Korean classics steal the show at this East Asian eatery
Spicy chicken bibimbap at Sura
Named for the extravagant meals served to monarchs during the Joseon Dynasty, Sura (6946 S. Lewis St.) is a family-operated eatery serving traditional Korean delicacies alongside a bevy of Japanese familiars. Fortunately, Tulsans don’t have to prove royal lineage or spend a king’s ransom to experience the tender galbi (BBQ beef short ribs served with grilled vegetables atop a small clay stove; $18), the surf-and-turf pork and squid ($14), or the kaleidoscopic seafood pancake ($10), a savory treat swimming with shrimp, squid, and sweet onions that makes all other pancakes look miniscule by comparison.
Confusingly, Korean food remains one of the more obscure Asian cuisines to make landfall stateside. Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian have all had their heyday, but traditional Korean food has yet to receive the same fanfare. While an influx of Korean/Mexican taco trucks have been wooing diners in metropolitan America for the better part of the last decade, in much of the country traditional Korean food still remains a hidden gem.
But for what reason? Have long-standing political tensions prejudiced the American palate against the majesty of Korean cuisine? Has the reputation of cabbage kimchi—which is as delicious as it is pungent—wrongly impressed the notion that Korean food is overwhelmingly odoriferous? (I’ll mention that blue cheese, pickles, and sauerkraut are all—like kimchi—fermented products that are uniquely valued for their funky tastes and aromas.) Or is Korean food simply not ubiquitous enough for people to know it’s out there?
Whatever the case may be, Korean food is rich in protein and spice, playful with textures, and endlessly enjoyable. While Sura manager James Bae offers patrons a large selection of Japanese familiars such as nigiri, Americanized sushi rolls, and starters like shrimp tempura ($7), gyoza ($5), and edamame ($5), the Korean menu is where Sura separates itself from the growing pack of sushi bars barking for business.
Korean food is almost infinitely customizable, so if you regularly experience flavor fatigue halfway through your meal, a trip to Sura will cure you. “Banchan” collectively refers to any number of smaller plates that accompany rice-based dishes, like the galbi, beef bulgogi (thinly sliced Korean BBQ; $13), spicy chicken ($12) or spicy pork ($12). Banchan occupy a nebulous space between side dishes and condiments, and they can be eaten by themselves or used as toppings for an entree. So you might accent your first bite of sweet Korean BBQ with some kimchi, steamed broccoli, and square of tofu, while a few strands of ojingeo-chae-bokkeum (dried, red-pepper squid) and sliced fish cake transport your next bite into unchartered territory. By putting some of the artistry of constructing flavor profiles back into the hands of the consumer, banchan help make your meal a more interactive and personal affair.
Any of the previously mentioned meats can be ordered as bibimbap. Bibimbap is a rice dish typically served in a stone bowl brimming with a picturesque arrangement of seasonal vegetables (fern, carrots, radish, zucchini, shitake mushrooms, Korean spinach, and bean sprouts) and topped with meat and a raw egg. The bowl is heated so much so that it continues cooking even after the dish has been dropped off, and a quick mix of the ingredients will scramble the egg. True fans of bibimbap know that the magic lies in the bottom layer of rice, which becomes browned and crunchy from the searing stoneware and offers a dynamic contrast to the soft rice and crispy vegetables.
Looking for sharable plates? Sura abounds. The grilled eel ($18) is served with romaine lettuce leaves for wrapping and a doenjang sauce (a fermented soybean paste that is vaguely reminiscent of salted peanut butter). Eel is a sweet and subtle fish that, despite having enough oil to prevent it from drying out, is light, clean, and lacks the fishiness of similarly oily species like mackerel and herring. The grilled eel is perfect for passing around the table, and makes for a memorable appetizer or mid-meal addition.
The Korean sashimi rice bowl ($14) offers a mountainous pile of sushi-grade tuna, white tuna, and red snapper (or salmon, upon request), and was one of the two table favorites. The fresh fish sat atop a bed of rice and was flanked with red onions, shaved beets, shredded carrots, lettuce, cucumber, peeled apple, and dressed with a sweet red chili sauce. Even if you don’t order the sashimi rice bowl, request the sweet chili sauce. You won’t regret it. The other table favorite was the spicy seafood tofu soup ($11), which was silken and velvety. As is often the case, “spicy” is relative at Sura. If your tongue can handle standard Mexican fare, nothing at Sura will cause you distress.
And if you have room, don’t forget to ask about dessert. James informed our table that he’ll be revamping the dessert menu in the coming months, and if the sundae of red bean and melon ice creams and Korean mochi is any indication of what’s to come, this will only sweeten the pot and give you one more reason to seek out Sura.
6946 S. Lewis Ave.
Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.