A Journey Inside A-Ri-Rang

By John Katrinak · Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Navigating Albuquerque in search of ingredients to create traditional Korean dishes has always been quite the feat. However, my recent discovery of A-Ri-Rang Oriental Market in the eastern part of our city has opened up many more possibilities for crafting the flavors of Korea at home. If a Korean dish calls for a specific ingredient or cooking tool, more than likely you’ll find it at this unassuming market.

To any newcomer in search of A-Ri-Rang, a towering red and gold sign outside marks the destination, but for me, the familiar aromas that greeted me upon entering the market signaled that I was surely at the right place. The scent of slow-cooked fish stock permeating through my face mask brought back fond memories of time spent at my aunt’s house in Seoul, where meals were prepared with care and from scratch daily.

At first glance, A-Ri-Rang’s overflowing shelves of Korean skincare products, snacks, cooking equipment, and basic essentials teleported me to shopping with my mom in the little Korean markets in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Venturing further inside, I found the restaurant, serving up classic Korean selections.

The market appeared to be just like any Korean market or bodega in New York City, but it became clear from my visit that it is a close-knit family business. The Chong family has run the market since 1987 and opened the restaurant when they moved to their current location about nineteen years ago. One of the daughters of the family, Ivy, answered my call with a friendly greeting, and asked if I would like to place a food order. In this instance, I opted to call in my quintessential Korean feast and was happy to learn of the pandemic guidelines that they have in place, including a mask requirement and sanitation buckets available next to the register and pick-up table.

I arrived with perfect timing. My order was still being prepared in the kitchen by mother and son, Han and Chanhyeong, giving me the opportunity to peruse the market. I strolled through the aisles, welcomed by the sight of fresh vegetables, rice varieties, Korean pickles, and multiple types of kimchi. The shelves, refrigerators, and freezers were filled with endless possibilities of flavors.

As I scanned the products, I spotted the tiny dried anchovies that are stir-fried for savory, crunchy myulchi bokkeum. My eyes landed on a dosirak plate for a bento lunch full of rice, meat, and sections for different banchans (side dishes) or kimchis. Down the bursting noodle aisle was the ever-familiar japchae noodle made from sweet potatoes—a great gluten-free option with a texture similar to that of a rice noodle. Then, just as I do without fail every time I step into a Korean market, I located my favorite childhood snacks: Korean onion rings, similar to Mexican duros or wagon wheels but packed full of onion flavor, and the irresistible Choco Pie, Korea’s take on the MoonPie. I was reminded of the many times I would sneak these snacks into my mother’s shopping basket as a child, hoping she wouldn’t notice—but they were almost always discovered as soon as they landed.

As the chef of my own Korean-fusion restaurant, I made sure to pick up a few ingredients for a seafood pancake to be served as an upcoming weekend special, and for nostalgia, a bag of the soon-to-be-famous onion rings to be devoured later.

I purchased my items and piled them into the back seat. En route to share the feast of bulgogi, bibimbap, mandu (dumplings), summer noodles, and seafood pancakes with a friend, familiar smells wafted over me. Upon opening the food containers, the room filled with the sweet, salty, and savory scents of any Korean household. The bulgogi with sautéed carrots and green onions was just the way my aunt made it. The mixed rice bowl, or bibimbap, was topped with a fried egg and four types of kimchi, the smell and flavor of sesame oil in each bite. The best part is breaking the egg to explode the yolk and stirring it into the rice to create a richer dish.

Overall, my favorite dish from A-Ri-Rang was the bibim naengmyeon. Two versions of this dish are available on the menu, but this was the only one able to be packed up. (The other came with a separate broth.) A heaping pile of buckwheat noodles are tossed in gochujang—a Korean pepper paste—along with vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil. Julienned apples accompany the dish to cool down and balance the spicy, tangy, and chewy noodles.

My takeaway from the experience was how profoundly our cultural and food connections can travel and thus be found in unexpected places, our memories summoned in an instant through familiar sights and scents. Most importantly, especially during this pandemic, is how families are sticking together, helping each other, and finding comfort through food.

1826 Eubank NE, Albuquerque, 505-255-9634

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