Shin Chon Gardens is known for its Korean barbecue - nifty little feasts that start as a show, with the food prepared on grills built right into the table.
But Jum Suh, the owner of this clean and spacious eatery, says some American customers are nervous about trying Korean food. That's why she offers Japanese cuisine as well, like pristine sushi and sashimi, salty udon soups and lightly battered tempura.
What usually happens, she says, is that one person in a party of four or five will be curious, and order something Korean. Maybe the barbecued bul kogi. That's when the fun starts, as enchanted diners pass around forkfuls of food, trying this or that and comparing the flavors.
Shin Chon Garden is in the same Ellicott City shopping plaza as Lotte Mart, the giant Korean supermarket selling everything from Asian pears to Hello Kitty watches. Like the market, the restaurant is treasured by eaters of all nationalities who appreciate fresh, flavorful food at prices so low customers may feel a touch guilty as they pay.
Service is always friendly and professional at Shin Chon. As soon as diners arrive, they are presented with glasses of warm green tea. Waiters speak excellent English and are happy to make recommendations.
For customers wise enough to order the Korean barbecue, there are six tables with built-in grills, so the food can be prepared as the customers wait.
Appetizers like sweet and sour tofu or fried dumplings arrive hot and fresh on little white plates, perfect for passing around and sharing.
But the main event at Shin Chon is the barbecue. Perhaps 10 different kinds of meat, including ribs and pork, are available for grilling, but the best known version is probably the thin strips of marinated steak known as bul kogi ($16.95). The meat is brought to the table raw and placed on the heated grill. Diners can pick up the tongs and turn the meat themselves, or let a server do it.
The jaeyook gui ($16.95), pork slices slathered in a spicy (but not as spicy as we were led to believe) sauce, were given the same grill-at-the-table treatment. The pork was fatty and rich, becoming moist and flavorful - but still fatty - when cooked. And in case you're wondering, care is always taken to keep the raw meats far from the cooked ones.
An onion half and a lone floret of broccoli were thrown on the grill with the meat, adding a little dash of flavor and color. But these weren't meant to be sides. The barbecue comes with about a dozen little plates of pickles and kimchis and other treats, sort of a Korean version of cole slaw and potato salad.
Among these were chewy black beans, fat strings of daikon radish in a spicy vinegar, a fantastic salad of earthy mushroom slices, and a serving of kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage dish that seems to be part of every Korean meal. And if your waiter sees that you can't stop eating those daikon radishes, for example, she'll bring you more before you even think to ask.
The Japanese food at Shin Chon is probably as good as the Korean, but maybe not as special because it's easy to find similar dishes in other restaurants.
Sushi and udon ($14.95) make a nice meal as a combination, with about a half-dozen generous pieces of the more popular varieties of sushi, including spicy barbecued eel, a pink slab of tuna and a cooked, cold shrimp. The udon soup, served in a nearly cauldron-sized bowl, was filled with terrific fat, slippery noodles, with just the tiniest bit of give against the teeth.
Salmon teriyaki ($18.95), centered on a sinfully rich slab of skin-on fish, was pristine in its freshness, lightly bathed in a sweet-sour glaze.
Like other entrees, the salmon arrived with a couple of California-style sushi rolls, some delicious fried dumplings and a generous mound of rice.
Suh said the restaurant had been open a year before she took over in 2004. Shin Chon is open 364 days a year, closed only on Thanksgiving. Christmas and New Year's are busy days, she said.
It's easy to see why the restaurant has become popular all year round.
Shin Chon Garden
Where: 8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. every day but Thanksgiving
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers, $5.85-$6.95, entrees $9.95-$34.95
Food: *** (3 STARS)
Service: *** (3STARS)
Atmosphere: *** (3 STARS)
[Outstanding: **** (4 STARS) Good: *** (3 STARS) Fair or uneven:
** (2 STARS) Poor: * (1 STAR)