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Dong Hae Surprises with Culinary Pyrotechnics in a Lackluster Setting

Once upon a time, there was a funny little hidden place, a place that even the most fearless gastronauts didn't always know about.

First, one had to drive to Columbia Heights -- a far-flung place in itself-- and then locate the odd little grocery in the strip mall there. Then, just when diners thought they'd found the wrong joint, they'd trudge all the way to the back, keep going, and hang a sharp left. These culinary adventurers could only go at lunch, or at least before 7, when the kitchen stopped taking orders. Then they'd navigate the menu -- handwritten in Korean -- posted on the wall, try to communicate their order to the lady behind the window, and hope that what they received was actually what they ordered.

And when it arrived, it would be wonderful. Especially for the sort of diner who's always grousing about authenticity.

See also: Saguaro Attempts a New Kind of Mexican Cuisine in Southwest Minneapolis

So when Dong Yang, this obscure Korean hole-in-the-wall of legend in Columbia Heights, acquired the old Nami space downtown, people rejoiced: Legit Korean available right in the heart of downtown Minneapolis!

Then, puzzlingly, advertisements for sushi went up in the windows -- worse, all-you-can-eat sushi. While it's not uncommon for sushi and Korean cuisine to mind-meld (Koreans have reportedly been eating raw fish for at least as long as the Japanese), we thought: Downtown doesn't need another dynamite roll.

Perhaps Dong Hae wants to make use of the already-in-place sushi bar, or doesn't trust that downtowners will support Korea's own native culinary delights. If the latter is the case, what a shame.

No changes have been made to the space's design save for some unfortunate color choices (everything's in an '80s-esque black and red motif) and a hilarious musical cacophony of hip-hop/K-pop/Mexican rap. The room is cavernous, all swooping ceilings and expansive spaces, but then also holds strange little nooks that keep diners hidden from sight. Even when populated it feels abandoned and barren. We were the sole patrons on the bar side, and no wonder, since the bartender had no idea what a Sauvignon Blanc was, nor a Pinot Grigio, and fished around for long minutes in the coolers. "I don't think so," he finally answered.

Thirst not quenched, we moved on to the sushi part of the show. The menu offers so much of the stuff it's difficult to know where to begin. Platters and boats, omakase (chef's choice), all-you-can-eat (19.99 at lunch and 29.99 at dinner), all the basics and special rolls, plus a daily roll special -- the menu has about the heft of a phone book. There's no reason to come here for a spider roll so turn the page, keep turning, until you find Koreatown.

If crudo is what you must have, choose the "K-style" chirashi sushi, which arrives not in a roll, but instead in a large salad bowl easily built for two, with a heap of seasoned rice on the bottom, then layered prettily with shredded leaf lettuce and every little raw creature of the sea scattered about like confetti. There is tuna and salmon and yellowtail, too, a little octopus and shrimp and maybe a few things you're unsure about. Let a little soy sauce rain upon it all, cast in some wasabi and pickled ginger, and here is a salad that will make you question both sushi and salads forever more, wondering if either has any integrity at all beyond the amalgamation of the two.

Korean food has its fierce devotees for a reason. Much like Thai, it balances all the five basic tastes and offers a textural roller-coaster ride to thrill even the most experienced American eaters.

There are so many components to even the simplest dish, the whole production must be wheeled out on a cart. Bibimbap is served in a scalding hot earthenware bowl, both a blessing and a curse as nothing ever gets cold yet everything stays so hot it's difficult to inhale things at the desired rate. Then come all of the attendant pickles and accoutrements (banchan) like little colorful sidecars in a Shriner's parade. Expect kimchee of course, but also lotus flower root, fish cake, sweet potato, bean sprout, and apple-potato salad. You could spend an hour just going back and forth for the captivating allure of what might come next.

This is the holy grail of dolsot bibimbap, wherein the sizzling earthenware bowl crisps the bottom layer of rice into a heavenly raft of caramelized crunch, then gets layered with a colorful pinwheel of spicy beef, seaweed, sauteed shiitakes, bright carrot, julienned zucchini, zippy radish, and of course, the crowning fried egg to add creamy lushness to it all. Use the little syrup dispenser of "bibimbap sauce" -- think Sriracha for grownups -- to set it deliciously ablaze.

Things only get better with the kimchee soup. Also served in a hot earthenware bowl, the blood-red cauldron of edible inferno burns low and slow, like an ember. Little bits of roasted pork, silken cubes of tofu, slivers of scallion, and tomato wedges add textural diversions and give you things to stab at with your chopsticks. It's sweater-stripping, nose-blowing, disorienting heat. If you're the kind who complains clear through to April about the cold, this is an elixir to heal you. Kimchee lovers: This is your nirvana.

Or, if you're any fan at all of fried food, get the kimchee pancake with asparagus, bell pepper, and namesake kimchee trapped in its crisp folds. It's like State Fair food if fair food were sophisticated and righteous.

Grilled short ribs and fried chicken, probably the two most lusted-after Korean darlings right after bibimbap, are best in class here. The first is served in a heavy cast iron pan, a generous portion that easily serves four to share as a starter. The beef has a tender chew, but still has substance, and the sauce is a study in balance -- sugar plays off of soy and sesame seed in a delicate dance, and if that isn't enough, toss in one of the half dozen banchan for a different bite each time.

Fried chicken around these parts is a coy, elusive creature, and when promised, often leaves us a bit crestfallen. The Korean-style chicken wings here are a top contender for the best fried chicken in town, with a cornstarch coating that shatters beneath your teeth like crushed ice, and flesh so moist it slides off the bone. A sweet-spicy-sour glaze coats the plate and induces finger-licking. This is what they were thinking when they brainstormed that slogan.

So what's a body to do when it wants a feast of this caliber, but also wine, service, charming atmosphere? Takeout? A Bitesquad order from here will have your office mates ohh-ing for weeks. Or, if you're an intrepid type -- the type who will eat in the back of a grocery, for instance -- the new Dong Hae with its niggling little flaws might be just the thing for you. And perhaps, if you flood your senses with flavor such as this, all the other details will simply fall away.

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