Whether you find it intimidating or intoxicating, Korean food is extremely hot these days (puns intended). I mean it’s not purely coincidental that a Korean-American, David Chang, is the most rock ’n’ roll, edgy and just plain fun chef in the U.S. right now.
Yet you needn’t travel to one of Chang’s inventive NYC eateries to get a taste of great Korean food, because that cuisine — in more traditional forms — is well-represented in Columbus. Take, for instance, the short stretch along Bethel Road — which I hereby dub “Korean Korridor” — where you’ll find three commendable Korean restaurants: Min-Ga, San-Su and Arirang.
For the sake of comparison, I’d call Min-Ga the most old-school, San-Su the fanciest, and the once closed but recently reopened Arirang — a waiterless and order-by-number place in the back of an Asian grocer — the “Goldilocks Korean.” In other words, its classics-focused small menu is not overwhelming, not expensive, and its offerings arrive tasting just right. This makes Arirang ideal for experts and novices alike.
Upon entering Arirang, head straight to the check-out counter and scan the menu on the wall to your left. Announce your order, then walk to the back of the store and hand your ticket to the busy bee workers in the open kitchen. Pour yourself a water or free hot barley tea (it tastes unusually — but pleasantly — cereal-y). Settle into the bare-bones — but immaculately clean — environs and wait for the following all-stars of Korean cooking to show up.
• Bulgogi ($9, #7 on the menu) I’d call this barbecue-ish dish “Gateway Korean,” and Arirang did a great job with it. Tender, thin curls of beef stir-fried with garlic, scallions and white onions were further enlivened by a light and slightly sweet soy-based sauce. I defy any non-vegetarian to resist loving this simple Korean favorite.
• Dolsotbibimbap ($9, #4) Again, Arirang excelled at a well-known standard. Sort of a Korean Cobb salad utilizing sizzling rice instead of lettuce, Arirang’s Dolsotbibimbap is tops because its black stone pot is so (perfectly) hot it creates a desirable and attractive rice crust. Plus, along with beef and a fried egg, Arirang piles a generous selection of goodies like zucchini, sprouts, greens, fernbrake and kimchee atop the crackling rice. After waiting a bit for said crust to accumulate, hit the dish with the sweet, salty, spicy and fermented chili paste (gochujang) in the ketchup squeeze bottle, mix and dig in. Instant love.
• Haemul-Pajeon ($9, #10) Here, the famous seafood and scallion pancake (think mammoth frittata) was thick, puffy, crispy and golden browned. And unlike so many others, its tiny scallops, squid, mussels and so forth — used more like a condiment than a star — were still supple and tender. Eaten like a pizza, it’s extra wonderful when dunked into its zesty soy-saucy dip.
• Haemulsuntofu ($8, #6) Koreans are soup lovers enamored with foods that’re screechingly hot in both spice and temperature. This gurgling, devil-red chili broth stocked with veggies, shellfish, silken tofu and a dropped egg qualifies on all counts. It’s top-notch, but probably for more advanced — and asbestos-lined — palates.
• Jeyukbokkeum ($9, #8) My favorite dish here, it’s like bulgogi, but made with fatty and wildly tender pork strips lit up by chili paste and enriched by sesame oil. With crunch and depth coming from cabbage, greens and carrots, it’s a total knockout.