"You like chiles?" our waiter asks, noting how quickly the charred green pods have disappeared from our plates. Soon he's adding more chiles and garlic cloves to the slices of beef tongue browning on the tabletop barbecue. With long chopsticks, he offers us pieces of the savory tongue to dip in sesame oil and seasoned salt. Then he throws pork ribs on the grill, the meat pounded thin and tinged orange from a spicy marinade. When they're done, we nibble these chewy morsels to the bone.
Next, the waiter barbecues the meat combination we've ordered for two--perhaps the best of the 19 variations of Korean barbecue, offered at Arirang, a stylish new restaurant in Pasadena's Old Town. Beef short ribs, pork belly, chicken, lamb, rib-eye steak and pork hit the grill with a sizzle and cook in minutes. The real treats are the kalbi (short ribs) and rib eye marinated in soy, sesame oil, rice wine, garlic and sugar. (You can also order prawns, scallops or a mixed seafood barbecue.) This is a relaxed, congenial way to share a meal with friends.
Tucked away on a quiet stretch of Union Street, a block from the throngs on Colorado Boulevard, Arirang is a haven of civility. Lacquered tables for four or eight are inset with gas-fired barbecues and line the airy, loft-like space, which also features private rooms. Hand-stitched antique Korean patchworks, once used to cover food or wrap a bride's trousseau blankets, decorate the walls. Clay medallions above a beautiful wood screen represent ancient Korean gods.
Named after a Korean folk song, Arirang in Pasadena is the third in a series of restaurants by the same name. There are two others in Hong Kong, the first of which opened in 1964 to offer Korean food to Koreans living or traveling in that city. Miriee Chang, owner of the newest branch, has followed her Hong Kong sister-in-law's lead in bucking tradition and appointing a woman head chef. (In Korea, men run the kitchens, and women do all the handwork.) When Chang's family decided to open in California, it hired Hyun P. Yang, who was trained in Hong Kong.
Many of Arirang's recipes come from Chang's mother-in-law and reflect Seoul's earthy cooking. The restaurant makes its own condiments, for instance, giving the food a vibrant taste. The kitchen prepares kimchi in several varieties and with different levels of heat. It buys dried chiles to make hot chile paste from scratch. And MSG is never used, so flavors shine through clear and unmuddied.
As satisfying as the barbecued meats are alone or wrapped in lettuce leaves with fermented bean paste and other condiments, they are even better between sips of Korean beer and bites of the bahn chahn, or little dishes, that accompany Korean barbecue. The changing selection might include crunchy, thread-like dried anchovies coated with honey and chile, delicate tofu simmered with peppers and onions in beef broth, green-black strands of seaweed as well as steamed spinach sprinkled with sesame seeds. You will, however, always get a pungent kimchi of pickled Chinese cabbage, daikon or other vegetables fermented with garlic and chile.
My favorites among Arirang's special dishes include the fluffy pancake that resembles a family-size frittata containing soft, wrinkly leaves of cabbage kimchi and pork, and fat dumplings of a supple dough gathered around a beef and pork filling flecked with chile and vegetables. There's also a refreshing cuttlefish salad, actually a bowl of squid and vegetables tossed in chile oil, and a terrific tofu hot pot laced with chile and sliced beef. And for wintry days, a handful of hearty braised casseroles, including one of kimchi and dumplings. A word of caution: Order carefully because portions are very generous and, in most cases, meant to be shared.
How or why this family of Hong Kong restaurateurs chose Pasadena as a site, I don't know. But, luckily for all of us, it did. Those already familiar with Korean cuisine will appreciate Arirang's distinctive Seoul cooking. For the uninitiated, this may be just the place to start.
CUISINE: Korean. AMBIENCE: Spare, loft-like space with tabletop barbecues. BEST DISHES: mixed-meat barbecue for two, kimchi and pork pancake, pan-fried dumplings. FACTS: 114 W. Union St., Pasadena; (818) 577-8885. Lunch and dinner daily. Dinner for two, food only, $45 to $60. Corkage $10. Valet parking.