Adventures in Korean dining in Howard County

Seoul Food

Adventures in Korean dining in Howard County

April 01, 2011|By Jennifer Broadwater, Lisa Kawata and Diane Pajak

Our first forays into Korean dining taught us some valuable lessons: Expect the unexpected, and don't be surprised if the wait staff doesn't speak fluent English. Be patient, open-minded and -- most of all -- enjoy the food, because it's delicious.

Oh, and you might want to brush up on your use of chopsticks before you go; otherwise you might have to eat with a plastic fork.

There are almost a dozen Korean restaurants dotting Ellicott City's Route 40 corridor -- some specialize in Korean barbecue or soon doo boo (tofu stew), while others offer a mix of Korean, Japanese and Chinese fare.

For those who enjoy expanding their tastebud horizons and haven't already delved into Korean cuisine, these eateries merit exploration.


Part of the fun of Korean barbecue is participating -- watching your meal cook right before your eyes on a gas grill built into your table, and the hot-off-the-grill taste.

One of Howard County's more established Korean hotspots is Shin Chon Garden, which opened in the Golden Triangle Shopping Center in 2003. Current owners Jum Suh and her husband, Hyung Suh, of Ellicott City, took over the operation in 2004 and have since expanded the place from six grill tables to 17.

But you're still likely to encounter a wait on weekends, when patrons are willing to be patient in order to snag a barbecue table to feast on the most popular dishes, galbi (short ribs) and bulgogi (thinly sliced beef).

And, no, that's not graffiti on the walls -- they're autographs of some notable visitors, including Simon Cho, a bronze medalist in short track speedskating at the 2010 Olympic Games, and LPGA golfer Kyeong Bae.

At Honey Pig BBQ, farther west on Route 40, tabletop grills also are the centerpieces at each table, where you will find everything from bulgogi, pork rib and pork bellies to tripe and octopus sizzling.

Often accompanying an order of bulgogi is a dish of large lettuce leaves, meant to be stuffed with beef off the grill, rice and hot pepper sauce. The lettuce adds a refreshing crunch to the flavors wrapped inside.


Korean food pulls its flavor from hot red pepper, garlic, soy sauce, sesame seeds, sesame oil, scallions and ginger (rather than butter or heavy oils). And it's a cuisine that's meant for sharing, with platters of beef and pork serving between two and five people. Some restaurants also offer chicken, although you're less likely to find it printed on the menu.

The tenderness? Meats are marinated for at least 48 hours in soy sauce, sesame oil and other spices for tenderness and flavor, according to Shin Chon's Jum Suh, a mother of two who was born in Daegu, South Korea's third-largest city.

Some aspects unique to Korean dining, she says, are the variety of side dishes that automatically arrive at your table and the communal nature of the meal.

"In Korean culture, we like to share," she says. "We like to share food. They'll bring soups, meats, vegetables, kimchi. We just dig in.

"In almost any other country, everyone gets their own dishes -- Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, American -- only Korean food serves it with side dishes," she explains. "With Korean, everybody gets a bowl of rice. That steamed rice doesn't have any flavor to it. You can blend it with little bits of the side dishes to mix the flavors."

The side dishes (called panchan or banchan) vary, but are generally similar from restaurant to restaurant and often include broccoli, cold chapchae noodles, sweet radish kimchi, bean sprouts, thinly sliced turnips and cold pepper steak with zucchini and onion.

Of course a Korean meal would not be complete without kimchi, fermented cabbage seasoned with ginger, garlic and pepper, said to aid in digestion and overall well-being.

"Most Koreans, when they have a meal, they have to have kimchi," Suh says. "Kimchi is good for you. On the Korean table, you have to have kimchi, even on Thanksgiving with the turkey."

Also said to help digestion is the barley tea.


The spacious dining room at Lighthouse Tofu & BBQ, one of the area's newest Korean restaurants, can be packed even on a weeknight. This restaurant's menu is divided into three categories: soon doo boo (tofu stew), meat or octopus, and pancakes. Waitresses deliver food to the table by rolling carts.

The seafood soon doo boo is rich and red, with plenty of large chunks of tofu, whole shrimp and clams still in their shells. A raw egg is cracked and stirred quickly into the boiling stew at the table. This hearty stew comes in many variations of ingredients and levels of spiciness.

At Lighthouse, rice is served from a stone pot and spooned into individual bowls. Barley tea is then poured into the stone pot to scorch the remaining rice (called nurungi) to steep. This is to be sipped to aid in digestion.

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