Korean pop culture, in case you hadn’t noticed, is conquering the world. The Chinese media coined a term for this phenomenon years ago: hallyu, or the “Korean wave,” a term that describes South Korea’s role as a major exporter of pop music, movies, online games, beauty products, and food.
If you’ve ever danced Gangnam-style to South Korean singer-rapper Psy’s 2012 break-out global hit of the same name — or perhaps watched in horror as family members danced to it at your cousin’s wedding — then you’ve gotten a taste of the power of the hallyu.
Here in metro Phoenix, the global reach of Korean culture is evident in our city’s flourishing Korean food scene. All-you-can-eat Korean barbecue parlors are finally starting to take root in the Valley. And though Korean fusion fare, especially Korean-Mex, is not yet as robust here as it is in neighboring southern California, local food trucks like Hibachibot are bringing mashups like bulgogi tacos to the streets of metro Phoenix.
Plus, we have spots like Drunken Tiger, a Korean restaurant and bar in Mesa that highlights the endlessly adaptable and eminently cool genre of Korean bar food. I remember knocking back soju cocktails a couple of years ago at Drunken Tiger’s predecessor, Cafe Agit, a late-night haunt that served everything from Korean fried chicken to silkworm soup. Since then, the restaurant has changed hands, and new owner Justin Park has re-branded the space, and refreshed the Agit menu with a new spate of fun, twisty Korean bar eats.
In terms of ambiance, though, not much has changed. Drunken Tiger, like Cafe Agit before it, is a dark neighborhood bar and grill with black paint on the walls, unremarkable booths and tables, and the perfume of grilled meat in the air. Flat-screen TVs flash music videos on mute, while K-pop and K-hip-hop songs play over the house speakers. Beyond the dining room, there’s an outdoor patio tucked behind the restaurant that overlooks a small residential lake. Service, like Drunken Tiger itself, is casual, laid-back, and friendly.
The food at Drunken Tiger is rooted in the tradition of Korean anju, a category of food designed to be enjoyed with alcohol and friends. The most fitting way to begin any meal at Drunken Tiger, then, is with some alcohol. The drink menu boasts Korean beers like the oft-derided yet popular Cass beer, along with Kloud, a light South Korean pilsner. You can drink by the bottle, or pour yourself a glass from one of the restaurant’s LED beer towers, enormous table-side dispensers that hold about two pitchers’ worth of drink.
Of course, there are plenty of soju cocktails, too. The popular, vodka-like Korean liquor is blended seamlessly with flavors like yogurt (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it) and mango. The yogurt-infused soju pulls double-duty as a boozy, cooling palate cleanser in between bites of some of the restaurant’s spicier dishes.
It should be noted that Drunken Tiger is also home to arguably the most memorable soju cocktail in metro Phoenix: a halved watermelon doused in the clear astringent liquor, and covered in Fruity Pebbles and Pop Rocks. This is a seasonal summer item, so check back around May if you’re tempted to try it.
The appetizer menu at Drunken Tiger encompasses typical American bar grub (mozzarella sticks, French fries), along with highlights like ttoek kochi — crisp rice cakes smeared with lightly spicy chile sauce and peppered with crushed peanuts. Don’t miss the selection of bao, though. The fluffy steam buns are folded over savory ingredients like thick strips of barbecue sauce-slicked pork belly; juicy fried spam buoyed by sliced serrano peppers; and thinly-sliced galbi, or barbecued short ribs, which are bolstered by a creamy aioli. They’re all quite good, but the smoky char on the galbi is irresistible.
If you’re craving Korean fried chicken, Drunken Tiger offers several variations on the extra-crispy treat. Padak, bite-size pieces of deep-fried chicken breast lavished with ribbons of scallion garnish, is particularly memorable.
More so than KFC, though, Drunken Tiger’s signature chicken dish is buldak, also known as fire chicken: ultra-spicy, silky hunks of chicken bathed in a fiery hot sauce, and buried under lavish amounts of melted mozzarella cheese. There’s nothing subtle about this flavor-packed dish, which derives much of its appeal from the chicken’s supple texture, and the bold, red-hot properties of its gingery hot sauce.
Drunken Tiger is not a full-fledged Korean barbecue restaurant, but you’ll find plenty of Korean barbecue staples, including a credible bulgogi — the thin slices of beef are redolent of garlic and sweet soy, and bear a pleasing char. Another popular barbecue item is galbi, Korean short ribs that are served still sizzling on a cast-iron pan. They have a deep, earthy sweetness, with a char that’s hard to resist. If there’s one caveat here, it’s that some of the ribs featured more gristle than meat on a recent visit.
You’ll find several of the restaurant’s most highly coveted dishes on the so-called “drunk munchies” menu, which is populated by the likes of spam and eggs (“self-explanatory,” the menu description says); stir-fried chicken gizzards; and perhaps the drunkest of all the munchies: bulgogi nachos and bulgogi fries, the Korean analog to carne asada nachos and fries. They are essentially the same dish with different starches; the nachos feature corn chips blanketed with orange nacho cheese and fresh pico, and sprinkled with chopped, bubbling nubs of the sweet-savory beef.
Bulgogi nachos are a simple and agreeable treat, but they’re not as satisfying as Drunken Tiger’s “fire corn cheese.” The indulgent, extra-cheesy baked corn dish — think of it as Korean-style creamed corn — is topped with succulent, glistening strips of spicy, chile-sluiced pork belly. The dish won’t strike you as particularly sophisticated, but like so much else at Drunken Tiger, it’s too good to resist.
Silkworm soup is still on the menu (“Almost nobody orders it,” my server told me on a recent visit), and it’s better than the version that I tried at Cafe Agit two years ago. The pupae have an earthy, corn-like flavor, and they’re served in a lovely, earthy, lightly spicy broth. More adventurous eaters will be rewarded, and maybe even find out that they have a predilection for insect protein.
Tofu kimchi salad, meanwhile, might seem like one of the blander items on the menu. But it’s marvelously rich in flavor. The tofu is cut into long, jiggly strips, and plated around a mound of fragrant kimchi. This is one of the most approachable kimchis around town — the soft, fermented cabbage is saucy and savory, with just a hint of spice.
Just when you’ve written off Drunken Tiger as a dimly lit hang-out spot for tipsy college kids, along comes a dish like the seafood pancake, which is deftly prepared and brimming with nuanced flavor. It’s a thin, flat round pancake, cut into pizza-like slices, with a delicate, baked-in layer of bite-size shrimp and squid, and thin flakes of serrano peppers and scallions. The pancake’s texture is gorgeous — light and vaguely eggy. It’s served with a lovely sweet-vinegary dipping sauce that amplifies the cake’s subtle flavors.
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What’s the best way to top off an evening at Drunken Tiger? I’m not talking about another soju cocktail, but rather the restaurant’s signature dessert: a fluffy red bean waffle topped with a scoop of green tea ice cream. A couple of Pocky sticks, the Japanese chocolate-coated biscuit sticks with a cult following around the world, are planted into the ice cream like antennae. The red bean waffle is a nicely conceived dessert — the light savoriness of the waffle nicely reins in the sweetness of the ice cream. But more than anything, like Drunken Tiger itself, it’s just plain fun.
1954 South Dobson Road, #5
Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; closed Tuesday
Fire corn cheese $15.99
Tofu kimchi $15.99
Fire chicken $13.99
Seafood pancake $16.99