Monday, January 26, 2009

Bulgogi Glee

The wife and I went on a triple date with some good friends. As always, we met over some delicious food, this time at the Korean restaurant, Arirang. We were all in for a special treat in that one of the diners is Korean and did most of the ordering for us.

Arirang specializes in grilled meats, which was obvious as soon as I set foot into the building. As I passed through the front door, the tantalizing smell of seasoned meats grilled over seasoned cast iron hit me like a punch to the nose in that I was momentarily stunned, pausing to enjoy the now. Once inside, my eyes darted around uncontrollably between parties grilling meats on the table burners and servers exiting the kitchen while balancing heaps of meat smoking on top of searing-hot iron platters. Muffled conversations fought to overcome the gradually fading hiss of sizzling meat.

For appetizers, we had a "shrimp and onion pancake." As you can see, it was just like it sounds. The batter, more like a crepe than a pancake, was marbled with pieces of cooked white and green onions as well as little shrimp. Each person got his/her own piece, which was reminiscent of a pizza slice. The pancake came with a "special sauce" that was probably soy sauce laced with fresh chili peppers, sugar, and sesame oil. Though I wanted to order another pancake, I was promised that the following dishes would be just as good or better. So I did what anyone would in that situation, I pouted as fiercely as I could.

The next dish dish was beef bulgogi. Though the Wiki link tells you what it is, it doesn't tell you that eating bulgogi is similar to using crack cocaine..without the addiction and eventual family dysfunction, of course. Every subsequent bite was me chasing that first high in that I continually ate an unhealthy amount of the salty sweet substance sizzling over the iron plate.

This was the pork bulgogi, which is just as delicious as the beef but healthier since it's white meat...somehow, I'm sure it's healthier...oh well, I wasn't counting any calories at this meal.

Like most Korean restaurants, dinner was accompanied by a large assorment of small side dishes. These were some of the sides that accompanied the meal. Though I've had these several times before, I still have no clue exactly what they are. Eating at Arirang is like eating a home-cooked meal prepared by your friend's mom, you ask for seconds, not questions. Growing up with this mindset has conditioned my stomach and palate to stare down challenges like a marine in combat. All the sides were some sort of pickled vegetable with spices and all did a great job of preventing me from realizing how much oily meat I was actually eating.

This is my wife's favorite, a kind of tofu soup with seafood. The salty broth was infused with onions and spicy peppers, hence the orangey-red color. Beneath its surface was a piping hot mix of soft tofu, shrimp, mussels, scallops and squid. Though it's intended to be eaten alone, like a soup, my wife prefers it over white rice. Her preference worked out beautifully since she filled up quickly with the additional rice leaving more for me to enjoy.

This grilled mackerel was phenomenal. No analogies here, just phenomenal. I admit I'm usually a sucker for whole fish but this was on another level. The mackerel was cleaned, butterflied, sprinkled with salt, and broiled. That was it. And yet, this simplicity that adds to the phenomenon. Mackerel is a bony, oily fish with a stronger flavor than other fish, which makes it my preferred fish. This preparation intensified those qualities that I love. The broiling seemed to essentially sear the fish, locking in all that moist, oily goodness and rendered all the exposed fins and bones as brittle as potato chips (and yes, I ate all the fin chips I could). The dusting of salt complimented its intense flavor making it a perfect for warm fluffy white rice. And the regular process of using my teeth to extract bones was entertaining to everyone in the party, making this mackerel the life of the party.

Much thanks to Trista and Marcos for ordering new and exciting dishes I wouldn't have known about otherwise and thanks to Dante and Jodi for their adventurous spirit in trying these dishes for the first time like my wife and me. Through good food and great friends, I do believe I was closer to enlightenment while eating this meal.

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