18 May 2018 Posted By : Peter Hum

From barbecue to bulgogi, Alirang's hearty Korean fare packs in customers

1485 Merivale Rd., 613-695-5188, facebook.com/AlirangRestaurant/
Open: Monday and Wednesday to Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m., closed Tuesday
Prices: main dishes $11.95 to $17.95, barbecue $17.95 to $28.95 per person, minimum two people
Access: washrooms downstairs

On a recent Saturday night at Alirang on Merivale Road, there were almost as many people waiting for tables as there were people eating in the packed, 60-seat Korean restaurant.

At the three-month-old eatery, an offshoot of the well-established and similarly named place in Lowertown, it’s common at peak times for the lobby to be jammed with a hungry and mostly Asian throng. That’s what happens when a popular place refuses to take phone reservations, and when that place has earned its popularity with hearty, agreeable, affordable versions of Korean cuisine’s greatest hits.

For almost a decade and a half, the previous standalone restaurant at this address had been the burger-and-milkshakes joint Dick’s Drive-In and Dairy Dip. Thorough renovations have removed the old look and feel of Dick’s and replaced them with prominent Korean decorations along the dining room’s main wall and even an aquarium.

Most importantly, some of the tables are outfitted to allow for do-it-yourself, gas-cannister-powered grilling of various cuts of pork, chicken or beef, an option that merits a page of its own in Alirang’s book-like, illustrated menu. 

On that Saturday night, three of us chose to take the cooking into our own hands. After our 3o-minute wait for a barbecue-equipped table, it was a relief to first receive a container of barley tea on the house and then the elements of our dinner, which landed in a quick succession. We were brought small bowls of banchan (side items, in this case, three lightly pickled vegetable dishes and some potent kimchi), some soy-sesame-dressed greens, bowls filled with slices of raw pork jowl or raw pork belly and king oyster mushroom, leaves of romaine to be torn up and used to wrap the meat, and two bowls of dipping sauces that added over-the-top umami savouriness to the meat. 

As the components of the meal landed, we were left on our own to figure out the niceties of Korean barbecuing. It wasn’t hard for us to infer and intuit what to do, but if you did want confirmation of the usual procedures, you would probably have to ask, because servers at Alirang, in my experience, are pretty no-fuss and there to expedite, not to explain, chat or make friends. (They may also leave you lingering and waiting for the bill once you’ve eaten, as they can be beleaguered and focused on bringing dishes from the kitchen to the table.) Our pork-themed dinner was convivial, rugged and filling as we grew more adept at assembling lettuce-wrapped morsels of pork, the jowl coloured and the belly crisped.

Tabletop barbecue at Alirang on Merivale Road. Postmedia

Between that dinner and two other visits to Alirang, I’ve sampled other dishes that were consistently heaped with their rudimentary flavours.

Duck bokum ($17.95) was stir-fry of tender meat and veg in a heated, funky sauce that for all its brusqueness did not overwhelm. Thinly sliced, lightly charred galbi (beef short ribs, $17.95) were sweet-salty-chewy fun to gnaw on. Bulgogi bibimbap ($13.95) combined the iconic marinated beef preparation with the equally significant rice-bowl dish, combining the flavourful, thinly sliced meat with a fried egg, vegetables and rice that had achieved a crisped underside from the super-heated stone bowl.

Duck bokum stir-fry at Alirang on Merivale Road. OTTwp

Galbi beef ribs and banchan at Alirang on Merivale Road OTTwp

Bulgogi bibimbap at Alirang on Merivale Road OTTwp

In dukbaegi bulgogi ($15.95), more of the marinated beef swam alongside slippery vermicelli in a thin, sweet-salty broth. For our table’s fan of nothing too involved or spicy, another piping-hot soup dish featured udon noodles in a basic dashi broth (perhaps from a powdered base), with a cutlet of deep-fried chicken on the side.

Bulbogi with vermicelli and broth at Alirang on Merivale Road OTTwp

Udon soup with chicken katsu at Alirang on Merivale Road OTTwp

Another lighter but pleasing dish was the Hoedopbap ($14.95), a rice bowl of sorts featuring raw salmon and salad with a spicy-savoury dressing.  

Raw salmon salad and rice at Alirang on Merivale Road OTTwp

We preferred the smallest, simpler appetizers — plump, meaty deep-fried mandoo dumplings ($4.95), tender and sizable shrimp tempura ($7.95) — to the somewhat oily pajeon seafood pancake ($12.95) that needed its sauce to give it some pop. 

Mandoo dumplings at Alirang on Merivale Road OTTwp

Shrimp tempura at Alirang OTTwp

Pajeon seafood pancake at Alirang on Merivale Road OTTwp

The minimal selection of desserts here ($4.95 each) included store-bought Asian-flavoured ice creams and deep-fried bananas that could have been happily skipped.

Deep-fried bananas at Alirang OTTwp

I know first-hand that there are Korean chefs at restaurants of international stature who turn out dishes with finely calibrated nuances. Alirang takes a lower, more rustic road, delivering big, satisfying flavours that, if you overdo things, can leave feeling like your palate needs a good scrub. Still, given the crowds that can surround you, if you feel that you way, you could be in good company.

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