At Mr. Wok, the spicy octopus is stir-fried in sesame oil and coated in a lavish red sauce of fathomless depth. Like many of the entrees, its redness comes from fermented chili paste called gochujang, or dried flakes. But the color of this sauce, dark as wine, tells you in advance about its heat: It is not the kind of spice that throws up a stop sign, but one that draws you down its staircase before shoving you into the furnace.
Once out of the fire, we picked through the pile of tentacles for something cooling, like a bit of cabbage or carrot, then rushed for a bite from a tin of steamed sticky rice and the array of banchan, a field of little white dishes whose delicate contents create endless contrasting pairings.
Mr. Wok is just up the hill from downtown on Vista Avenue, in a space that has housed a series of themed bars and grills. The dining room is paneled in dark wood, skylit at the entrance, strung with Boise State University pennants and flags, and filled with blonde farmhouse kitchen tables and chairs. It is notably free of music—the restaurant's sounds come from the kitchen, located behind bamboo screens: a whoosh of steam, plates clattering, the hum of overhead hood fans. At the tables, the hushed murmur was not in English. On a recent night, one of the TVs was on but muted, as Walker Texas Ranger drove an orange Dodge away from a helicopter in silence.
The quiet lends itself to contemplation of the menu, comprised of stock photos with just a few words of description. There are teriyaki and Chinese dishes for the less adventurous, but the truth of this restaurant is Korean.
The one non-Korean item we tried, an order of gyoza ($3.95 for five pieces), was fine but ordinary—chicken potstickers dropped in a fryer.
Elsewhere, the food is more ambitious. The bulgogi ($8.99) is a pile of blazing orange pork or beef and white onions, served sizzling on a fajita platter with a side of rice. Here the redness was embedded into the meat rather than sauced over it, a little spicy from the chili paste, sweetened by mirin and sugar and dashed with soy. We liked the pork version, but wished it had been sliced thinner to make it less chewy.
That was the one thing about the octopus entree, too (nakgi bokum, $13.99). That we were keenly aware of the fact we were eating tentacles was not the issue. The tentacles, cooked too long, were stubborn.
A pot of seafood and tofu soup (haemi soon tofu, $9.99) arrived at the table at a volcanic roil, still bubbling after a full minute. The shrimp, clams and squid in the soup continued to cook the longer they sat, so required rescue before stiffening. The white lobes of soft tofu were surprisingly resilient, holding shape until they yielded in the mouth like custard. The broth was worth waiting for—again, that chili red, full and briny, with pepper that hit the back of our throats.
"Overcooking" is intentional in the hot stone bowl bibimbap ($9.99, $1 more for the stone bowl), a scoop of rice with shredded vegetables, scant beef bulgogi and a sunny egg yolk sprinkled with sesame seeds. Stirring in the egg with gochujang, the rice crackled against the bottom of the bowl, a kind of deliciousness like the difference between a brownie from the edge of the pan and one the center.
Ultimately, I was more intrigued by the banchan than the entrees.
On one visit, it was smashed cucumber in garlic and chilies, fried strings of anchovy, sweet potato, onions in sweet syrup, cabbage kimchi, bean sprouts, daikon radish.
The next time, there were diamonds of Korean scallion pancake, broccoli tossed in sesame oil, a tangle of fermented lemongrass, and a pickled salad of vegetables that contained—no lie—a single slice of raw hot dog.
Service was mixed. The first time, during dinner, we asked for utensils and extra plates, but had to go to the counter to remind our server, who then seemed annoyed. We did not see her again, and used dishes piled up around us. A busser needed prompting to fill empty water glasses.
On a later visit for lunch (the menu is the same, with big portions at all meals), the server was attentive and friendly, even thoughtfully bringing a slice of sweet, crisp white melon "for dessert."
Quiet, too, was the owner, when I told her I'd be writing this story. Sitting at a table, a bowl of noodles draped in beautiful black sauce in front of her, she smiled and said thank you and that was all.