Korean food isn’t especially spicy, but Yong Du Dong, a Koreatown baby octopus specialist named for a neighborhood in Seoul, more than brings the heat. The walls and chairs are flame red, and it’s a given that your mouth will sting. After all, the only three options on the menu for their signature baby octopus are either 80%, 100% or 120% spice level. I settled into a table in front of a big model ship, my ears awash with a sea of K-Pop music, and ordered 80% ($17.99 per person). The tiny creatures arrive in a sturdy concave table-top grill, submerged in a bubbling burgundy chile sauce. To tame the heat of the tender scissor-cut cephalopods, the owners provide raw carrots, cucumbers and onions, bean sprouts, paper-thin pickled daikon, perilla leaves for wrapping (ssam), and curry dipping sauce. The barley tea flowed like a waterfall, but that cool liquid couldn’t come close to taming the heat. A tangy cold soup with seaweed, carrots and cucumbers helped a bit, but then that burn rose anew.
Invest in the per person price and receive a crispy pancake studded with flat chives and squid, soybean stew with tofu, and wicked fried rice. My server minced the baby octopus, which remained in a shallow pool of spicy chile sauce. He added tiny orange flying fish roe (tobiko), mozzarella, kimchi, ribbons of perilla, nori and rice. The cumulative effect was savory, crunchy, and not nearly as incendiary as the baby octopus base. The rice formed a great crust on the pan, and my server even folded the results into a heart. How romantic.
After leaving Yong Du Dong, I looked back at the restaurant. All I could see was a be-toqued baby octopus licking his lips and giving me a big thumb’s up. Instead of questioning how many things were off or disturbing about Yong Du Dong’s cartoon logo, I was happy to have experienced one of Koreatown’s spiciest, most flavorful seafood options.