Restaurant Review: Arirang
One of the best Korean restaurants in town is barely a restaurant. In fact, based on its large sign outside - which reads "Asian Food Market" - you might inadvertently pass it by when trawling for an intriguing eatery. And that would be a shame, because the spartan but sparkling-clean Arirang is pretty great.
Tucked away in a (here we go again) suburban strip mall, Arirang actually does devote most of its space to an interesting array of Asian groceries. That's probably why its cooked-to-order food service entails a curious routine. Since I've worked my way through this quirky process, I'll talk you through it so your first trip will run smoothly - and deliciously.
The checkout counter in the front of the store is where the menu hangs, and it's where you'll place your order and then immediately pay. After that, take yourself and your receipt to the extreme back of the shop, where a little nook is set up with seven or eight tables facing a busy open kitchen. Hand your ticket to one of the kitchen workers, grab a seat and prepare to feast.
Drinks are DIY (there's a water cooler) and sometimes there's some freebie tea. On my last visit, it was a hot barley tea with a provocatively grainy, almost cereal-like flavor.
The wall-hanging menu is organized by price, with the more familiar Korean dishes corralled in the $9 section (there's also $8 and $7 groups plus a few specialties). This is where you'll find beginner-friendly preparations like Bulgogi, Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap and Hae Mul Pa Jyun.
Unlike several other bulgogis (Korean-style "barbecued" beef) around town, Arirang's thinly sliced beef curls weren't gristly, greasy or overly sweet. Sprinkled with sesame seeds and sauteed with white onions, scallions and carrots, the garlicky meat was super-tender and flattered by an addictive pan sauce.
Similarly, Arirang's version of the easy-to-like sizzling rice entree called Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap was more dynamic than many of its competitors. Arirang's was colorful and chunky with zucchini, fernbrake, egg, beef, shiitakes, spinach and so on.
I'm a huge fan of Hae Mul Pa Jyun (savory seafood pancake) and once again, Arirang did it better. Sized and sliced like a large pizza pie but recalling a frittata, the thick, crispy and eggy crepe was strewn with lots of scallion hunks and punctuated with small bits of mussels, squid and scallops - and the seafood wasn't tough, as is too often the case. For a non-seafood take on this smile-inducing pancake, try the steal-of-a-deal "green soybean" version (Noddu-Bindindaettuk, $4).
For something a little more daring, try the excellent Pan-Fried Squid and Vegetables with Spicy Sauce (O Jing Eo - Bokkeum, $8). Mine was actually made with octopus (again, thankfully not too chewy), which had been cooked with scallions and onions and seasoned with that prevalent sweet and spicy Korean condiment, chili-pepper-sparked fermented soybean paste.
Arirang also does a stellar job with those popular Korean-styled, surface-of-the-sun-hot stone pots of luridly red chili-broth-based soups. Of these, I loved the lean and mean Haemul Sun Dubu (spicy soft tofu with seafood, $9), which was mostly ripped pieces of silken tofu fleshed out with mussels, cuttlefish, "bay scallops" and a bubbling dropped egg. The homey Hot and Sweet Pan-Fried Chicken and Vegetable (Takdori-tang, $9), while a bit oily, was like a hearty and rustic stew with potatoes and peppers and fall-off-the-bone tender meat.
Now that you know Arirang is a fantastic little restaurant housed in a terrific Korean grocery, don't make the mistake again of driving by it without trying it.
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Arirang Korean Food Court
1526 Bethel Rd., Northwest Side
Price: $ (up to $10 per person)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday