K Peppers is tucked away in a corner of Middleton's Cayuga Court shopping area, next to Barriques, in the space that used to house the Soup Factory. You might miss it altogether, or extrapolate from the name that it's a Mexican restaurant.
But K Peppers is Korean. It bills itself as "Korean fusion," even though the waiter admits the menu is pretty much straight Korean. If the kitchen does decide to introduce a Korean version of a hamburger later on, he suggests, they're covered. If you're looking for inventive Muramoto-style fusion dishes, this isn't the spot. However, K Peppers does very well with the Korean side.
The small dining area is painted in deep chocolate and olive, mellow jazz plays in the background, and a pretty Christmas tree is classy and festive. It's a welcoming, clean, contemporary room that made a meal out seem special, without its being a special occasion. I don't usually get hung up on how a restaurant looks, but K Peppers is an uplifting change from Madison's only remaining Korean restaurant, New Seoul.
K Peppers' cafe-sized 10-table dining area, never quite full on a recent Saturday night, did usher a constant stream of diners in and out in a way that made the place lively.
Appetizers, in small and large orders, range from the expected - like dumplings, crimped like little turnovers and fried crisp - to the palate-blowing, like the hot pepper paste topokki. A hardboiled egg and a number of rice sticks come paired with a sweet-spicy tomato-chili sauce that our table ordered at "4" on the spice-o-meter (with 1 being mild and 5 being the hottest). Four was perhaps at least one numeral too hot to really catch the sweet undertones of the sauce, although it was interesting how a fingertip dab of the sauce started out sweet on the tongue, just before the chili burn rendered the taste buds scorched earth.
The appeal of "5" is probably restricted to those interested in truly angry food; "3" might better release the play between the sweet and the fire. The rice sticks themselves are bland and chewy, not sauce-delivery vehicles so much as heat-absorption pods. There's apparently a movement afoot to increase this popular Korean street snack's consumption elsewhere in the world, and while I might order it again, I don't think guacamole and chips have anything to worry about.
The modest menu is divided into three main groups: rice and noodles, Korean barbecue and soups. In the first category, the classic bibimbap is done well, and comes with choice of beef, tuna or tofu. The tuna went surprisingly well with the tinge of sesame oil that coats the bottom of the rock cooker, the hot stone bowl the dish comes in (do pay the extra $1 for the rock cooker versoin). The bibimbap comes topped with a barely sunny-side-up egg; stir the veggies, the rice and the hot pepper paste (that comes on the side) into an appealing comfort mess. The dish had a nutty flavor almost akin to wild rice.
Another classic Korean dish, bulgogi (barbecued rib eye, onions, mushrooms and carrots), had a great orange flavor - almost like the dish orange beef should taste, not the super-candied version so common to Chinese takeout.
From the soups, the kimchi jjigae is very good with a choice of pork or tuna. Other soups are bean paste, soft tofu, extra spicy beef and dumpling with veggies; jjambongbap is a spicy seafood dish that's listed with the noodle dishes but is souplike, with mussels, clams, shrimp and seafood.
An unusual offering is samgyubsal, made with barbecued "pork side" (traditionally, pork belly) with lettuce and garlic. There's also a spicy shrimp and squid bulgogi that's both hot and sweet.
Lunch specials, served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. ($7-$11), are simpler, straightforward noodle and rice dishes (a ramen noodle soup, fried rice) and the bibimbap.
Banchan, the side dishes that come with Korean meals, are somewhat wanting. There was a fine spicy kimchi and a fun pickled radish that tasted almost like pineapple, but a cold sample of the buchujun (leek pancake) appetizer was bland. I missed the great sweet potatoes served at New Seoul.
But a side dish is just a side dish. K Peppers is a welcome addition to downtown Middleton, a friendly bistro that happens to serve Korean food.