by Chris O’Neal
Arirang Organic Tofu House and Korean BBQ
394 E. Main St. Ventura
Finally, Korean cuisine arrives in Ventura. My year spent in South Korea as an English teacher means that when I have an urge for comfort food, oftentimes I think of kimchi, so picture my excitement.
I visited Arirang with a friend whose knowledge of Korean food is practically nothing, and introduced him to staples of Korean cuisine that I haven’t seen in a while: kimchi mandu, steamed dumplings (which we ordered, $7.99); japchae, a cold noodle dish with various vegetables; haemul pajeon, a seafood pancake; and gyeranjjim, a custardlike savory steamed egg.
Over a draft Sapporo beer (bottled Korean beers such as Hite are available, too), our dumplings arrived — fried, not steamed as the picture had given the impression. We pointed this out to our server, who apologized and returned with the steamed variation. Both were filled with equal parts kimchi and, I believe, beef, though the menu doesn’t specify. Served with a soy and sesame oil dipping sauce, the mandu could have had more kimchi and less meat.
As Arirang touts itself as an organic tofu house, I had to try the soon (soft) tofu stews. There are seven iterations: the “assorted soon tofu” bowl has a mixture of beef, shrimp and clams, for instance, while the “mushroom” and “vegetable” soon tofu are vegetarian-friendly.
I chose the variation with a mixture of shrimp, mussels and clams. On the opposite side of the menu are traditional Korean dishes such as bulgogi (marinated beef or spicy pork, grilled, with a sweet tang), galbi (marinated short ribs) and roasted mackerel, all of which can be made combos with the soups.
I chose the samgyeopsal, pork belly, combination (served with rice, $18.99). Typically at a Korean BBQ joint with grills at the table (which Arirang does not have, though there are nice paper lanterns and a mock-wooden gate built into the wall), the pork belly comes out uncooked and you grill it to your own specifications. I received the pork belly cut into bite-size pieces, grilled to a light crispness.
No Korean meal would be complete without the banchan, small plates of various sides such as marinated bean sprouts, both cucumber and daikon radish kimchi, savory sliced fish cake, potatoes in a spicy sauce (eight dishes in all to share) and, of course, a bowl of cabbage kimchi (of which I had to ask for more as I could eat my weight), all of which come to accompany the main course.
We also ordered Arirang’s hot stone bibimbap ($15.99), which, translated, means “mixed rice.” Arirang’s bowl is topped with several vegetables (sesame oil-sautéed zucchini, spinach and bean sprouts, to name a few) and a raw egg yolk, the preparation meant to be visually appealing, which is then lost when you take a spoon and mix it up with the hot and sweet chili pepper sauce on the side, as is tradition.
My friend seemed confused as to what to do with the bibimbap, which was dropped off sans instruction, and we had to ask for spoons — which, considering I ordered a soup, should have been a given. I instructed my friend to wait a moment to allow the rice at the bottom of the hot stone bowl to crisp up a bit before going to town, mixing all of the ingredients as one would a cake batter.
I dug into the soon tofu — and was not disappointed. The soft tofu mingled with the perfectly spiced crimson-red chili broth and the distinct flavor of the mussels and clams. One large shrimp (head and all) sat atop, which I ate with satisfaction. The soon tofu is the star of the show at Arirang.
I had to request ssamjang, a spicy blend of chili paste, fermented bean paste, green onions and garlic, often served with pork belly. I would have also liked the lettuce that is often served with it, as by itself pork belly can be rather bland. Serving these with the dish would make a more complete meal.
Korean food is the hot ticket at the moment in the culinary world, and if introduced correctly, it could become as popular as Thai food is on Main Street Ventura, but only if the proper methods are employed.
My hope is for the restaurant to adapt to a crowd that is unfamiliar with Korean food — not by removing items or by making it any less traditional — but by embracing the rich food culture of South Korea, serving the ssamjang without fear and instructing the eater without hesitation. Americans have come a long way from chop suey and want to be immersed in traditional dining experiences.
Arirang, as of this writing, has only been open a week. I know I’m going to be back; I hope to see it thrive.