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Arisoo, 3002 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 4806325655. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.
I'm a Seoul man.
Despite the explosion of Asian ethnic restaurants in the Valley, you can still count the number of Korean restaurants here on one hand, without having to use your thumb.
Dol sot bi bim bop
Seafood jun gol
Why so few? Korean food has never enjoyed the cachet of other Far Eastern fare. Chinese cuisine is arguably the world's most sophisticated. In Japan, where chefs are considered artists, you find unsurpassed delicacy and refinement. Thai food is complexly and vigorously seasoned, a knockout blend of exotic flavors. Vietnamese dishes manage to combine subtlety with intrigue.
The Land of the Morning Calm, however, can't match its neighbors' culinary reputation. Korean fare is much more basic, more straightforward. If this food were music, every song would feature a three-note bass line: soy, hot chile pepper, garlic. The opportunity for creativity and the scope for invention seem pretty limited. You might well think that Korean food can't get beyond potent and predictable.
But structure doesn't have to become a straitjacket. After all, the masters of haiku can get across the most profound thoughts in 17 syllables. Blues musicians plumb the depths of emotion using just three chords. Photographers create powerful images working in black and white.
The culinary arts are no different from the literary, musical or visual arts. Despite its limitations, the Korean kitchen can still work magic.
And it's the kind of magic most Americans should take to. That's because Korean cuisine features what we love best -- beef. Moreover, it's prepared the way we like it best -- grilled.
To test my theory, make your way to Arisoo, which has been operating in the wilds of Chandler for about 18 months.
Arisoo is the ancient name for the Han River, which runs through Seoul. The H2O theme is represented by a stylized painting on the wall. Korean diners -- and they seem to make up most of Arisoo's clientele -- get another homeland cue from the huge photo of Seoul at dusk, set over the bar. The booths are set off by lashed wood posts, to which thin-slatted wooden mats are attached. Management assumes you're able to wield chopsticks -- you'll have to ask for silverware. Oddly enough, you're just as likely to hear piped-in Engelbert Humperdinck as you are to hear what sounded like Asian-techno-pop.
But the key decor feature figures directly in the dining experience: That's the gas grill, built into most of Arisoo's tables. When the time comes, you'll be doing your own cooking on it.
But not right away. Although appetizers aren't a key component of the Hermit Kingdom's gastronomy, one of them is worth zeroing in on. Think of bin dae duk as Korean pancakes, two starchy disks flecked with scallions and red pepper. Swish them in the pungent dipping sauce, and you'll see just how the marriage of taste and texture ought to be consummated.
Man du will also look familiar. They're the Korean version of Chinese pot stickers and Japanese gyoza, unexceptional, doughy, skillet-fried dumplings stuffed with meat. Kim bap -- defined as a "seaweed roll" on the menu -- is another starter option. Take a pass. It's sushi, and not particularly memorable sushi at that.
After the appetizer prelude, it's time for the main act. The "Gui" section of the menu offers about a dozen grilled Korean meat dishes. Some, like beef intestines and thin-sliced beef tongue, are strictly for homesick natives. Others, though, wouldn't be out of place on your backyard grill at a weekend cookout.
Gal bi are my favorite, short ribs steeped in a lusty soy marinade. Your server will bring over a big platter of them, then take out a pair of scissors and snip the meat away from the bone. Next, she'll set down little bowls of spicy pickled veggie condiments, all sparked with garlic and hot pepper. Among them: cabbage, radish, broccoli, bean sprouts, potatoes, cucumber and zucchini. Bowls of bean paste, rice, garlic and jalapeño pepper, along with a pile of lettuce leaves, complete the picture.
Once she fires up the gas grill, her work is done. Now it's your turn to play Korean cook. Grab the tongs and throw the meat on the flames.
While the beef is sizzling, take a lettuce leaf and spread on a bit of bean paste, a dab of rice and your favorite condiments. Then, when the meat is done just the way you like, add it to the mix. Roll up the greenery (think of it as a lettuce burrito) and munch happily away.
Come here with a group of four, and you can have your own grilling party. Along with gal bi, you'll find such nonthreatening animal protein as bul gogi (thin slices of marinated beef tenderloin), dak bul gogi (chicken), and deaji bul gogi (pork).
If you want to put your server to work, order jun gol. These are hot pot dishes, served for two, prepared on a Sterno-fired portable grill at the table. The seafood version brings together noodles, veggies and a small mix of ocean fare -- shrimp, crab and mussels. They're simmered in a chile-packed broth that will have you mopping your brow for the next hour.