked to an agreeable, gentle texture that retained some spring and feistiness. It swam in a sauce of gochujang (red pepper paste) that embodied the technique often employed by Asian cuisines: combining sweet, sour, and heat in balance. It was one of the better preparations of the dish that I've tasted in a New York Korean restaurant, and it made great friends with makgeolli, a slightly sweet, slightly effervescent rice-based alcoholic drink. But this dish isn't the only reason why I will make many repeat visits to Sura Chung in the future.
The owner at Sura Chung took notice of my camera, and was quick to intervene and interrogate. Why was I taking pictures of the menu and the restaurant exterior? Was I sent by a competing restaurant? We explained: we were here to write about the food. "Korea Herald or Yonhap (Korean newspapers)?" she asked hopefully. "A local website," we replied, and we wrote the URL on a napkin. She shrugged, satisfied that we weren't from a competitor or from a major news outlet (in her opinion), and then guided us to the last page of the massive six page menu, and stated matter-of-fact that their version of hoonjae ori gui (smoked whole duck) and dak galbi (spicy stir fried chicken) were the best in the neighborhood, and that was what we should eat. She was right on both accounts.
The hoonjae ori gui ($36) was nothing short of a revelation—a Korean duck preparation that I've not encountered in my travels to Korea or Flushing. The wet smoking process—the owner wouldn't give all of the details but hinted that it was cooked with a hybrid steam and smoke technique—bolstered the rich flavor of the moist duck with several more layers of meatiness. For better or worse, the technique also left a smattering of unrendered fat as well. Such opulence needs a sturdy foil, so the duck is served with the perfect sidekick of potently spicy mustard. It's meant to be wrapped in sheets of moo, thinly sliced daikon radish that's been tenderized by vinegar. For the cynic, it's worth ordering for its novelty. For the food lover, it's a dynamite preparation of duck.
Whether it was blatant up-sell or a well meaning attempt at hospitality, the owner was right about the dak galbi ($16) as well. It's cooked tableside and doled out into individual bowls. A long marinade ensures the flecks of boneless thigh and leg meat stay wonderfully tender, and the green onions and cabbage have enough crunch to provide some textural contrast. The first few bites of this dish is straightforward chicken bliss. After that it's a losing battle with spice, which will leave you red in the face, sweating, and begging the wait staff for a refill of makgeolli to put out the fire. For spice lovers, it's a battle well fought.
If dak galbi was a battle for spice hunters, then it's best to simply succumb to Sura Chung's version of dakdori tang ($38.99), an enormous shareable hot pot of bone-in chicken, potatoes, and liquid pain. Sure, there's a depth of savory flavors from the aromatic onions and carrots, and demonstrable care in the rich, chicken-y broth that's slick with dissolved collagen. But then there's a nearly overwhelming barrage of Korean hot peppers that dominates the dish. Typically, this dish is meant to be enjoyed with plenty of alcohol, and in a way it's the perfect drinking food—one must be very brave or very foolish to order it, and alcohol does wonders at bolstering both traits.
Despite a rocky start, Sura Chung's owner proved to be trustworthy with her recommendations. An old bird matched by the fire and intensity of her food.
149-09 41 Ave, Flushing NY 11355 (map)