Arirang opened on Valentine's Day in the South Tampa spot that once housed German Bistro. Both restaurants, interestingly, benefit from close proximity to MacDill Air Force Base, which is populated by a lot of well-traveled folks who get hankerings for what they've eaten on tours abroad.
It's pronounced AH-Re-Ang, and is the name of both a traditional Korean folk song and the name of a Korean mountain pass. In fact, the song is about the trickiness of crossing said pass, in a way a metaphor for opening a Korean restaurant in the Tampa Bay area. It's a chicken-and-egg thing (and yes, both chickens and eggs feature in the cuisine): There aren't that many Korean restaurants in these parts so it remains somewhat mysterious to the uninitiated, and because there are so many timid uninitiates, it's a cuisine without a wide audience.
There are reasons it is a harder sell than, say, Chinese or Vietnamese food. A backbone of the cuisine is kimchee, a range of fermented pickled vegetables that can be spicy, salty, garlicky and sometimes a little fishy. Veterans right now are saying "duh" while newbies are saying "ew." A core component of a traditional Korean meal is a series of banchan, or tiny side dishes (some of them pickles). Watch a table of rookie diners and you can almost see the thought bubbles: How do I eat this? Do I pile this on this, and what does that beige paste go on?
The paste is doenjang, a soybean condiment that is slightly salty and umami (that magical-unicorn savory fifth taste in addition to sweet, sour, salty and bitter), super healthy and really quite delicious.
A meal at Arirang will introduce you to banchan, doenjang and kimchee forthwith. I first visited the restaurant shortly after it opened, and frankly the service was a train wreck so I back-burnered a review. On a more recent visit, the young women who had been bumbling and tentative weeks before had settled in to becoming ambassadors of chef-owner Misook Mundell's food.
It's a short menu, very traditional, with bibimbap ($11.95); pork, chicken or beef bulgogi ($21.99-$22.99); and beef short ribs called galbi ($24.99). Order any of these and you also get a little house salad with a sweet-tangy dressing, a covered dish of porridge (one evening it was pumpkin), another covered dish of super-soft steamed pork ribs, and six other sides that range from salty cuke pickle to garlicky cold steamed spinach, cubes of chili-tinged pickled radish and archetypal cabbage kimchee.
Here's how it rolls: The table is crowded with all these little plates and bowls and then the main attraction arrives, say a platter of delicious spicy pork bulgogi, which is thinly sliced marinated grilled pork on a bed of lettuce with a few little trees of broccoli. You can grab a cabbage or lettuce leaf, swipe it with the soybean paste, toss in a few pieces of pork and a scoop of rice, then a tangle of pickled white onion (with a little wasabi kick). Roll it up like a burrito and go to town. Then, with your chopsticks (which, sadly, are flat on one side and slick silver metal so they make even a pro look like butterfingers), nab a dollop of cold eggplant pickle or cube of radish.
Occasionally something utterly familiar will jump out at you. One of the banchan is often a tiny plate of mayonnaise-dressed potato salad; in the kimchi boo-dae soup you'll see chunks of hot dog bobbing along with noodles, chilies, beans and other, more exotic fare.
With no liquor license, Arirang has a fairly limited selection of beverages, the best of which is a cup of sweet ginger hot tea with a bite to it ($2.50) that pairs curiously well with savory food, and then a cup of cold cinnamon tea that functions as dessert at meal's end.
The dining room is inviting and comfortable, with just enough Korean decorative fillips to orient you. The soundtrack, however, was a hoot. A little vintage Debby Boone ("so many nights, I'd sit by my window"), the Carpenters going On Top of the World and heading all the way back to 1960 for the tragic Tell Laura I Love Her. Not what I'd expect in a Korean restaurant, but for me personally a touching serenade.