Two or three years ago, we felt grateful when a new chain came to town. But more and more, a sense of optimism has inspired independent restaurateurs to open diverse concepts in Boise that once seemed unsustainable. Now we have prix fixe fine dining, Himalayan dumplings, Cuban food, schnitzel and pho.
Add to this list K-Fusion, the Korean barbecue restaurant on Broadway in the space most recently occupied by The Saladman. Owners Joon and Sena Park have made the room into an urban cafe, with minimally ornamented black walls, stylish paper placemats and serviceware of metal and stone. A single long booth runs along one wall to the curtained-off kitchen, which is Sena's territory. At the register, you may find the affable Joon singing along with K-pop piped overhead.
Service is quick and friendly in introducing the cuisine, and the menu is short and coordinated with helpful photographs. (A menu expansion is planned March 10.) In a pair of recent visits, my wife and I found the food instantly accessible.
Korean barbecue is centered on deeply marinated, quick-cooked meats; here the proprietors use pasture-raised and local meat wherever possible. In particular, K-Fusion's menu is threaded with bulgogi, razored ribbons of beef steeped in soy, sugar, garlic, pepper, ginger and sesame oil. As an entree, the bulgogi ($13.99) is a pile of sweet, salty beef and white onion, sizzling on an iron platter with a side of white rice. Though immediately craveable, a sameness of flavor takes over seven or eight bites in, which makes the dish better for sharing.
The bulgogi is used to better effect adding character to other dishes. In the striking hot stone bibimbap ($10.99), rice is topped with lettuce, mushroom, carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts, and a bit of bulgogi. An egg is cracked over the top just before serving, and the diner stirs it rapidly into the rice, cooking the egg against the sesame-oiled sides of the crackling stone bowl. A gold, nutty crust forms on the rice, like the bottom of an expertly cooked paella.
In a more unusual pairing - and the only item that could reasonably fall into the category of "fusion" - bulgogi is found at the bottom of a cheese and potato gratin appetizer ($6.99). The sweetness of the beef infuses the potato lava; close your eyes and you are eating sweet potato soup. Though tasty, this looks nothing like the stock menu photo nor has the necessary crisped exterior that is promised in the name.
We also enjoyed another appetizer, the paprika mandu ($6.99) -roasted bell pepper halves filled with a mix of beef, pork, onion, garlic, tofu and cheese, streaked with sugary sauce.
Delicious with just about everything at K-Fusion is a sweet, wine-dark chili sauce served on request. The heat is subtle and never takes over. This sauce is also the primary flavoring in the hot stone spicy pork ($13.99), concentrated by cooking, and turning the pork deep red.
Another popular meat-and-rice dish is the galbi ($16.99), short ribs sliced thin across the bone and marinated in sugar and soy. No knives are at the table, so the ribs are delivered with a pair of shears for clipping the meat from the bones.
Galbi, spicy pork, and bulgogi are also available in smaller portions as part of a combo ($16.99-$18.99) served with hot stone rice and a soft tofu stew. The crusty hot stone rice on its own isn't as glorious as in the bibimbap. And I found the texture of the tofu stew challenging. This is served with a whole egg on the side for the diner to crack into the boiling soup, and while the flavors are interesting - pungent, funky, acidic, tart - the entire concoction is the texture of runny eggs.
Each night, Joon brought to us little plates of fresh kimchi and a few pickled cucumbers, onions and jalapenos, all wonderful accessories to the meal.
For dessert, we tried the gooey pancake called hoddeok, with brown sugar, cinnamon and "Korean spices." We liked it enough without all the Americanized accoutrements: vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, maraschino cherry jam, whipped cream and powdered sugar.
Perhaps as the restaurant grows, there will be room for more oddities, and more risks will be taken. For now, K-Fusion's simple core menu is smartly aimed at building its audience.
Like several other restaurants in this wave of new independents, there's reason to think K-Fusion might stick around.
Email Alex Kiesig: email@example.com.