Monday, December 20, 2010
Lighthouse Tofu BBQ in Ellicott City
Lighthouse Tofu is a branch from an established Rockville restaurant just like Honey Pig came from a Virginia original. It's a deceptive storefront -- a tiny sign at the end of a shopping center with a Jerry's subs. The door opens into a bright, spacious restaurant that was packed last Saturday night.
The menu -- at least the one that I saw -- was only three pages long. There are many variations, but you basically choose between savory pancakes as an appetizer and between tofu stews, grilled meats and octopus/noodle dishes for the main courses.
The prime dishes are the stews called soon doo boo. They're tofu stews. You pick your level of spiciness and whether you want beef, oysters, others seafood or kimchi as the flavoring. The stew comes out still simmering from the kitchen, and the waitress cracks an egg that you stir into the stew where it basically disappears among the other ingredients. The medium soon doo boo with beef and pork made a perfect winter dinner, warm and luscious in way that filled us up but didn't leave us stuffed at all.
It's a simpler place than Shin Chon Garden. The panchan -- pickled side dishes that come to every table -- were limited to sprouts, chopped garlic, a cucumber salad, and two kinds of kimchi, including a "water kimchi" that was lightly-spiced and new for me. The bulgogi and other meats are cooked in the kitchen, and they don't come with the spicy sauce or the lettuce to make little rolls. But the waitresses welcomed us even though we were the only table in the room that didn't appear to speak Korean. They explained all the dishes, checked in regularly to refill tea and panchan, and kept asking if we were happy.
And we were. The flavors were delicious, and it was just fun to enjoy different variations of Korean food. Lighthouse cooks its rice in stone pots, which they bring to the table. After the waitress spoons out most of the rice, she pours tea over the rice that has charred against the pot. That brews until they end the meal by ladling charred rice tea with some soggy grains into a metal cup. It tastes like charred rice, a palate-cleansing end to a spicy meal. The waitress said it helps digestion. (Read HoCo Rising's report on Lighthouse: You're warned not to crack the egg in the charred rice tea. I avoided his mistake, but then poured most of my tea into my lap.)
Overall, I recommend Lighthouse, especially on a cold night. Try the barley tea. (It's free.) Ask questions. Ask the waitress to refill your panchan if you finish one. Can anyone tell me about the wallpaper? It looks like Korean characters on all the walls -- and written on the plates as well. What are they saying?
Korean cuisine is delicious, and it's completely accessible to anyone who wants to give it a try. You could start at Lighthouse for a soon doo boo and a beef or chicken bulgogi. Simple and perfect for winter. Or try Shin Chon Garden, the classiest joint on Rte 40 and one where you could grill your own meats and try a wider variety of panchan. At either place, waitresses speak English. They're happy to explain and even to help you order and figure out how to eat the food.
Lighthouse Tofu BBQ
9380 Baltimore National Pike, Ste 105
Ellicott City, MD 21042
NEAR: Lighthouse is on Rte 40 west of Rte 29. It is on the north side so you pull into the shopping center from the westbound lanes. This is just west of the shopping center that has Asian Court and Sears.