BY STEVE BUTTERFIELD
Full disclosure: I’ve never been to Thailand. I have, however, been to a great many Thai restaurants, so while I can’t claim to truly be an expert in authentic Thai cuisine (unless the stuff at the restaurants back home is truly authentic), I am an expert in tasty. Having eaten there three different times now, I can tell you that the food at Arun Thai in Nampo-dong is very, very tasty indeed.
The first thing you notice is the space. This is a very pretty place to eat. Unlike many restaurants (Korean and non-Korean) that I’ve been to in Busan, Arun leaves some floor space where others might pack an extra dozen tables. Since you aren’t sitting in your neighbor’s lap while you eat, it manages to feel much bigger than it is. The décor is classy and even somewhat understated. Thai restaurants back home in New England can sometimes feel like an Epcot exhibit of Thailand, drowned in gaudy silks and elephant motifs and gold-leaf imperial portraits. Arun avoids that in favor of muted earth tones, a small and somewhat abstract triptych of elephant paintings in the side room, and some jewel-tone highlights. It’s just a nice place to be.
It gets even nicer when the gregarious, charming, eager-to-please owners get to your table. Ordering at restaurants in Busan can sometimes be a bit…well, let’s be charitable and say “stressful.” The owners here speak impeccable English (she spent a few years living in New Zealand) and are genuinely friendly, even making a point of learning my name tonight after seeing me three times in a week and dashing down the stairs to say goodnight when she missed me slipping out with my crowd (the owners are Korean; the chef is Thai).
None of this – the nice décor, the chipper ownership – would matter, really, if the food didn’t deliver. It does. It really, really does. I am not some wide-eyed new arrival shrilly insisting on the merits of a meal that was really just a Koreanized shadow of what you could find “back home” (and I actually like Korean food) just because I miss the real deal so badly. No, friends: this place is legit.
On my first visit, an appetizer sampler featured diminutive, shatteringly crisp spring rolls; deceptively simple and alarmingly addictive fried chicken dumplings; velvety chicken satay, melting off the skewer under a rich layer of sticky peanut sauce; and some fairly colossal prawns coated in shredded coconut and fried. Things were already looking up.
Red curry here is terrific – a little on the sweet side, so if you like your heat make sure to let them know – but it has the right texture, and hit all those depths of flavor that makes Thai cuisine stand out from the pack. And, as a bonus, the beef variant was loaded with beef. The pad thai is even better. This isn’t that sticky, gloopy mass of gelatinous noodles in a sickening red paste that you get at the worst Thai places back home. No, no – these are wide, chewy rice noodles under a mound of crunchy bean sprouts, plenty of tender chicken bits, a real lemon wedge (!), and peanuts on the side, with just the right char on the whole dish to give it a smoky, almost grilled essence. It was sublime.
On a second visit, my friend was pleased with his yellow curry, but liked his tom kar soup (that’s the one with coconut milk) even better. I tried a spoonful – sour from the lemon juice, sweet from the coconut milk, with that depth and layering of flavor you only get from a patient, confident chef. This time, I tried the yum woon sen (“B5” on the menu), a salad with prawns, squid, ground chicken, glass noodles, heaps of scallions and shredded carrots in a spicy citrus dressing, served cool. Think ceviche with glass noodles.
There’s nothing like this dish (at least not that I’ve found) in Korean cuisine, which is maybe what made it such a standout for me. It was, in a word, sublime. It’s a bright, bracing, fresh, clean, tart, citrusy blast of sunshine on a plate, about as far from the dark and fermented flavors of Korean food as you can get. I gulped it down and spent the rest of the week daydreaming about it. When friends suggested dinner two nights later, I bullied them into trying Arun and ordered it again – it was that good.
As far as prices, it’s more expensive than a kimbap joint but less expensive than any of the “Italian” restaurants I’ve been to in town. 5k-9k for appetizers, 9k-13k for mains, with some weekday lunch specials (not available on public holidays) at 7900, for you hagwon teachers to take advantage of. You do get a free coffee/espresso drink or tea of your choice at the end of your meal – from an actual espresso machine, not a mix machine. Nice touch. Portion sizes seem perfectly adequate to me, and I’m a pudgy guy. Oh, and if you order something with rice, it comes in the shape of a teddy bear, if you like that sort of thing.
Of course I recommend Arun Thai. It’s terrific. It would be the best of several Thai restaurants I frequented back home if it existed back home: in Busan it’s practically revelatory. Do yourself, do me, and do the rest of us hungry waygooks here a favor and give Arun some business so it sticks around for a while.
Directions: From Jagalchi subway exit 7, walk straight until PIFF square. Turn left into the square, walk two blocks through the square past all the vendors until you get to the shopping street. Turn right, walk until you see a KFC on your left, JUST before the intersection with the ABC Mart and the Frisbee Apple store. There’s a small side street just before the KFC. Arun Thai is about two blocks down that street on the left (keep your eyes peeled for their sign) on the 2nd floor.
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