Arirang Korean Restaurant was never as popular as the Tofu Village down the street. Maybe it was the poor ventilation, which had you reeking of Korean barbecue by the time you left its doors, or the notoriously poor service. Whatever the case, the owners have done the smart thing and turned it into Arirang Delicious Dumplings.
A spin-off of the three-Chinese-character jiaozi wong Dumpling King restaurant next door, which is now closed, the new Arirang is a fast-casual concept where you pay at the counter and tipping is optional.
Gone is the very daunting wall menu made up of Asian characters. In its place is a hanging English menu where dumplings are still the main feature. The menu has been expanded to include non-fancy Korean fare, like dishes of fried fish rice. It's Korean food that someone could make for you at home, with most prices under $10.
I had come for dumplings, which are still the best thing there, and ridiculously cheap, just $4.95 for an order of ten. I typically order the pork and cabbage pan-fried dumplings, but they have pork and shrimp, kimchi dumplings and a few other versions, all of which are excellent as well. They also have steamed dumplings and boiled dumplings, but with a freshly made dumpling wrapper, I think the pan-fried is the tastiest.
We tried a few other dishes that day, including one that I'd had before, the cold vegetarian naengmyeon, made of sweet potato noodles, spicy sauce and veggies. The simple dish is spicy yet sweet and refreshingly cold. The noodles were uncut, so we found ourselves struggling to share this dish (eventually cutting off the long noodles with a knife), but it's a great summer dish with just enough heat to get your mouth burning.
Arirang had previously won a Best of Houston® award for Best Korean seafood pancake, the hae-mool pah-jun, so we tried one of those, too. Unfortunately, I think they've changed things a bit, because the eight-inch pancake was a lot smaller than I remembered -- it was probably the size of a 12-inch pizza before -- and came out looking a bit soggy and undercooked. Flavorwise, the squid and shrimp pancake with leeks was still quite pleasing. I just wish it'd been crispier.
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The dolsot bibimbap, or hot pot rice, was probably the least impressive of the dishes we ordered that night. While the vegetables were fresh, the bulgogi meat was dry, and overall the dish was not memorable, but I'm not really complaining.
For the amount of food and the quality of what we got ($27 for four dishes), the new incarnation of Arirang is a complete winner, a no-frills place that you can stop by for delicious dumplings anytime. Even better, if you don't live in the area, they sell bags of 40 frozen dumplings, which you can keep in the freezer for those evenings when you're just too lazy to cook.