Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Korean Restaurants II: Barbecue, Bar Food And Soon Tofu So You Explore The Bounty Of Rte 40

Last week, I offered up my amateur knowledge about Ellicott City's Korean restaurants -- in the hopes of getting some advice from actual experts.

Kevin Rhee delivered. One of the authors of the hilarious, lamented Kevin & Ann Eat Everything blog, Kevin broke down the Korean joints along Rte 40 and suggested items to try -- including new places like Kimbap Nara and Blue Sky Cafe.  It's a great post and especially impressive considering that Kevin spoke no English before emigrating from Bulgaria in 2005. Luckily, the domination of Pyongyang-style eateries behind the Iron Curtain created a generation of experts.  Take it away, Kevin:

Howard County (Ellicott City) is unique in its Korean population. Until 1999, there were two small Korean grocers (one where Blue Sky Cafe is now and the other where the Domino's Pizza is behind Starbucks on Rte 40) and one Korean restaurant (the now-closed Han Sung Oak). The grocers were typical of what you can still see today outside of the large metropolitan areas. In a word: small. The Korean restaurant was also typical of the suburbs, it was a "little bit of everything" type of restaurant.

Then a boom happened. Waves of Koreans moved into the area. "Hide your woman and children, here comes the conquering horde! At the very least, start adding more classrooms to your schools, because that's what we're here for." That's why my family settled in the area at any rate. The opening of the Lotte supermarket only accelerated this wave. "We've set up a ration station for our war provisions! In exchange for accepting us in to your neighborhood, we will provide you with insanely cheap produce."

Now you see a restaurant scene very atypical of suburban areas in the States. In Korea, and larger metropolitan areas (LA, NY/NJ, DC/NOVA, Atlanta) Korean restaurants are highly specialized. If we were in one of those places and you told me, "Let's go eat some Korean food", I'd invariably ask, "What do you want to eat?". What dish you wanted would decide where we'd go.

That's now what we have in Ellicott City. You can't just say, "Let's go to the Korean restaurant". The specialization of Korean restaurants across the states has been rapid, but to see that here in Ellicott City is really astounding. I wouldn't put our restaurants here on the same level as some of those larger areas, but it's amazing nonetheless. Between the Baltimore County line and where Rte 40 meets Rte 70, what percentage of restaurants would you wager are Korean? I'm not going to do the math, but I'd wager it's pretty high. So what types of Korean restaurants do we have here in little ol' Ellicott City?

Let's now pretend that you are the foodie in your group of family and friends. You know you are because you get text messages and phone calls from people who talk to you once a year -- and then inevitably ask you where they should eat. You secretly resent the pressure to ensure them a great dining experience, yet you revel in the power you wield in your hands. Or you might just want to try some Korean food and don't want to talk to that snooty foodie that you know. Either way, this basic rundown of the Korean restaurants might help.

The "Little Bit Of Everything" Places:
Shin Chon Garden
Lotte Plaza food court
Hanoori town

These places are the best place to start, and are always a good place to go when you have a larger party. Everyone can try a bit of everything from the basics like Korean BBQ, Bibimbap, and Japchae to some more special dishes like 대구머리찜 (stir fried cod heads, mmm mmm good).

Korean BBQ
Shin Chon Garden
Honey Pig Gooldaegee Korean BBQ

BBQ is the most accessible and most manly of all Korean cuisine. Meat, good. Fire, good. Meat + fire, manly. Even amongst Korean BBQ restaurants, there is specialization. You can order kalbi (marinated short ribs) or bulgogi (marinated beef ribeye) and have a great meal. If you go to Honey Pig, I suggest you order the samgyupsal (sliced pork bellies). If you go to Shin Chon, I suggest you order the chadolbegi (sliced beef brisket). Shin Chon serves thinly sliced pickled radish and sticky rice wraps with he brisket, and these are rarely seen in Korean BBQ places in the States.

Hwae (sashimi)
Bethany Seafood (now called Kimco)
Catering services at Lotte Plaza and HMart

The Korean counterpart to Japanese sushi is hwae. Hwae is equivalent to Japanese sashimi (just the fish, no rice or seaweed). Often at dinners for special occasions, you'll see a big tray of hwae served. Hwae can be eaten just like sashimi, with soy sauce and wasabi, but I suggest you ask for cho gochujang. That's a mixture of hot pepper paste and rice wine vinegar. My contention is that cho gochujang is superior to all non-pho applications of sriracha sauce. It's spicy, it's sweet, it's savory, it's tangy. It blows sriracha sauce out of the water. Mark my words! This will be the next en vogue condiment. Pour some out and dunk away. You might also try some hwaedupbap (it might be on the menu as chirashi) if you're a raw fish fan. Lots of bits of raw fish served over rice and vegetables. Like bibimbap, dump some gochujang in there and get to mixing.

Anju (Wikipedia page)
Tong Namu (that place next to Checkers)
Blue Sky Cafe

Korean drinking establishments serve anju. Much like pub culture, anju is a category of food all to itself. It's kind of a loose categorization of smaller plate foods that are meant to be shared over a drink. Anju can be innocuous. For example, Rainpia has some good Korean fried chicken. Yes, it is different enough from other fried chicken that it needs its own designation. Anju can also be your own personal “Bizarre Foods” starring Andrew Zimmerman. Golbaengi Muchim (spicy sea snails), Jokbal (boiled pigs feet), Bbundegi (fried and seasoned silkworm cocoons). Yes, I said silk work cocoons. There might be a good reason that they serve this food in drinking establishments. This is the food category where even your Korean friends (you have a lot of them right?) might turn up their noses. All that said, the anju served at the above mentioned places doesn't really run in to the "crazy" category. I know what you’re thinking. You really want to go try some of this stuff, right? My suggestion would be to take a guide with you.

Bunsik (Wikipedia page)
Kimbap Nara (the place next to Jason's Liquors)
Lotte Plaza, HMart, Hanoori Town

Bunsik is another one of those nebulous categorizations. The general idea is a large quantity of quick food for a low price. The staples of this category are kimbap (rice, vegetables, and other things wrapped in seaweed), topoki (chewy rice blocks in spicy gochujang sauce), and odeng (seafood "sausages"). Your safest bet here is kimbap. PLEASE, don't call it korean sushi. It drives me nuts. Yes, I am asking you to not say it for my benefit, and mine alone.

Tutti Frutti
Yogi Castle
Ice Berry

I should have known. As soon as one yogurt place opened with success, the avalanche was inevitable. Whatever name they slap on it, it's the same Ikea interior with those funky flower like light fixtures. Yogurt is yogurt is yogurt. No no, Tutti Frutti is NOT that different from Ice Berry. No, Yogi Castle's yogurt doesn't have a unique tartness that separates it from the others. I applaud that you have embraced this new yogurt rage, but I will not abide your Yogi Cliques! Hmmm, Yogi Clique has a nice ring to it. You think there's any retail space available in the Enchanted Forest shopping center?

Bon Appetit Bakery & Cafe
La Boulangarie Bakery

I could spend a long time talking about Korean bakeries. The best thing to do is just go and try a whole bunch of stuff. Korean bakeries are at the front lines in the battle to convince people that "red beans" are not as unappetizing as they sound. Red beans (usually in a paste) are not the savory beans you might enjoy as a side or in your chili. These sweet beans have been used in Korean confections as long as they've been making them. There are two other things that I suggest you try. Ggaechalbang is a popover made from sweet rice and black sesame seeds. This is an awesome companion for a bowl of creamy soup. The other is white bread. Trust me, it's different. Pick up one of these perfectly rectangular loaves. Cut yourself two inch thick slices and toast them for the best BLT you've ever had. It will change your life. Maybe. No promises.

Soon Tofu
Lighthouse Tofu BBQ

Tofu. It's serious business. There are different types of tofu categorized by different density. Tofu made for Koreans is different than tofu made for Japanese is different from tofu made for Chinese. For the Korean market, there are three general catgories: tofu for frying, tofu for soups and stews, and tofu for soon tofu. Soon tofu is usually referred to as silken or extra silken tofu because of it's low density and light texture. Soon tofu, the dish, is the main application for soon tofu, the tofu. Stay with me now. I can see the confusion building up through the monitor. Soon tofu, the dish, is made by adding any combination of meat seafood and vegetables to a spicy broth along with a big serving of soon tofu, the tofu, in an earthenware bowl. If it's served right, you will also be presented with a raw egg that you can add to your soon tofu, the dish. It won't poach in there, so don't wait around for it to. Just mix it in. Got all that? No? Here's some more for you then. After you are done eating your soon tofu, the dish, you will also be given some nurungji. Nurungji is scorched rice that can be made deliberately by, well, scorching some rice. Usually, when you cook rice in a pot or an earthenware vessel you have some scorched rice already there for you. When you add boiling hot water or barley tea to this and scrape up all that nuringji, the scorched rice, you now have nurungji the dish (bet you didn't see that coming). If all of that is confusing, the best thing would be to drop me an open dinner invitation. I'd be more than happy to confuse you in person if you're buying.


Korean Chinese food is different from American Chinese food. There aren't any family dinner tables in China that have General Tso's chicken on them. Trust me on this one. The two most popular Koreanized Chinese dishes are both noodle dishes: jjajangmyun and jjampong. Jjajangmyun is made by wok frying onions, pork, and other vegetables and adding black bean paste (the jjajang). This is served over thick doughy noodles(the myun).  Jjampong is a spicy seafood soup with the same noodles. Ellicott City has two such establishments, but neither of them hand pulls their noodles.

I've heard stories from old-timey Koreans about how they would eat their noodles in the Chinese restaurants to the beat of the noodle puller thwacking his dough against his work surface. According to their apocryphal stories, some restaurants just bought their noodles but played recordings of this sound in the kitchens to make the customers think they were getting the real deal.

Anyhow, you'll be served some pickled radish and onion slices with your noodles. Drown these guys in vinegar and dip them in the tiny dish of black bean sauce they provide for you. When you've got a lot of people with you, try ordering some bone-in kangpoongi (sweet and sour fried chicken) or tangsooyook (sweet and sour pork). Pro-tip: the best dipping sauce for these dishes is soy sauce, vinegar, and red pepper powder. These will all be on the table for your use. Bonus pro-tip: Don't order fried rice. That's weak sauce.


UhOhBadDog said...

Terrific Post Kevin! There is definitely a growing Korean scene in the area.

Now I have just one question - Where's the 'Kevin and Ann Eat Everything' blog these days? I went to the '' (which is hilarious in its own right btw) and didn't find it. Thanks!

Work in progress said...

Thanks to Mr. HowChow for letting me stretch my blogging legs after so long. Where's my old blog? Unfortunately it's up in google heaven, we had to put the old girl down. Extra note, I can't say that I recommend Blue Sky Cafe unless you're a 50 year old Korean businessman with no other place to have a drink. Seriously. Rainpia is a much better bet.

EastCoastMatt said...

thanks Kevin for the heads up. there's a few places that I still haven't been to yet, and need to check out.

Unknown said...

Nice write-up Kevin! It's still crazy to me that I can count at least a dozen korean restaurants in a small radius. There are a lot of Korean-owned but, non Korean cuisine restaurants that have definite korean influences in their menu. 1. Niko - cheap ayce sushi buffet, but korean items will make it into their buffet. 2. Sakura - traditional teppan yaki stuff, and I can't place the actual difference, but their sushi has a 'korean' influence. maybe it's the rice. maybe you can only get the nuance if you're korean. 3.Sushi Sono - not as much influence, but I get a Korean vibe in there. @kevin - am i alone on this one?
--- Well now that I've named some their all japanese cuisine which then leads me to.

Korean-Japanese cuisine. a good example is the place in lotte plaza that has udon, tempura, curry rice. It's harder to define that Korean-Chinese. Maybe Kevin can better state the wonders of it. One of the staples of Korean fast food is curry rice. It's got curry flavor, but it's definetely not your indian curry. I'm going to generalize, but Koreans (older) think this is the real deal. I grew up on the stuff, because it's quick and tasty. throw some meat, carrots, potatoes, onions in a pot and then some curry squares from a box and - voila - korean-japanese curry! And then no matter what they tell me, Korean-Japanese udon, tempura, sushi is just a little different! A concrete example is 'Spicy Tuna'. One of my all time favorites. Koreans will use a 'GoChuJang' based hot sauce to spice it up, while others may use Sriracha, or whatever else. They're all good to me, I'm not that discriminating if it's edible, but it's good to set expectations!

There are other incarnations of Korean-Japanese where they stick it on the menu in Korean restaurants. e.g. Shin Chon, Nam Kang, Jong Gak, etc.

Are there even any Japanese restaurants in the area that have Japanese ownership? Korean and Chinese seem to be the majority. Now Chinese owned Japanese restaurants definetely have their own vibe, but not being Chinese pretend not to notice.

Unknown said...

@kevin - about the noodle thrashing. I think it's called jang-tuh gook-su (could be making it up), but the place that used to be the ayce kbbq, used to be a korean-chinese place. On rolling road and rt 40. That place had some good jajangmyun. Hopefully they weren't the ones that were playing the sound effects. If they were, they fooled me :P

Sarah said...

This is amazing. Thanks for the fantastic cheat sheet!

John Thacker said...

"Are there even any Japanese restaurants in the area that have Japanese ownership?"

I believe that Nichi Bei Kai does. It's menu has a lot of your teppanyaki steakhouse stuff, but it also has a more traditional menu too. One tip off is that their sake selection is quite well chosen, something that generally I only see with Japanese-owned places. (Teppanyaki steak itself is interesting-- it was invented as "youshoku," that is, Japanized Western food / Western-inspired Japanese food for Japanese people, but turned out to be more popular with Westerners wanting something familiar but Japanese influenced, and ended up being re-exported. If you want more youshoku, )

Nothing in HoCo that compares to Temari in Rockville or Blue Ocean in Fairfax, VA for authenticity in Japanese food, though.

You also have to distinguish between places that are Japanese-owned but also employ some Korean and Chinese employees, and those that are Korean or Chinese-run.

Tom Coale (HCR) said...

This is so good. Thank you so so much.

Frank Hecker said...

Pivoting off of Kevin Rhee's comment "I'd be more than happy to confuse you in person if you're buying", I think it would be fun to have a series of "guided dinners" that people could attend both to meet and greet and to try new cuisines under the tutelage of an expert -- sort of like the HoCo bloggers events, only focused solely on food. I'd certainly be interested in participating in something like that.

Anonymous said...

What's the best place for Bi Bim Bap and Kim Chi? I love both of those.

Work in progress said...

I'm not sure about Japanese ownership in Sushi restaurants. I'm on record as saying that Sushi Sono is my favorite sushi place in HoCo, and anywhere in the Baltimore Metro area for that matter. I do know that Sono is under Chinese ownership, and that seems to be the general trend in our area. There just aren't as many Japanese immigrants in this area for whatever reason. Yuraku is also at the top of my list, but that's a schlep. If there was a Japanese restaurant owner in the area, I would beg him or her to open a ramen shop instead of adding another sushi place to the landscape. I know Hanamura in Columbia has some ramens on their menu, but I think this would be a boon to the area.

A note on rice:
There are three major varietals of rice that are eaten by East Asians. Koshihikari, M401, and Calrose. Although Kashihikari would be best (it's the only true short grain among the three) I'd say 99% of the sushi being served in the area is Calrose. The differences that you may notice between sushi bars is in the cooking and preparation of the rice. There definitely is a difference and you'll notice it if you start looking for it. Sushi rice (shari) shouldn't be a sticky blob. If you can feel the texture of each grain in your mouth, this is a place that is doing sushi right. If it turns into a starchy mush, whoever is prepping that rice needs a good once over. The rice is your best indication of a good sushi place!

The curry served in East Asia is definitely different as well. I think I did a write up a long time ago on it, but it's been lost in a mess of computer files somewhere.

Treetop Tom said...

"Are there even any Japanese restaurants in the area that have Japanese ownership?"

Unless he's sold it recently, Chef Toshi Takamine has run the Fuji Restaurant on US 40 for many years.

MaybeKathy said...

Thanks! That was a really informative post. I've lived on the Rt 40 corridor for almost 10 years and have often wondered what kind of food they served at "the place next to Checkers."

I'd also be really interested in a guided tour of Ellicott City's Korean restaurants. I'd be happy to pitch in to cover your tab at each place, Kevin.

1ltkls said...


You said that "Han Sung Oak" closed. Maybe so, but is that the same place as Han Sung (Quan?) diagonally across from Rita's at the corner of Frederick Road and St John's Lane? They snuggle up next to the carry out Pizza Hut in the corner closest to the Episcopal church (facing Fred. Rd.)

That started out as our "Go To" place for Korean, after we moved out of MoCo/PG zone ten years ago. Their sushi is good, the japchae is good, the mandoo is good, they don't have kalbi, panchan are always good. I'm not too crazy about their bulgogi.

Now, as you point out MANY more choices.

Min said...

@ Kevin and Ray

Tian started pulling their own noodles! It tastes so much better!

pestel said...

Hi, we're trying to organize a Korean cooking class for a private party in the Columbia area. Know of anyone? Thanks!

Work in progress said...


what are you looking for? I'd love to be involved.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding. Thanks for the description and detail. Now I can sample the delicacies without sounding like a fool Many of us fall into the trap of always ordering the few things we've learned to pronounce. This significantly extends my range of potential culinary pleasure.