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Friday, August 12, 2011

Ara Fusion: A great spot in Annandale for a late-night party

Sujaebi Jampong
By James Moon

The “fusion” in the menu at Ara Fusion Restaurant (7137 Little River Turnpike, Annandale) may be better described as “not your grandmother’s Korean food.” But if you want to understand the culinary genres Ara straddles, you have to know what anju is.

Anju is food eaten while drinking alcohol and, as an integral part of Korean drinking culture, a minimum order of anju is often required for a table at many bars in Korea. Such is not the case in Annandale, but Ara—with its neon lighting and blaring music after sunset—caters to the young and the nightlife-oriented crowd. And the menu reads like an anju menu.

The term anju itself refers not to any particular type of food so much as the role of the food as an accompaniment with drink, but Ara’s menu provides insight into what many a Korean lush might crave in the presence of soju, beer, and other liquor. Virtually half the menu is denoted with a spicy red pepper, and the rest of the menu has a lot more fried food than you’d expect at a more traditional Korean restaurant in town.

The fried chicken, fried squid, fried kimchi pancake, fried noodles and seaweed wraps, fried pork cutlet (donkatseu), fried rice cake, and fried dumplings (not to mention onion rings and french fries) served at Ara dispel any stereotypes that all Korean food is healthy.
Quite a few items are Japanese-inspired, such as yakisoba (stir-fried soba noodles), chicken and squid teriyaki, udon noodles sautéed with seafood, and okonomiyaki (a large platter-sized veggie and seafood pancake, served so hot the thin flakes of seafood wriggle in the rising heat as if the food is alive).

Koreans like to eat communally (with and without alcohol and especially with friends), and Ara meets that need with Korean casseroles (large pots or pans of soup or stew heated at the table that serve multiple people), such as sujebi jjamppong (a spicy seafood soup with wheat pasta), tteokbokki (rice cakes, fish cakes, fried seaweed wraps of vermicelli noodles, veggies, hard-boiled egg, and other ingredients in a spicy but sweet sauce; spelled “dukbokki” on the menu), kimchi jeongol (a kimchi soup similar to kimchi jjigae), and budae jeongol (a spicy soup with American meats—invented during the Korean War from handouts from the U.S. military).
Rounding out the menu are standard Korean foods, such as bibimbap, naengmyeon, sundubu, and daki tori tang (a chicken and potato soup). The menu is actually quite extensive.

Ara is the kind of place where young Koreans and the young at heart would—and do—gather with friends to celebrate birthdays or other occasions after which they might be tempted to stay on the premises to sing in a noraebang (a small private room equipped with a karaoke machine), available for hourly charges.

The karaoke here has been known to be discounted during the day or offered free on weekdays to parties that spend upward of a certain threshold in the restaurant; ask your server if any of these deals are current. Beer, wine, soju, and soju-based cocktails are served in both the restaurant and the karaoke rooms.

During the day and on weekday nights, Ara is actually a pretty normal restaurant (maybe even family friendly), but on weekend nights, expect a loud atmosphere and boisterous parties. The food—mostly spicy, often fried—is meant for meeting with friends, and the drinks are probably culpable in embarrassing renditions of “Dancing Queen” after dinner. With the right crowd, a lot of fun can be had, but you might want to take your Korean grandmother someplace else.

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