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Korean food, as you may have surmised, is not for the faint of taste bud. Generally, the farther from the equator you travel, the blander the fare -- the world's spiciest cuisines come from the tropics. Korea, though, is the exception. Garlic is used in amounts that could keep Transylvania free of vampires for decades. The chile heat, meanwhile, wouldn't seem out of place in Jamaica.
If that's the sort of intensity you crave, Arisoo puts out a trio of dishes that can turn you into a human blowtorch. Our server tried to warn us away from bi bim neng myun, a cold noodle plate that, she said, Westerners can't handle. I can see her point: The rubbery noodles (that's how they're supposed to be) are flecked with a bit of radish and meat, and tossed in hot, smoky red pepper sauce that sticks around for about 24 hours. If you can deal with it, you'll find the flavors are marvelously intense.
Galbi uguju tang is a bubbling, hearty, meal-in-an-earthenware-bowl that's better suited to a frigid Seoul winter than a steamy Valley summer. But if you can work yourself up into a state of disbelief, you may enjoy the mix of short ribs and cabbage simmered in a latently spicy broth that will rearrange your body's thermostat on the drive home.
Dol sot bi bim bop
Seafood jun gol
Nak ji bok eum, a mix of calamari and veggies, will also put a hurting on you, in more ways than one. If the ferocious red chile sauce doesn't get you, the tooth-resistant squid will. I loved the flavors here, but it's disconcerting to chew on something that has all the tender properties of the Sunday newspaper's rubber band.
What's the best way to deal with the heat? Beer is a traditional fire extinguisher, but Korean beers aren't terribly long on taste. About the only thing the two brands offered here, OB and Hite, have going for them is that they're served ice cold.
If you prefer, you can opt for milder dishes, some more interesting than others. Se wu jun are shrimp, butterflied, battered and pan-fried. After the first couple of crustaceans, however, you've pretty much plumbed the culinary depths.
Chap che is probably Korea's signature noodle dish, vermicelli stir-fried with beef and veggies, in a mild, fragrant sauce.
Honors, however, go to the eye-catching dol sot bi bim bop, one of my all-time favorite ethnic dishes. A sizzling stoneware vessel comes heaped with rice, on top of which beef, veggies and a fried egg have been artfully layered. Your task: mix up all the ingredients, adding a red chile pepper paste to taste. I especially like how the pot makes the rice so wonderfully crunchy.
For some reason, Arisoo finds it necessary to add a few Japanese items to the menu. Perhaps the proprietor worries that Korean fare alone isn't enough to sustain business in the east Valley. When I asked the server about the Japanese fare, she shrugged noncommittally. Then, after I pressed her, she shook her head from side to side.
Her discouragement seems warranted, if udong, a Japanese noodle soup, is any guide. Touched with a bit of meat and "krab," it's not nearly in the same class as the models you find at Japanese restaurants elsewhere.
If you're not Korean, be grateful there's no dessert list. Asian desserts, I've found, rarely appeal to Western tastes, and Korean treats don't translate well at all. Once, a Korean neighbor brought over several Old Country delights for me to sample. If you'd like to get an idea of the taste and texture, bite off and chew on the eraser of a No. 2 pencil.
Instead, at meal's end, you'll receive a cold drink, a sweetened rice beverage that, according to our waitress, "is good for the digestion." I don't doubt it -- anything that tastes like this has to be good for you.
With its inexpensive, tasty native eats, served by folks who want you to have a good time, Arisoo makes for a fun, offbeat ethnic experience. If that's the kind of experience you enjoy, this Seoul train makes all the stops.