Last week, my Instagram and Facebook feed nearly filled up with pictures and reels of diners stirring silver pots filled with thick noodles and dumplings made of tteok, or rice cakes, and vegetables, all simmering in a spice-laden red broth. I decided: I had to venture out to get right down to what Dookki tteokbokki is.
Turns out, Houston’s location of Dookki, the first in the U.S., is pretty significant. Part of a larger Korean chain that has more than 350 locations around the world, mostly in Southeast Asia, the all-you-can-eat restaurant offers a more modern spin on tteokbokki, a traditional meal of chewy rice or wheat cakes that are simmered in a broth mixed with spicy and sweet sauces, vegetables, and other ingredients. Inspired by how a younger generation of diners likes to eat, Dookki’s 90-minute all-you-can-eat experience also offers a buffet of fried foods for dunking, like fried chicken and sweet potato cakes, plus the option to offer a cheese dipping sauce for extra creaminess.
The name Dookki, which means “two meals” in Korean, refers to a dual dining experience. Following the rice cake- and noodle-filled soups, diners, especially those who consciously pace themselves, can enjoy kimchi fried rice that’s also cooked at the table using the remaining soup broth for the perfect finish. But at Dookki, the experience is multifaceted, with the option of also partaking in the ramen bar and bulgogi station.
Steve Hong, who owns Houston’s Dookki with his wife Sunny, says they opened the restaurant in early August using only social media and a word-of-mouth approach to promote it, and already it’s bustling with eager diners. Steve attributes the restaurant’s business to the growing consumption and appreciation of Korean culture and cuisine in the U.S., which has been driven, in no small part, by K-pop music and other Korean media including films and TV dramas. This popularity also surrounds Korean cuisine, which has long been visible in Houston, particularly in areas like Asiatown.
At Dookki, I initially felt a little intimidated, overwhelmed even, by the various steps and ingredients offered to make my own tteokbokki, even after resolving that I would closely follow the directions my server gave me and the paper instructions provided at the table. For those experiencing this type of Korean dining experience for the first time, a cheat sheet can come in handy. Here’s a quick rundown on the tteokbokki basics and how to follow up your soup with the perfect kimchi fried rice, which Steve says is a Korean specialty.
- Start with the sauce. After you confirm with your server that you want to experience the two-part Dookki tteokbokki experience, they’ll bring you a seafood broth that’s placed in the largest silver bowl on your table’s burner (if you have a seafood allergy, be sure to tell them). Now, it’s time to make your own sauce. Grab the smallest, silver scoop-like dish at your table and head to the sauce bar, where you can choose between eight sauces. The key is to pick three — a trifecta of your favorite flavors, whether that be spicy, sweet, salty, or creamy (I chose a combination of the extremely spicy Dongdaemoon, named after the South Korean district Dongdaemun, and balanced it out with the restaurant’s traditional sauce and the sweet and mild Busan, a nod to the Korean city). Take your sauce mixture back to your table and pour it slowly into your pot, which should now be heating up on medium heat on your table’s burner. Let it simmer.
2. Fill your bowl with all the rice cake and vegetable goodness. Take the medium-sized bowl and head to the tteokbokki ingredients bar, which offers more than a dozen choices, including ramen, tteok (rice cakes) in all different shapes and sizes, plus fried tofu, cabbage, and proteins like meatballs, shrimp, and fish balls. Some of my favorites were the round-shaped rice tteok, the thick wheat noodle tteok, the fish cake noodles, and the corn cheese ball. Back at your table, slowly (to not splash hot liquid on your tablemates) pour your ingredients into the simmering bowl of broth and sauce. Use your ladle to mix, and let it cook.
3. Go back for some hot, fried foods. Head back to the same bar that has the tteokbokki ingredients, grab a silver tray, and load it up with some of the hot food items, which include fun sides for dunking, including fried chicken, fried dumplings, seaweed rolls filled with noodles, fried sweet potato cakes that pair perfectly with a spicy broth, and fish cakes threaded on a stick. (I added a little bit of everything with the intent to return for seconds with anything I really enjoyed.) Optional: It’s popular to dump the fried dumplings into the soup, which gives them more flavor.
4. Now you’re cooking. Stir and let the soup simmer until the noodles are soft, the proteins are cooked, and the broth-sauce mixture becomes a thicker consistency. Once you reach this stage, it’s okay to turn down the heat to keep the soup warm, but no longer simmering. Grab the medium silver dish with a handle (this looks similar to the dish you used for sauces, but larger). This is your serving bowl. Ladle yourself some spoonfuls of the soup and dig in, using the hot foods, like the fried dumplings and fish cakes for the occasional dunking. Make sure you save some of the broth for the fried rice.
5. Once you get your share of soup, it’s time for the fried rice. If you still have some soup left over, don’t fret. It’s okay to toss aside the remaining ingredients into a side bowl but make sure you preserve some broth. With your ingredients bowl handy, head to the fried rice bar, where mix-ins like ham, sweet corn, onion, seaweed flakes, and the essential ingredient, according to Steve Hong — scoops of kimchi — await. Fill your bowl with your favorites, and spoon in a healthy heap of rice from the nearby rice maker. Return to your table and mix all of the fried rice ingredients together in the bowl on your burner. Turn the heat up, and once the ingredients are mixed well, flatten the mixture and fry it until the bottom of the rice gets brown and sticks to the pan, giving it more flavor. (This is how it’s most often enjoyed in Korea, Hong says.) Then, enjoy: No one will judge you if you scoop straight from the pot.
6. Decide whether you have more room. It turns out Dookki actually offers more than two meals. With AYCE, you can, of course, go back for seconds, thirds, and so on. But consider this: In addition to the soup and kimchi fried rice station, the restaurant also offers a ramen bar, a bulgogi station, and a freezer with ice cream that you can scoop yourself, with select toppings.
- Try everything, but save room if you want the full two-part experience. I added almost a little bit of everything to my first trays and bowls to see what I really enjoyed. The best approach is to pace yourself. Though 90 minutes seems like more than enough time, it would be easy to fill up on the soup portion alone.
- Ask for scissors and a pot holder. You’ll likely spot a server or staff member carrying around a bin of scissors, which are super clutch for cutting long noodles that can otherwise make for a messy situation. They also have nifty green silicone pot holders on hand, which make holding the seriously hot pots easier, especially when stirring your fried rice.
- Bring friends. This is definitely an experience that should be shared, and when you have some help eating, it’ll likely make experiencing both — or all the meals available — a more enjoyable feat.