1416 Millersport Hwy. Amherst, NY 14221
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One of the area's best Korean options, with a relatively large menu and food that's virtually all good; grilled, sauteed, and stewed options available. Included side dishes were generous and tasty.
Extremely expensive by local standards; some menu items disappoint a little in either quantity or quality given their prices.
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Amherst Barbecue Japanese Korean
"While the prices mean that we won't be visiting with frequency, the quality is better than what we've recently had at Woo Chon, and the service was friendlier and more attentive."
Too many months had passed, we realized several days ago, since we had ended our routine of doing a weekend dim sum brunch at some local Chinese restaurant. The reason was obvious - we had moved from a city where dim sum was available and great to one where it was hard to find and far too often mediocre. Unwilling to return to Golden Duck or Peking Garden, we planned to revisit Uncle John's No. 1, but then reconsidered the decision. Why not try something different this Saturday, we thought; how about checking out someplace that wasn't safe, that we'd heard about but never visited ourselves - what about Arirang? This Millersport Highway restaurant, tucked into the base of the Triad apartments near Santora's and a hair salon, has been around for a while, primarily serving Korean food but also offering a small Japanese menu for less adventurous diners. We decided to give it a shot, and though our admittedly slightly oversized lunch came to a stunning $73 after taxes and tip, we generally enjoyed what we ate.
The Story: Named for a famously wistful love song, Arirang is by historic standards somewhere in the upper middle of Western New York's Korean restaurant scene - it is not as small or limited as Amherst's Koreana, as fence-straddling as the dual Chinese and Korean Seoul Garden in Tonawanda, nor as large and seemingly well-appointed as the barbecue tabled Williamsville restaurant Woo Chon. This is a full-service, full-menued Korean restaurant, closest to Woo Chon in that regard, with a handful of Japanese options as well - udon noodles, fried katsu cutlets, three types of teriyaki, and some sushi. But at Korean restaurants, we always go for the Korean dishes, which outnumber the Japanese ones here by a ratio of roughly 4 to 1 on the 79-item menu.
In Korean tradition, the meal begins not with the items you've ordered, but rather with free "side dishes," an array of small plates that seem to go up in number from 5 or 6 to 8 or 10 depending on the number of times you've visited a restaurant. On our first visit, we were surprised to be loaded up with 9, including traditional items such as the unjustly maligned spicy pickled cabbage kimchee, a similar and even more deliciously crunchy radish version, as well as lightly sauteed squash, broccoli, and seaweed, a little potato salad, and others. The flavors vary from spicy - always hinted at with red coloration - to soy sauce-infused brown, to basically plain, either room temperature or slightly above it.
Individual tastes will of course vary on these dishes, but with such a collection to choose from, there's at least something for everyone to try. Calling these dishes free is a little misleading in that they're actually included in the cost of your meal, but if you find something you like, you can ask for more and typically get it at no additional charge. Between two of us, we were able to wipe all of the bowls clean, and in asking for more kimchee were given both the cabbage and radish versions. It's obvious that Arirang doesn't skimp on these sides, and we like that.
Highs: We felt that all of the dishes we tried were good, in roughly the 3 star range, and we didn't have to spend a lot of time waiting around for them to come out. Following the side dishes, the first entree we received as Nak Ji Bok Kum ($20), a large, colorful plate of chopped octopus and vegetables, all prepared in an uncharacteristically thin but typically spicy red sauce. The octopus, vegetables and sauce all tasted good, though the sauce didn't have the same richness of flavor that we've enjoyed in other Bok Kums elsewhere, and the octopus wasn't generous enough for the price. Arirang also offers this dish with pork and tofu rather than octopus, a combination we've liked elsewhere.
A better dish was the Galbi ($25, also known as Kalbi), a large cow-shaped hot plate loaded with grilled beef short ribs - a staple of Korean barbecue, marinaded in a very similar soy sauce, garlic, and sugar mix to what's found in the better-known, less expensive Bul Go Gi ($23). Though we routinely avoid fat in most of the meat dishes we order, we always make an exception for Kalbi ribs, which feature cross-sectioned bones attached to succulent beef with thin lines of fat; the dish would not be anywhere near as tasty if delivered lean. Arirang's rendition is, while not amazing in quantity or marinade thanks to a slightly overaggressive use of soy sauce, a very good plate of meat that most people could enjoy alone as a meal with included white rice, Miso soup, and side dishes.
Lows: We had mixed feelings about the Bi Bim Naeng Myun ($12), a cold-to-room temperature noodle dish that has been amongst our very favorite Korean meals for years. This dish, which arrives parted into its ingredients - buckwheat noodles on bottom, matchsticked cucumber, radish, and carrot on top, and a big dap of gochu jang chili paste above everything, is stirred into a blend that most often goes brown with small traces of red chili. While we ordered this dish without its typical egg topping, we weren't expecting to find it lacking entirely in beef, an item that typically is dropped on top in a few small, thin slices, but was absent here in favor of the carrots. Like the Nak Ji Bok Kum, the flavor here lacked a bit for the depth and richness we're accustomed to tasing, but wasn't bad in an absolute sense; the spice and sesame oil might be enough to fully satisfy some people.
The single biggest issue we had with Arirang was the price of our lunch. Three entrees, no appetizers, and one bottle of iced tea came to $63 before tip, a sum that would have blown our minds if not for the similarly high prices at Woo Chon. Had the meal been half the price, it might have rated much higher, but for $30+ per person, we would expect Korean perfection - Arirang is merely good. In typical Korean fashion, though the meal was generally presented in the expected order, there was one oddity in the service: the Miso soup, most often presented at the start of a meal alongside the side dishes, arrived only after everything else had been served.
The Verdict: While the prices at Arirang mean that we won't be visiting with any frequency, the quality of the food here is better at this point in time than what we've recently had at Woo Chon, and we felt that the service was friendlier and more attentive, to boot. We've eaten better Korean for less outside of Western New York, but with local options dwindling in both number and quality, it's nice to know that there's someplace we can still rely on for a fairly authentic meal, and plenty of side dishes.