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Friday, June 05, 2015

A Little Korea

From the Food Vault Dept.: Arirang was one of several short-lived Korean restaurants that have tried to gain a following in the Albany area. Its successor in that space is a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Yum that specializes in noodle soup and banh mi, so it’s still worth a visit.


DINING OUT CAN PROVIDE surprising shots of self-knowledge. While studying the menu at Arirang, I heard my wife and daughter toss back and forth the name of one of the popular Korean dishes: bi bim bab. “Sounds good,” my wife, Susan, said. “Rice, meat and vegetables. Bi bim bab.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Bi bim bab,” my daughter repeated, chuckling.

“Don’t be such tourists,” I growled. “Don’t make fun of the language.”

“I’m not!” said Susan. “I’m celebrating it. I like the sound of that phrase.”

To which my daughter added, “Lighten up, Dad.”

Was I really that uptight? Our server overheard the menu item being repeated and hurried to the table, graciously answering Susan’s query about the meaning of the phrase. “It means rice, that’s all mixed together with vegetables.”

She proved even more helpful when the dish was served. Bi bim bab ($12) by itself looks to be a pleasant dish, mixing, as we were told, veggies and rice and your choice of meat, but there’s added theater in gob dol bi bim bab ($13), which puts the ingredients in a hot stone bowl so that your rice sizzles to crispness as the veggies (Korean: namul), including julienned carrots and cucumber, mushrooms and sprouts were bunched attractively near chunks of chicken and topped with a fried egg, which itself got a seaweed garnish.

“You have to mix it,” our server said. Susan, caught mid-bite, looked up in alarm. “You have to mix it all together.” She’d been eating it section by section, but soon got into the freeform rhythm of the dish, adding dabs of gochujang, a traditional chili pepper paste.

Arirang” is a Korean folksong, taking its title from a word that refers to beauty. Many thus-named restaurants are revealed by a quick internet search.

When we last were at this location, in early 2006, the emphasis was sushi and Thai food, under the aegis of chef Mino Kawaguchi. But he moved north to Saratoga, and the space easily transformed into a Korean-Japanese-Thai combo owned by Steven Kim, well known for the Asian market that bears his name on Central Ave.

The current trend is to mix pan-Asian cuisines, so this menu mixture items is unsurprising but very welcome. Especially where Korean food is concerned. You won’t find the variety (or the tableside grills) that characterize the eateries on Manhattan’s West 32nd St., an area known as “Little Korea,” where the menus are dauntingly expansive, but Arirang boasts a solid list of favorites.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It has to be difficult to cater to a clientele unused to such customs as the traditional mealtime array of banchan, small side dishes, of which the spicy fermented cabbage called kimchi is the best known. But how nice to be able to wait for one’s dining companion while shelling edamame ($5), those crisp little soybean peas that pick up just enough salt from their seasoned shells.

Other starters include gyoza and shumai (two types of dumpling, $5-$6), small portions of tempura ($5-$7), Thai spring rolls ($5), satay chicken ($7) and a spectacular looking dish called goong salong ($7), featuring large shrimp wrapped in a flurry of thin noodles, crisply deep fried and served on a handsome plate with a side dish of sweet, pungent dipping sauce.

A separate menu gives the sushi variety, much of the listing given over to the fanciful rolls and other Americanized assemblies. This is where you’ll find favorites like a spicy salmon or tuna roll, some with crunch, served with the same attractiveness and care as the other dishes.

Most entrées are served with a salad or miso soup; the former mixes iceberg lettuce with slices of cucumber, tomato and carrot under the expected ginger dressing.

In terms of sheer number, Japanese dishes dominate the menu, but many of those are one-ingredient variations on hibachi dinners ($14-$15, and apparently not cooked tableside, for no teppanyake grills were in evidence), teriyaki-seasoned fare ($11-$15, including a couple of tempting-looking noodle-based items) and sushi and sashimi presentations.

Despite my orders to stay with the Korean dishes, my daughter rebelliously decided that life would not be worth living were she to be denied a bento box, which puts an entrée and its accompanying items on a segmented rectangular black lacquer tray. She ordered the beef teriyaki box ($14), which, alongside thin, sesame-coated slices of meat, presented sticky rice, kimchi, vegetable stir-fry, noodles and orange segments.

Beef featured in my dinner, the classic bulgogi (fire beef, $13), a very nice take on a dish I’ve found elsewhere with more spice and tenderness. Other Korean entrées include grilled beef ribs ($15), highly recommended by other reviewers, soups of seafood ($15), dumplings ($12) or noodles ($11), stir-fried spicy pork ($13) and a $12 kimchi stew.

On the Thai side, there’s pad Thai ($15), mixing noodles with chicken, egg and peanuts, among other ingredients, Thai fried rice with your choice of meat ($14), pad see ew ($14), which mixes rice noodles and Chinese broccoli with egg and your meat choice, and an array of curried or stir-fried dishes ($14 each).

It’s a diverse enough menu to invite repeated visits, and the location and available parking certainly make this place convenient. Although open for just over a year, it was quiet the evening of our visit, so we enjoyed close but discreetly offered attention. I’d like to return and try some Thai food. I’d like to return and sit at the sushi bar. All in good time, I hope; I can’t see Arirang not picking up a following.

Arirang, 1558 Central Ave., Colonie, 452-xxxx. Serving lunch Mon-Sat 11:30-2:30, dinner Mon-Sat 5-9:30. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 1 October 2009

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