Restaurant Reviews

Drunken Dragon Fires Up Trendy Korean Barbecue in South Beach

The waiter says he can't leave the ripping-hot, onyx-colored stone bowl on the table. There's some kind of legal/insurance issue. Someone might get burned. He has to spoon its contents into serving bowls and take the hot pot away.

See also: Photos from Drunken Dragon in South Beach

But bibimbap -- a Korean comfort food -- is best left undisturbed for a few moments. The dish is like a distant relative of Miami's ubiquitous rice, beans, and chicken bowls, but with mint-green scallion loops, ruddy ribbons of nostril-flaring kimchee, and a golden pearl of an egg yolk crowning the dish. Its fatty, tender batons of oxtail are pressure-cooked into delicate, delicious oblivion with hot chilies and the licorice-like star anise. The sizzling bowl coaxes a snap-crackling symphony out of the rice as it pops and crisps.

After some persuasion, the waiter relents and lets it be.

South Beach's Drunken Dragon, which opened on Alton Road in mid-June, comes from the owners of the neighboring Foxhole Bar, with backing from some of the nightlife big shots behind Wall and LIV. As is customary on the island, hip developers have taken an exotic concept, incorporated some "authentic" details, and transformed it into something trendier and more expensive.

Here, next to Domino's Pizza in an unassuming strip mall, blacked-out windows and a signless entrance create a secret vibe -- part of the calculated allure. Beyond the door lies a wait stretching 30 minutes past your reservation. Use this time to squeeze between women in stiletto heels and gaudy gold tights and order floral-scented cocktails that are strained into ivory-hued skull mugs. The enticing list of sweet, tropical cocktails comes from Gui Jaroschy, a Broken Shaker bartender and one of the city's most respected tiki masters. The tart $14 Voodoo Lady deftly blends tequila with lime, grapefruit, and pineapple juices; cinnamon syrup; and the jasmine-vanilla essence of Southeast Asia's ylang-ylang tree, served in a grinning teal tiki tumbler topped with a magenta orchid.

You'll pay at least $5 more for bibimbap at Drunken Dragon than you would in western Broward, where there's a cluster of more traditional Korean spots, but the version here is just as good. However, if it's Korean barbecue you're after, a 45-minute drive is still your best bet.

Korean barbecue is something of an experience: You char paper-thin slices of marinated protein over a circular grill embedded in the center of your table. Drunken Dragon's dimly lit dining room -- decorated with Asian-themed bric-a-brac and boasting a vaulted ceiling reinforced with hulking oak beams -- has seven barbecue tables, or "ondols," lining walls on either side. You can order barbecue dishes at all of the restaurant's 74 seats, but unless you snag an ondol (you need a minimum of four people), the grilling will be done in the kitchen under the guidance of executive chef Xavier Torres, a Nobu and Dutch alumnus who staged under triple-starred Basque toque Martín Berasategui.

Given such a resumé, one would expect $3-per-piece drunken shrimp to be cooked flawlessly, but they arrived underdone. The succulent crustaceans, marinated in a smoky-sour blend of orange juice, soy sauce, vinegar, and Old Bay seasoning, lacked the slight chew that should give way to buttery flesh. A small slab of skirt steak cooked medium-rare oozed its succulent juices like the marbled cap on a dry-aged rib eye. Ask for an extra dish of the refreshing chimichurri, brightened with plenty of lime juice, cilantro, and the sting of Fresno chilies. The barbecue list also includes beef tongue with sesame oil, chicken doused with lemon and soy sauce, and octopus coins with a spicy fermented Gochujang barbecue sauce.

Across the menu, Torres deploys the modernist techniques he picked up in Spain -- with erratic success. The Buffalo powder -- made with Frank's RedHot sauce dehydrated with maltodextrose and then sprinkled onto crisp and meaty twice-fried chicken wings -- is like salt-and-vinegar sawdust. It dries your mouth and chaps your lips, but it can be tempered by the accompanying ramekin of nutty miso-infused ranch dressing. Peking bao and a hamachi crudo are a happy about-face. The former nestles juicy ribbons of duck confit into a fluffy pair of steamed clamshell buns and tops them with a sticky, smoky house hoisin and a crunchy square of chicken skin. Five thin slices of pearly, translucent hamachi are dressed in an acerbic blend of Filipino lime juice and ponzu that fuses well with small orange and grapefruit bits and the sweet, nutty crunch of crushed cashews.

Despite the specter of authenticity conjured by the barbecue tables, Drunken Dragon is admittedly more pan-Asian than strictly Korean. There is kimchee carbonara and a spicy mayo-painted lobster roll. And, appallingly, there is a charge for banchan, the assortment of bites -- usually kimchee, fish cakes, and sweet, fermented black beans -- commonly served at the beginning of a Korean meal, for free.

A few dishes, such as the expensive but worthy bibimbap, will call you back to this trendy spot. The predictable, pricey South Beach spin on Korean and Asian food is a welcome option, but when you have time for a road trip, ride to Lauderhill for the real deal. Waiters there don't treat the stone bowl as a lawsuit-in-waiting and are happy to let it sit as long as you like.

Peking bao $12

Twice-fried chicken $14

Churrasco $10

Drunken shrimp $18

Hamachi $14

Stone pot rice $18

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson