I come from a family interested in all things edible, but for my parents, particularly my father, limits do exist. A visit to a Korean restaurant, then, looked like a challenge. After all, the distinguishing characteristic of Korean food is a prevailing pungency–the heat of chiles, the funk of dried fish and shrimp, the sour tang of fermented vegetables. Some of us love that pungency, like we love an overblown ripe cheese, but for others it’s overwhelming. Fortunately, Arirang, a family restaurant on Ann Arbor’s southwest side, offers delicious choices for the adventurous eater and for the more cautiously inclined.
One evening’s dinner with my parents and brother proved that point. Everyone enjoyed the appetizer yah-ki-man-doo, fried meat dumplings stuffed with a surprisingly light pork and glass noodle filling. (I liked the steamed version, mul-man-doo, even better, finding the slightly chewy–rather than crispy–casing a better complement to the subtle filling.) Dol-sot-bee-bim-bop, a version of Ann Arbor’s favorite veg-and-egg rice bowl, came in a heated stone vessel that created a nutty crust of crispy rice at the bottom, and it pleased us all. Other universal favorites were mae-woon-jae-yook-gu-eeh, thin strips of marinated grilled pork, spicy yet sweet, and oh-jing-uh-boke-uhm, a piquant squid-and-vegetable stir-fry featuring rubbery but flavorful seafood and a beautiful assortment of vegetables.
Our party parted ways, though, when the gohp-chong-jeon-gol hot pot for two was brought, bubbling, to the table. My parents balked at the tripe and chewy, liver-flavored beef intestines, but the organ meats, vegetables, delicious long, thick noodles, and thin, peppery broth delighted my brother and me–and later my husband, slurping reheated leftovers.
The interplay of familiar and strange, simple and complex, subtle and intense, sweet and fiery begins with Arirang’s appetizers. The aforementioned dumplings will surprise no one familiar with Asian cuisines, but dduk-boke-kee–tubular rice flour cakes braised with scallions in a zesty sauce–were gummy and glutinous, strange to a Midwestern palate. Hae-muhl-pah-juhn, seafood and vegetables bound in a rice flour pancake and served with a soy dipping sauce, was simple and satisfying. Soon-dae, blood sausage lightened with glass noodles and served with seasoned salt, proved absolutely delicious, appealing even to those who find European blood puddings overly gamey and intense.
Arirang’s panchan, the array of shared side dishes commonly presented at Korean meals after the appetizers, show off the variety and scope of Korean cuisine. We sampled a wide range over three meals, all of them beautifully presented on small white plates: a tasty potato salad cooked to the consistency of mashed potatoes, addictively chewy dried seafood strips in chile paste, insipid acorn jelly, sweet zucchini pickles, delicate flat triangular fish cakes, seaweed and daikon and bean sprout salads, tasty, oddly crunchy sweet black soybeans, and, of course, Korea’s national dish, pungent kimchi, one made with cabbage, the other with whole, earthy perilla leaves. (Panchan dishes change daily, and although many are vegetarian, not all are, and some may include seafood, so diners with dietary restrictions may want to alert the server.)
Korean cuisine is renowned for its sweetly marinated grilled meats, and our second dinner explored some of those selections. Like the pork at our first meal, the gahr-bee, sliced barbecued short ribs, was intensely flavored but easily embraced. Some may find the ribs awkward, but I gnawed happily at the bits of crispy fat and chewy meat that clung to the bones. Jop-chae, glass noodles stir-fried with vegetables and thinly sliced charred beef (which reappears in the bul-go-ghee entree) was satisfying comfort food. Another short rib dish, gahr-bee-jjim, was a slightly oversweet but delightful stew of succulent braised meat, vegetables, and dates. The only disappointing dish that night was hae-muhl-tang, a seafood stew whose pleasantly spongy oval rice cake slices and assertive chile-spiked broth could not disguise overcooked and tasteless fish.
Although none of the food at Arirang is terribly expensive, the lunch boxes offered in the middle of the day constitute a real bargain. Ranging from $7.95 to $9.95, each lunch box includes tea and a selection of panchan, followed by a wooden vessel divided into compartments filled with your choice of entree, rice, a fried dumpling and vegetable pancakes with dipping sauce, a bit of vegetarian jop-chae, and a tangle of lettuce drizzled with Thousand Island dressing. The entree options are limited, and unfortunately I chose a particularly dull don-katsu, or breaded pork cutlet, but the panchan and vegetable pancakes alone were worth the visit.
Situated in the same bland, half-filled strip mall as Outback Steakhouse and Godaiko, Arirang’s clean, tidy storefront doesn’t have much visual appeal. However, Chang S. Lee, co-owner with her son Jay Lee, clearly strives to please her customers, and it shows in the quality of the food and service she presents. Servers are warm and amiable, even when language barriers cause confusion. And Lee’s food is always carefully and thoughtfully prepared, with a blend of the accessible and the intriguing. My only regret was that I didn’t get to try more of the menu–kim-chee-jji-gae (kimchi, pork, and noodle soup), youm-soh-tahng (goat meat stew), mool-neng-myun (cold buckwheat noodles with beef, vegetables, and egg offered only in the summer), and many other dishes promise further savory adventures around dining’s outer limits. Whether I crave Korean barbecue or a true culinary jolt, I’ll be visiting Arirang again soon.
3135 Oak Valley Drive
Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.,
Sat. noon-9:30 p.m., Sun. 5-9:30 p.m.
Lunch boxes $7.95-$9.95, appetizers $4.95-$8.95, entrees $8.95-$19.95, hot pots for two $31.95-$34.95.
Although the restaurant is designed to accommodate wheelchair access, the placement of freestanding half walls (as a cold and wind block at the entrance), furniture, and kitchen equipment would make moving a wheelchair through the door, around the dining room, and back to the bathroom challenging.