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Despite their 1,001 Thai restaurants and 1,002 Mexican places, Fayettevillians find themselves remarkably short on ethnic fare. Flavors long ago chain-marketed and spread throughout the country seem to hit a wall on the way up I-540. That the home of our state's flagship university lacks culinary dimension might be a bit of an overstatement, but that it has left some tastes to be desired is certainly not. Still, the tired old assessment got a little tougher to put forth with the addition of Sook & Sung's Korean Cafe late last spring.
When we drove into town five years ago, the first thing that caught our eye was a shabby little Korean joint. Korean food still strikes us as a particularly exotic spin on typical Asian fare, with its peculiar combination cold dishes, unusual staples and flamboyantly sizzling entrees — but at the time our first taste of it was fresh on our buds. We were thrilled to see that a source of our new favorite cuisine was operating in Fayetteville. Unfortunately, restaurants in Fayetteville come and go as unpredictably as the notorious Arkansas weather, and that little glimmer of culinary hope vanished only weeks later, before we even walked through the doors.
Sook & Sung's has filled the gap nicely. Located on College Avenue next to Ozark Natural Foods in the building that once housed a middling Mediterranean restaurant, it's likely to blink off some radars. In spite of the unpleasantly bustling atmosphere of the surrounding area, the many cars whooshing by on College are shut out of the rather relaxed atmosphere inside. Translucent paper shades cast a warm evening light on the interior, which is livened by bright lime green walls with purple trim.
Proprietor Paul Yeo tries to use as many local and organic ingredients as possible, integrating them into the standard plates and side dishes alike. (On one occasion, we wrapped our barbecue in minty leaves that turned out to be harvested from Texas Sycamore trees.) A large part of the pleasure of eating at Sook & Sung's is the element of pleasant surprise. You can always expect to begin the meal with a little radish and a small dish of the traditional cured cabbage, kimchi — but what else? Spongy, soy-soaked fishcakes? An egg dish? Some wonderful variation on the potato? When a brown cup of mysterious liquid appears on your table, its contents depend as much on weather as whim. Summer months might bring a wonderful chilled cucumber soup; lower temperatures, maybe a mildly spicy bean sprout soup.
If the multiple traditional supplementary dishes don't adequately prep your palate, try one of the pancakes — seafood or veggie — which make judicious use of crunchy chunks of scallions. Or order a plate of some of the best sushi in town, called kimbap in Korea and served without wasabi and ginger, but prepared fresh and uncluttered by excess ingredients.
Whatever rare and unexpected delights set the stage, the entrees have a virtuous consistency built on their simple design. Thin strips of sweet marinated meat are minimally dressed on a plate called bulgogi. Any selection from the barbecue is sure to please, but especially the beef, which is served on a big sizzling platter and lacquered with a smoky sauce that gives it a sweet, almost candied flavor. And perhaps the most familiar dish on the menu, bibimbap, might masquerade as a simple stir fry, but it morphs into its own special creation after you drizzle it with thick, spicy sauce and the rice grows crisp on the side of your piping hot bowl.
Top your meal off with a hot cup of jujube tea, which combines the aromatic jujube fruit with honey and pine nuts for a delicious dessert drink, or order a bowl of homemade red bean ice cream, a kind of snow cone made from sugary azuki beans. From start to finish, you can't escape the unexpected. Come ready to be surprised.
Sook & Sung's Korean Cafe
1618 N College Ave.
Don't miss the mackerel — marinated for at least a week in Yeo's own special mixture until chewy, tangy, tender, and almost black.
5 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
All credit cards accepted. Beer and wine available. Moderate to expensive prices.