A-Ri-Rang Oriental Market
The Land of the Morning Calm right here in Albuquerque
From the moment I walked into A-Ri-Rang Oriental Market I knew I was in for a treat. The place smelled like Korea. Which can be either a good thing, or not, depending on your sensibilities. For me it was a good thing; the smells transported me back to my tour of duty with the Army in Korea. I was introduced to the country's cuisine the first day of duty in the Land of the Morning Calm, as it's called, and I immediately fell in love with kimchi. Kimchi is the spicy garlic-laden staple that is eaten at every meal. You'll find it all over the menu, served with rice, in soup or accompanying the main dish as a panchan (side dish). It can be made with several kinds of vegetables, but the most popular version is made with cabbage, which is marinated with a lot of garlic, vinegar and hot red chile. Traditionally, the mixture is then buried underground in a clay pot for almost a year and the result is a delicious spicy condiment that is eaten at every meal.
I once tried making my own version but something went awry. It is an acquired taste, to be sure, but I knew I was hooked on kimchi when I started to eat it in soup for breakfast. (It worked like a charm on nasty hangovers.) Because of the heavy dose of garlic in kimchi one might think twice about going back to work as a dental hygienist after a kimchi lunch (if you get my drift).
A-Ri Rang is not a restaurant or even a café per se. It's primarily a Korean grocery store where you'll find all sorts of Korean and Japanese food products. There are refrigerators and freezers filled with Korean specialties you won't find anywhere in Albuquerque. There are also rows and rows of kitchen gadgets, dishes and knickknacks.
However, the best part is the tiny dining section located at the back of the store. Three stools line up in front of a short counter, and two pretty wooden dining room tables with four chairs each are the only seating. During lunch you might have to wait for a seat or you may choose to share a table with a stranger, if you're the friendly type.
Décor is minimal. Bright white walls and ceiling along with a few healthy houseplants are just about it. People-watching here is great fun. Families with grandmothers and toddlers in tow meet and greet like long lost relatives. (Actually, they probably are related.) They speak in colorful Korean dialects filled with guttural sounds and plosive pops, and they seem happy to see each other.
The menu is broken up into sections, including Korean barbecue with either beef ($9.95), pork or squid ($8.95), several soups and stews (most of them spicy), rice dishes called bibinbop, noodle dishes of various kinds including chapchai ($8.95), cellophane noodles served with marinated beef (on the sweet side) with stir-fried vegetables and garnished with sesame seeds.
Several pan-fried dishes are also offered, including seafood pancakes, mandu and pan-fried fish. Thankfully, there is a fully translated English version of the menu, so ordering is very easy. As soon as you place your order, the waitress will bring you a pot of boricha (hot barley tea) and several panchans, little dishes of kimchi and other preserved foods. I've seen pickled crab and candied fish at upscale restaurants but panchans here are simpler, including pickled daikon radish, seaweed with sesame seed, the traditional cabbage kimchi (not spicy enough for my taste) and one made with zucchini, which is considered a summer kimchi and is much milder than its cabbage patch cousin.
Don't pass up the gun mandu ($6.95) or meat and vegetable dumplings, which are often called yaki mandu as a first course to get things going. These flat little pork-filled pillows are wonderful and are made even better by the garlicky, salty, sweet, sesame seed-laden dipping sauce that accompanies them. I lived on them in Korea. You may also pick some up in the freezer section of the store.
Another sure bet is Korea's national dish, bulgogi (Korean barbecue) ($9.95). This version is not cooked tableside on a charcoal brazier like it is in more expensive and expansive restaurants, but it holds its own. The meat is almost caramelized and served still hissing on a hot sizzle platter. It is at once sweet and savory, laced with caramelized onions and scallions, and the portion size is more than generous. A big bowl of fluffy rice and all the pickled panchans are the perfect foil for the bulgogi.
Bibinbop is another one of my absolute favorite dishes. It's a sturdy mixture of steamed rice, bits of marinated meat and seasoned vegetables, sprouts and egg, served with a tasty red sauce called kochujang. When I was in Korea I enjoyed a delicious version of the dish called dolsot. It was cooked in a stone pot until the rice on the bottom got browned and crunchy. It was remarkable.
I still remember those hangover breakfasts with kimchi soup and bibinbop and wonder when I'll get back to visit the Land of the Morning Calm. You can save yourself a bunch on airfare and sample truly delicious homestyle Korean cooking right in your own backyard.
Ar-Ri-Rang; 1826 Eubank NE; 255-9634; Hours: M-S 10:00 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Price Range: Inexpensive; Major credit cards accepted.