Though it may be more anecdotal than anything else, there is a popular theory that during South Korea's recession in the mid-to-late 2000's the country's young unemployed masses became especially enamored with a dish called buldak, or "fire chicken," a sauce-covered stir fry that was prepared so hot in some kitchens that too deep an inhale whilst chewing could cause a nosebleed. Apparently it served as a pseudo-stress reliever; the face-melting burn of pure capsaicin stimulates the release of feel good endorphins, buoying your mood when paired with an equally potent bottle of soju. The super-hot fad swept the country for a few years before smoldering out. (concurrent with the economy's improvement, interestingly enough).
You can find buldak in Koreatown too, including some howl-inducing versions LAPD might find useful if they were ever aerosolised them. But this food fight doesn't involve buldak, thankfully, instead focusing on a much tamer relative: the spicy hamburger, a specimen which proved to be rarer in this city that one might guess. But what could pump up a recession-addled brain with serotonin better the dual pleasures of a dank cheeseburger and a hefty dose of throat-searing gastric havoc?
The first stop was at Hollywood's Fukuburger, the brick-and-mortar offspring of a Las Vegas food truck that opened late last year. Fukuburger's menu is based around Japanese-themed burgers enlivened by the addition things of like fried eggs, pickled ginger, furikake, and something called "crack sauce" (just when you thought people had realized that comparing food items to crack was poorly advised). The thought process of the investors may have well been, "If stumbly late-night crowds in Sin City love it, then it'll definitely play in Hollywood once we add in some sake bombs."
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But we digress -- Fukuburger has the $8 "Karai" spicy burger (a subtle TMNT reference?) which comprises of a patty paved with American cheese, some snappy ginger-laced pickles, and a healthy slather of avocado cream and habanero kabayaki, a pepper-infused version of that sweet-soy mixture that laces grilled eel at sushi joints. Was it tear-inducing? Not unless those were tears of regret. The level of spice here would fail to impress a lady in white gloves, and the mushy underseasoned patty didn't help matters either. Surely there is hotter, and better. Get the chicken katsu sandwich with added spicy sauce if you must, preferably during later, heavily lubricated periods of the night.
A drive down Wilton Avenue led us to Koreatown's Kalbi Burger, a strip mall diner that specializes in Korean-fusion burgers. When kimchi first met taco all those years ago, did anyone doubt that burgers would follow suit? The most recent addition to Kalbi's list of creations, which include a banh mi burger and one involving sautéed kimchi and thousand island dressing, is the spicy "Jeju Do" Burger for $6.95, a pork burger named after the tiny island south of Korean famous for its fatty and succulent black pigs.
Is the meat from Jeju-do province? Maybe not, but it sounds pleasing to the quality-minded Korean ear. The porcine patty resembles an enlarged version one of those sausage rounds you get at greasy spoons cafes, the only difference being a glowing thermite red; a spicy glow from its intense gochujang saturation. There's more hot red pepper paste in the sauce too, essentially a mayo fortified a higher heat index. And what's this? Slices of fresh jalapeno and sautéed jalapenos. This might be the only burger on earth in which a layer of kimchi is necessary to temper the heat.
Kalbi Burger scores the easy win for spiciness, as well as bonus points for being cheaper and more filling. Do you have a favorite burger that's even spicier, and hopefully, tastier? Leave it in the comments and our iron stomachs will take on the challenge just as soon as these Alka-Seltzer kick in.