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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

The Asian Tour

By B.A. Nilsson

Arirang

1558 Central Ave., Colonie, 452-6878. Serving lunch 11:30-2:30 Mon-Sat, dinner 5-9:30 Mon-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Korean, Japanese, Thai

Entrée price range: $9 (noodles with bean sauce) to $20 (sushi dinner)

Ambiance: strip-mall cozy

Dining out can provide surprising shots of self-knowledge. While studying the menu at Arirang, I heard my wife and daughter toss back and forth the name of one of the popular Korean dishes: bi bim bab.

“Sounds good,” my wife, Susan, said. “Rice, meat and vegetables. Bi bim bab.”

“Bi bim bab,” my daughter repeated, chuckling.

“Don’t be such tourists,” I growled. “Don’t make fun of the language.”

“I’m not!” said Susan. “I’m celebrating it. I like the sound of that phrase.”

To which my daughter added, “Lighten up, Dad.”

Was I really that uptight? Our server overheard the menu item being repeated and hurried to the table, graciously answering Susan’s query about the meaning of the phrase. “It means rice that’s all mixed together with vegetables.”

She proved even more helpful when the dish was served. Bi bim bab ($12) by itself looks to be a pleasant dish, mixing, as we were told, veggies and rice with your choice of meat, but there’s added theater in gob dol bi bim bab ($13), which puts the ingredients in a hot stone bowl so that your rice sizzles to crispness as the veggies (Korean: namul)—including julienned carrots and cucumber, mushrooms and sprouts—were bunched attractively near chunks of chicken, and topped with a fried egg, which itself got a seaweed garnish.

“You have to mix it,” our server said. Susan, caught mid-bite, looked up in alarm. “You have to mix it all together.” She’d been eating it section by section, but soon got into the freeform rhythm of the dish, adding dabs of gochujang, a traditional chili pepper paste.

“Arirang” is a Korean folksong, taking its title from a word that refers to beauty. Many thus-named restaurants are revealed by a quick Internet search.

When we were last at this location, in early 2006, the emphasis was sushi and Thai food, under the aegis of chef Mino Kawaguchi. But he moved north to Saratoga, and the space easily transformed into a Korean-Japanese-Thai combo owned by Steven Kim, well-known for the Asian market that bears his name on Central Avenue.

The current trend is to mix Asian cuisines, so this menu’s mixture of items is unsurprising but very welcome, especially where Korean food is concerned. You won’t find the variety (or the tableside grills) that characterize the eateries on Manhattan’s West 32nd Street, an area known as “Little Korea,” where the menus are dauntingly expansive, but Arirang boasts a solid list of favorites.

It has to be difficult to cater to a clientele unused to such customs as the traditional mealtime array of banchan, small side dishes, of which the spicy fermented cabbage called kimchi is best-known. But how nice it is to be able to wait for one’s dining companion while shelling edamame ($5), those crisp little soybean peas that pick up just enough salt from their seasoned shells.

Other starters include gyoza and shumai (two types of dumpling, $5-$6), small portions of tempura ($5-$7), Thai spring rolls ($5), satay chicken ($7) and a spectacular-looking dish called goong salong ($7), featuring large shrimp wrapped in a flurry of thin noodles, crisply deep fried and served on a handsome plate with a side dish of sweet, pungent dipping sauce.

A separate menu gives the sushi variety, much of the listing given over to the fanciful rolls and other Americanized assemblies. This is where you’ll find favorites like a spicy salmon or tuna roll, some with crunch, served with the same attractiveness and care as the other dishes.

Most entrées are served with a salad or miso soup; the former mixes iceberg lettuce with slices of cucumber, tomato and carrot under the expected ginger dressing.

In terms of sheer number, Japanese dishes dominate the menu, but many of those are one-ingredient variations on hibachi dinners ($14-$15, and apparently not cooked tableside, for no teppanyake grills were in evidence), teriyaki-seasoned fare ($11-$15, including a couple of tempting-looking noodle-based items) and sushi and sashimi presentations.

Despite my orders to stay with the Korean dishes, my daughter rebelliously decided that life would not be worth living were she to be denied a bento box, which puts an entrée and its accompanying items on a segmented rectangular black lacquer tray. She ordered the beef teriyaki box ($14), which, alongside thin, sesame-coated slices of meat, presented sticky rice, kimchi, vegetable stir-fry, noodles and orange segments.

Beef featured in my dinner, the classic bulgogi (fire beef, $13), a very nice take on a dish I’ve found elsewhere with more spice and tenderness. Other Korean entrées include grilled beef ribs ($15), highly recommended by other reviewers, soups of seafood ($15), dumplings ($12) or noodles ($11), stir-fried spicy pork ($13) and a $12 kimchi stew.

On the Thai side, there’s pad Thai ($15), mixing noodles with chicken, egg and peanuts, among other ingredients, Thai fried rice with your choice of meat ($14), pad see ew ($14), which mixes rice noodles and Chinese broccoli with egg and your meat choice, and an array of curried or stir-fried dishes ($14 each).

It’s a diverse-enough menu to invite repeated visits, and the location and available parking certainly make this place convenient. Although it’s been open for just over a year, it was quiet the evening of our visit, so we enjoyed close but discreetly offered attention. I’d like to return and try some Thai food. I’d like to return and sit at the sushi bar. All in good time, I hope; I can’t see Arirang not picking up a following.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Take a Taste of Madison from 11 to 3 on Saturday (Oct. 3), as a number of businesses and restaurants share their bounty. Among the eateries: the Muddy Cup, Dunkin’ Donuts, Xing Long, Variety Pizza, Curry House, Junior’s and Mahar’s. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the event. There also will be music, games, a bookmobile, and what promises to be a challenging Waiters’ Race awarding $250 in prize money to the fleetest. It’s not just speed: The contestants will have to navigate a 500-foot course carrying—with one hand!—a tray with a water bottle and serving glasses. They can’t break a walk (not to mention any of the stuff being carried), can’t behave badly to the other contestants, and will have to serve water to the judges at the end. Among the obstacles: enough tables and chairs to ensure the track isn’t straight, and a couple of dozen volunteers from a nearby sorority who’ll wander the course talking on cell phones. In other words, just like a real restaurant. For advance tickets and more info, call Steamer No.10 Theatre at 438-5503. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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