“Strip Mall” Korean in Miami

Last week I posted about Iceland……and we WILL get back to that, but probably not until the late spring. I just can’t imagine anybody going to Iceland in the winter.

So for the next few postings we’ll turn our attention to warm places where Minnesotans go to escape the cold winter.

No, not Naples, Florida. You should know by now: The action’s all in MIAMI BEACH.

Let’s head first to a little Korean spot called THE DRUNKEN DRAGON.

Victoria Pesce Elliott of Miami.com writes, “I’ve long wondered when the Korean Barbecue trend would make its way from Los Angeles and New York to Miami.”

Well, it’s arrived. And this place is packed.

The Drunken Dragon opens at 6:00 PM, and it fills up quickly. Even if you have a reservation, expect a wait stretching 30 minutes. The arrogant hostess will see to that.

Joanne and I have been there on several occasions, most recently with our three grandkids (who love this place; they get to play with fire. More on that later).

Korean fare boasts an array of flavors – sweet, spicy, acidic, salty and bitter. But Drunken Dragon is not a “by the book” Korean joint. It’s more pan-Asian, with culinary influences from Japan, Thailand and China. Cuba works its way in there, too. But that’s okay. I like ‘em all.

You can make a meal out of just the starters….and we have done that. Our favorites include Fresh Oysters with Mango Salsa, Hamachi with Filipino Lime Sauce and Crunchy Cashews, Grilled Octopus, Puffy Peking Bao Buns with Duck Confit, and Crispy Chicken Skin with sticky-smoky hoisin barbeque sauce. I love the Miniature Lobster rolls on Brioche Buns (but they’re expensive — $21 for four).

Large-format appetizers are great for sharing. Recently our table ordered a Drunken Dragon Meat Board: a hunk of falling-off-the-bone braised pork shoulder accompanied by lettuce leaves and bao buns to make wraps. Another good choice is a meat board presentation of Duck Confit, with juicy ribbons of duck, ready to be stuffed into warm, spongy steamed buns.

Sambal is a sexy hot sauce, evoking the promise of faraway sultry places. It’s a magical combination of chili pepper, rice wine vinegar and citrus. Drunken Dragon offers several iterations of deeply flavored Sambal, some with a “touch of funk,” including Shrimp Paste, Fish Sauce and Umami. I recommend the Smoky Cracked Spare Ribs to share at the table. They’re finished with “bright hot” Sambal sauce, scallions and cilantro. Yeah, they’re messy.

I’ve never come here for Happy Hour, but I’ve certainly sampled my share of Happy Hour offerings. Check out the images of Drunken Dragon’s Banh Mi Cuban Pressed Sandwiches with chicken liver paté, roasted pork, pickles, jalapenos and cilantro. The tiny Japanese Korobuta Hot Dog is served up on a deep fried bao bun (clever) and dressed with pickles, spicy ketchup and herbed aioli. Get two – one isn’t enough. Tiki drink glasses are loads of fun. And the non-alcoholic Coconut Popsicle in mint lemonade delights kids.

But now comes the part of Drunken Dragon that I really love: The Korean Barbeque, with DIY grilling at the table. Here’s the drill:

1. There are only seven barbeque tables in the restaurant.
2. They’re allocated on a first come/first served basis. (Want one? Get there 30 minutes before they open.)
3. Good news: If you can’t snag a barbeque table, any of the “at the table” grilled items can be ordered at the regular tables. They’ll just be prepared in the kitchen.
4. Do some of them yourself. Let the kitchen handle the rest.

5. If you come with kids, DEFINITELY snag a barbeque table. They may not eat what they cook, but they’ll love being junior arsonists.

The problem with some Korean Barbecue joints, particularly in New York, is that the exhaust systems can be woefully inadequate…..leaving you with the clothes on your back reeking of smoke….even after a aggressive dry cleanings.


Their Korean barbecue tables are said to be modeled after a centuries old Korean house heating system called ONDAL……which loosely means heating from underneath the floor. I sorta get it and sorta don’t. The barbecue tables at DRUNKEN DRAGON certainly radiate from down under …..and the smoke from the grilling is exhausted through vents surrounding the grill and cleverly pulled downward in vents through the floor and on to being exhausted outside the premises.

Portions of the raw meats for grilling (thinnish cuts of steak, shrimp, etc.) are modest in scale, but more than enough when accompanied by an array of side dishes. Prior to the grilling your server appears to prime the grill in order to prevent sticking. Once she did it with oil and a brush. Another time it was primed with a hunk of beef fat clamped in a pair of tongs. I like the beef fat best.

Among the side dishes, get the Kimchi Fried Rice, which is mixed tableside with a poached egg. It’s delicious and enough for four people. Then have the Crispy Bok Choy and Kale. By the way, as a side dish, you can grill your own fresh vegetables at the table as well.

Desserts are tropical, attractive, unusual – and uniformly good. Matcha Tres Leches and the Mango & Strawberry Korean Ice Creams were right out of Central Casting (although why the ice cream came in a steamer basket was a little puzzling).

A note about the location: You are going to need to calibrate your GPS to find this place, which masquerades as a convenience store in a class C strip mall. The restaurant’s blacked-out windows make it even harder to find. The good news is that Drunken Dragon has a huge red neon sign. The bad news is that the sign simply says “MARKET.”

One giveaway: Unlike most strip malls, this one offers $15 valet parking for your Bentley. Look for it on the west side of Alton Road between 14th & 15th Streets, right between a Subway sandwich shop and a Domino’s Pizza.



Seduced by the Mandolin

Recently Joanne and I discovered a wonderful Greek-Turkish restaurant in the Design District neighborhood of Miami.

Called MANDOLIN, it’s owned and run by a husband-wife team: Ahmet Erkaya and Anastasia Koutsiokis – he’s from Turkey, she’s Greek…which is a little odd since their home countries have been at odds for the past several hundred years. Well, I guess love – and a shared passion for Mediterranean cuisine – conquers all.

Joanne and I love the food in this part of the world, and one of our sweet spots in the states has been ESTIATORIO MILOS. A high-end seafood restaurant (that I wrote about early in 2017), Milos began in Montreal, then added locations in New York, Miami Beach, London, Las Vegas, and Athens (becoming – like Nobu – a very fancy chain).

Mandolin has just the one location and is very much a casual dining destination – far more typical of what you’ll actually find in Greece and Turkey, where Joanne and I have enjoyed traveling. Istanbul, Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, and a month-long stay in Molyvos, on the island of Lesvos, rank among our favorite trips.

Though the Greeks and Turks are quick to point out all the ways their cuisines differ, the fact is, they’re pretty similar in many ways, including their emphasis on simplicity and freshness. No surprise, considering the culinary comingling that occurred during the 400 years of Ottoman rule over Greece.

You might imagine how pleased we were to come across a locally owned independent restaurant that celebrated the simple, rustic “village cooking” of both Turkey and Greece. Nothing here is contrived. There’s no pretense, no fancy compositions – just straightforward, honest expressions of one of the world’s richest culinary heritages.

Food isn’t the only draw at Mandolin. The restaurant offers comfortable outdoor seating in a big, beautiful, lush garden. In fact, Joanne and I have never eaten inside. And speaking of gardens, the owners grow their own herbs and vegetables just behind the restaurant.

You need to start by ordering either the Turkish Sampler or the Greek Sampler – or both, depending on the size of your party. The Turkish spreads and dips include hummus, an onion-studded tomato-walnut dip, and a beet puree. The Greek version features tzatziki (garlic, cucumber, olive oil and yogurt, spiced with dill) along with melitzanosalata (smoked eggplant puree) and taramasalata, a puree of fish roe, olive oil, lemon juice and grated onions.
Both Samplers are accompanied by a little paper bag of warm, sesame-flecked, just-baked bread.

In addition to a crispy, bitey Arugula Salad, you must try the summery Arugula and Peach Salad with mint, almonds and Manouri goat cheese. It’s rivaled by the Arugula and Date salad, with pistachios and feta cheese dressed in a pomegranate vinaigrette. Someone at your table should also order the traditional horiatiki Greek village salad, made with vine-ripened tomato wedges, cucumber, red onion, green peppers, and Kalamata olives crowned with a plank of feta. Okay, enough about salads.

On to the appetizers. Where to start? Try the Spanakopita – spinach, feta, pine nuts, herbs and spices baked in phyllo ($12). For a little theater, get the Greektown classic, Saganaki, the flaming fried cheese dish usually accompanied by an annoying “OPAH!” The Greeks (and I suppose the Turks) really know octopus, so don’t miss Mandolin’s simply grilled version. Even though it’s usually a main course, we’ve shared Moussaka as an appetizer. A staple of Greek restaurants everywhere, it’s a baked dish of ground lamb, eggplant, thin sliced potatoes, onions, cheese, cinnamon and nutmeg – all topped with a layer of béchamel sauce and browned in the oven.

Among the mains, the Branzino (or European Sea Bass) is a standout. It’s so simple, so beautifully grilled – barely teased with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper – that you’d think it was out of a Martha Stewart cookbook. Actually, a wide variety of Mandolin’s entrees boast the same attributes of simplicity and freshness. Obviously, you MUST order lamb – either the Lamb Chops over orzo pilaf ($46) or the thick chunks of rosemary-laced Saddle of Lamb. Even the Chicken Kebabs, the default dish of timid eaters, are delicious (all the more so when dipped in tzatziki). If you’re a dumpling fan (and who isn’t?), get the Manti, an iconic Turkish dish of homemade egg pasta dumplings filled with minced lamb, garlic and Aleppo peppers, topped with brown butter and garlicky yogurt.

Our grandkids dined on pulled lamb gyros and Mandolin’s signature lamb burger. Both come with fries and will run you $16. The kids devoured them both.

Yes, we had dessert as well.

Isn’t gluttony one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Maybe, but if you were to pass up the desserts here, you’d be guilty of stupidity, so go ahead and get the homemade Baklava. It’s loaded with honey and pistachios…OMG! On the lighter side, Fresh Figs topped with toasted walnuts, thick yogurt and honey are a seasonal must-have. I’d have them in a heartbeat for breakfast as well.

We all ended with super-strong Turkish coffee – even the kids. After they came down off the walls, I think they fell asleep around 4 AM.

So back to Anastasia and Ahmet. I wish them a long life together and hope they run the restaurant well into their golden years. Perhaps the example set by these lovers will prompt their fellow countrymen to cast aside their arms and gather at a table laden with fragrant meats, cheese and vegetables; a powerful reminder of all their respective cultures share (yeah, fat chance).