Whenever I mention the Korean restaurant Arirang, the response is unabashedly parochial: “I don’t know anyone who goes there. How have they managed to stay in business?” On a recent Friday night, I didn’t know a soul in the completely full room either, and I can rarely go anywhere without running into someone I know.
Still, my absence and that of my acquaintances hasn’t prevented Arirang from being in business for a good nine years now in the same storefront location on West End Avenue. The recent surge of ethnic eateries in Nashville is old news to owner Young Ko. Not only was Arirang the first Korean restaurant in town, it remains the only full-service one. One suspects there may not be as much demand for Beef Bolgogi and ManDu-Guk as there is for chimichangas, tandoori chicken, pad Thai, and sushiotherworldy dishes that have become as la-di-dah to many Americans as pizza and bagels. While Korean cuisine is perhaps more unfamilar in its preparation and presentation, it employs many foods familiar to our palateschicken, pork, cabbage, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, rice, and plenty of beef. According to The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America, in Korea, beef is prepared nose to tail, with well over 100 special soup recipes alone for every portion of the cow. The cuts most frequently offered in the United States are rump, round, short ribs, brisket, filet, tongue, liver, and tripe. Often, they are marinated in a spicy-sweet sauce, then grilled over a hot brazier called a bware.
All of the tables at Arirang come equiped with a bware. If two or more of you are sharing something from the “open-flame cookery” portion of the menu, the grilling will be done at the table (by an experienced professional, not by you) and though not as ostentatious as the shows performed in Japanese steakhouses, it is fun to watch. (I would endeavor to avoid at all costs the private back room, which is where we were seated thanks to the size of our party. It has all the ambiance of a walk-in medical clinic, a lingering greasy odor of grilled meats, and on one side of the table, a view into the kitchen every time the door swings open. In our experience, the servers can easily forget you are there; we waited forever it seemed for drinks and for orders to be taken. The front room is far more lively and atmospheric.) The lengthy menu is peppered with capricious descriptions like “intriguing country-side bouillon,” “famous clear noodles,” and “tender and juicy.” The selections are categorized by cooking and presentation method: open flame, big bowl, à la carte, and specialties. All items are numbered, which allows you to avoid fractured mispronunciations of dishes like Bibim Naeng-Myon. Your ineptitude can reveal itself in other ways, such as an awkward clumsiness with the only utensils that will be offered to you at Ariranga pair of chopsticks and a large soup spoon. Don’t panic; if any 2-year-old in Korea can do it, surely you can too. We skipped the soup course of either miso, gyoza, or seaweed, and moved along to the five appetizers. There are two types of dumplingsthe half-moon shaped gyoza are stuffed with ground veggies and pork, pan-fried here, not steamed; and shrimp shumai, pretty pink pop-in-your-mouth morsels shaped like mini-biscuits. I’d opt for the shumaitastier and not greasy like the gyoza. Pancakes make an excellent starter; in Korean cuisine they are made with egg and ground mung bean rather than flour. All are pre-cut into bite-sized slices. I loved the textural balance of crunchy scallion and slide-down-your-throat oyster in the oyster pancake, but my fellow diners liked the hot pepper one best.
Between appetizers and entrées, your server will bring a tray of small dishes and array them around the table. We detained her long enough to identify each one. There was bean curd shaped into jello-like cubes, honey nuts, a ball of spinach, fish cake, shredded pickled radish, potato cubes, and waterflower root. And of course, kimchee, which is as common to Korean tables as salt is to American tables. It even has its own museum in Seoul, where the World Trade Center there has a permanent exhibit of the history, equipment, and techniques of kimchee making. It is flavored with strong doses of garlic, radish, red pepper, and ginger. There are dozens of types, but the most common is cabbage kimchee. We also had cucumber kimchee and lettuce kimchee. Served cold, kimchee normally packs a pretty big wallop of heat, but at Arirang they were all pretty mild, as were each of the dishes we sampled labeled hot. I’d guess a condescension to American palates, one commonly committed by ethnic restaurants. I find it annoying, but I imagine it’s good business practice in conservative dining regions such as Nashville.
If there are enough people in your party, I’d recommend two of you share something from the open flame cookery. The short ribs, or Gal-Bi, were pretty good, but the pork bulgogi was fantastic. Once the strips of meat are grilled, pick a couple up with your chopsticks and place them on a piece of green leaf lettuce, lay on a dollop of hot bean paste, roll it up tight, then eat it like a taco. Fun and easy.
Also sample a big bowla one-pot meal of several ingredients structured like a layered salad. Our Hot BiBim Bap had rice, clear noodles, shredded carrots, zucchini, spinach, lettuce and bean sprouts, strip-grilled beef, and a slightly-fried egg. Throw on the hot pepper paste, mix it all up, and dig in. There are also fish big bowls and several vegetarian ones. In fact, vegetarians will find much to choose from at Arirang. If you like squidanother of my peculiar affectionsyou can’t go wrong with the stir-fried version in a spicy sauce from the à la carte menu.
Korean food isn’t the trendiest or flashiest of Asian cuisines; its appeal is simpler and earthier than the more delicate Vietnamese, sophisticated Japanese, and flavorful Thai. But it’s certainly worth trying. It won’t break the bank, and you can be the first on your block to say you’ve been there, done that.