When Arirang opened about 20 years ago, in an apartment building near the University at Buffalo’s North Campus in Amherst, it was the second Korean restaurant in town. Its core menu of Korean soups, stews and stir-fried dishes hasn’t changed much in a decade. Once my recent meal proceeded past a fine array of banchan appetizers, most dishes were lackluster, and the beef bulgogi – my North Star of Korean cuisine – was a disappointment.
Arirang bills itself as a Korean-Japanese restaurant, but the Japanese offerings are limited to a pork katsu, or fried cutlet, and teriyaki. It’s a Korean restaurant through and through.
The room felt timeworn, decorated with Korean dish photos and a couple of goldfish in a murky aquarium. At one point, the aroma was unsettling.
The meal started with plenty of my second-favorite Korean restaurant feature: banchan. Those are little dishes of various kimchis, fried bits, marinated vegetables, fish cake and other Asian delights that serve the same role in Korean meals as mezze do at Arabic tables. They’re appetizers first. Then they play a supporting role, as condiments or flavor boosters in succeeding dishes.
At Arirang, as with most Korean places, they arrive by the trayful before any entrée. We got eight little saucers, holding three kinds of kimchi: cucumber, crunchy daikon radish cubes and Napa cabbage. Then there were strips of fish cake and sweet onions; chewy dried radish stem in sweet dark chile sauce; blanched broccoli with lighter chile sauce; greens with sesame oil; and fudgelike braised potatoes.
Simmered in caramel soy, the potatoes were a revelation, halfway between starchy side dish and dessert. Our server swiftly got us more when we emptied the banchan dishes. It was an interesting way to graze on vegetables, and the best part of our meal.
We ordered stir-fried rice cake ($9.95), kimchi pancake ($13.95) and shumai dumplings ($7.95) for starters. Then soybean paste stew ($10.95), sizzling stone pot bibimbop with chicken ($14.95), stir-fried pork ($20.95) and bulgogi ($29.95). There’s a range of casseroles for two to four people, including potato and pork bone casseroles, seafood and spicy sausage, priced from $35.95 for two.
Korean rice cakes are chewy tubular pasta the diameter of Tootsie Rolls. Stir-fried with chile paste, onions, scallions and sliced fish cake, they were a piquant beginning to the meal proper. The tinge of smoke from a hot wok was appreciated.
The kimchi pancake was crispy around the edges, but otherwise not much fun. It leaked oil when I tried to cut it. Despite a generous amount of pickled cabbage and scallions inside, it was bland. The steamed shumai dumplings were pale in appearance and flavor.
The soybean paste stew arrived bubbling in a plastic cauldron, as Korean stews should. It contained sliced jalapeños in its depths to kick up the heat, as well as tofu and small shellfish. Fermented soybeans gave the broth some depth, but it lacked gusto. We spooned it over our bowls of white rice.
Stone pots should arrive so hot the rice crusts on the bottom, and this one did. Besides rice, it held vegetables like cucumber and carrot, mushrooms, bean sprouts, greens and shredded daikon radish, topped with a fried egg and dried seaweed. It was a homey combination once stirred up, revealing small bits of cooked chicken. The overall effect was bland, and I wished it had more flavor.
Stir-fried pork was marinated shaved pork tossed with chile sauce, onions and scallions, with a sprinkle of sesame. It was a meek version of chile sauce, more sweet than spicy, and lacking kimchi funk.
Then there was the bulgogi, shaved marinated beef. I prefer mine cooked at tabletop for fresh sticky caramel char, but Arirang does not have barbecue tables. Ours was stir-fried in the kitchen and brought out on a lukewarm platter, and cost more than the tabletop version at Korea House. The well-done shaved beef reminded me of Steak-Umms in sweet sesame glaze. I’m not above eating Steak-Umms, I just wanted better bulgogi.
Instead of barbecue smoke, I smelled cigarette smoke. That’s unnerving in a restaurant; it makes me wonder what other rules are optional. Our server brought us what we needed, but had to be flagged down to clear the table and present the check.
As we finished our meal, I was thinking of better versions of these dishes I’ve had, less than five miles away.
Arirang: 5 plates (Out of 10)
Stir-fries, stews and appetizer array anchors menu at Amherst Korean restaurant.
WHERE: 1416 Millersport Highway, Amherst (639-7384)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $7.95-$17.95; soups and noodles, $10.95-$15.95; entrees, $11.95-$35.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.