The Sweet Smell of Wang Galbi
The metal grill in the middle of our table at Arirang Korean Restaurant was sizzling hot and ready for action. As luck would have it, the raw meats arrived at exactly the same time as my friend Will, who had left the restaurant 15 minutes earlier in search of a six-pack. Arirang, the colossal new Korean restaurant on Bellaire, doesn't have a liquor license yet, so it's BYOB for now.
The beer in the brown paper bag was Tsingtao, and the meats were bulgogi and wang galbi -- marinated steak and marinated boneless short-rib meat, respectively. We got some shrimp, too, for a Korean barbecue version of surf and turf. What a feast! Some Korean restaurants serve romaine with the barbecue so you can make lettuce-leaf wraps, and others serve the barbecue with rice. Arirang does either.
Not only is the restaurant's interior impressive, but it's uniquely suited for indoor grilling. While many of Houston's Korean restaurants are cramped and smoky, Arirang looks and feels like a picnic grove. The beams and ductwork inside the two-story sapce are exposed so that the structures inside feel like they're outdoors. There's a wooden pagoda over the entryway and a pond with a waterwheel. There's one group of tables beside a forest of potted plants, and another under a simple wooden structure made of unstained pine. The soaring height of the interior gives the smoke and grease from the grills plenty of room to rise.
We started off our barbecue feast with my favorite Korean appetizer, hae-mool pah-jun, a "pancake" filled with seafood and vegetables. It tastes like a well-done seafood omelette cut into pizza slices. I like mine with a little hot sauce on top. The pancake arrived with the 12 bowls of condiments you get with every Korean barbecue. These include a couple of varieties of kimchi, seaweed salad, chilied pickles, potato salad, spicy tofu and whatever else the kitchen has on hand.
I asked for a side plate of raw jalape#&150;o and garlic slices to put on the grill with our meats. I did the cooking, laying the thin slices of meat and jumbo shrimp on the hot grill and turning them until somebody grabbed them. The bulgogi was salty and sweet, and the shrimp was excellent if you got it before it was too well done. But the real standout was the wang galbi, or marinated short-rib slices. The meat was extremely tender and juicy no matter how long you cooked it. Eaten along with some charred garlic slivers and chile pepper slices, it was sensational.
The garlic and peppers make a world of difference, but you won't get any unless you ask. I learned this and other little tips about Asian barbecue from servers at various Houston Korean restaurants. Ann Cho, whose parents own Green Pine Tree on Long Point, was the most helpful. She was the waitress who told me never to order the big assorted meat platter at a Korean barbecue because it includes tripe, tongue and other offal cuts that are popular among Koreans.
"And never go out for Korean barbecue on a date," Cho told me. "Your clothes will smell like smoke and meat all night."
When I got in my car the morning after our Korean barbecue feast at Arirang, I smelled something wrong. My car reeked of Asian food. I pulled over to the curb and got out of the car to find the offending Styrofoam box. But there was nothing in the backseat or on the floor of the car, either. Mystified, I got back in the driver's seat and started to pull away -- then it dawned on me. It was my shirt that smelled so ripe.
I had put on the cotton short-sleeve dress shirt to go out for dinner and taken it off a mere two hours later when we got home. I hung the shirt on a peg on the closet door thinking I could get another wearing out of it. Man, was I mistaken. I turned the car around and drove home to change shirts, chuckling about the prophetic wisdom of Ann Cho. The interior of Arirang allows a lot of the barbecue fumes to dissipate -- but not enough to keep your clothes odor-free.
When I went to Arirang for lunch a few days later, I realized that the restaurant has organized its whole menu around the fragrant-apparel problem. In the evening, every table seems to have a hot grill smoking away. But at lunchtime, not a single barbecue grill was lit. You could get bulgogi and wang galbi, but they were served already cooked in a bento-box lunch special. No doubt the nattily attired businessmen and women from the nearby office buildings who packed the place appreciated the smoke-free (and odor-free) environment.
A buddy and I tried the bento boxes. He got the short ribs and I got the steak, but neither of us paid much attention to the meat right off the bat because the other items were so intriguing. The black-lacquered rectangle had five red inset boxes. The three across the top contained rice, three sushi roll slices and kimchi and other pickled vegetables. The two large containers at the bottom held a tempura assortment and the barbecue.
The tempura was piping hot and outstanding. There were three levels: one enormous jumbo shrimp fried with coconut shreds on top, then a squash, onion and carrot tempura hash concoction in the middle, and a big round of tempura sweet potato sitting on the bottom.
My bulgogi was disappointing by comparison. The beef was overcooked and dry. But my friend's short ribs were tender and moist -- you just can't miss with the wang galbi. The next time I go there for lunch, I want to try one of the many buckwheat-noodle items on the menu. They seemed to be the most popular order at all the tables around us.
The popularity of the lunch specials was a real eye-opener. As Arirang's late closing times attest, Korean barbecue is often thought of as a late-night treat. I was expecting to recommend visiting this Korean barbecue restaurant at night when the grills are lit. But the truth is the lunch is not only outstanding, it's cheap.
Arirang Korean Restaurant may have some other surprises in store for us. The place has been open for nearly a month, but they seem to be taking their time with things. I asked the waiter about an unused sushi counter that's built into the rear of the restaurant. "Sushi will come later," he said. Beer, sake and mixed drinks are also coming attractions. Meanwhile, the BYOB policy keeps the cost of a barbecue dinner (or a drinking man's lunch) very low.
Arirang is in a brand-new Bellaire shopping center across from the Wells Fargo bank close to the beltway. If you're in the neighborhood, drop by for lunch. If you want to try the Korean barbecue experience, bring a crowd of four or more so you can order several different items. I suggest you stake out a table at Arirang soon, before the crowds and the liquor licenses arrive.
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