|Pork belly and more at Honey Pig|
You don't go to Rte 40 for some standard "Korean food." We're past the point where restauranteurs offer up an identical menu of classics. Instead, the restaurants are spreading out -- offering a range of dishes and offering atmospheres from classy to casual, from hip to dive bar. They're all delicious. They're all friendly to non-Koreans. I'm outlining what I know in the hopes that folks will add more detail in the comments.
This post started with the new Lighthouse Tofu and some emails with Min.
Like many people, I started Korean with the beef barbecue that makes Shin Chon Garden such a feast. But Lighthouse introduced me to soon doo boo, a tofu stew that you can warm you for $10. At the same time, I was emailing with Min, a HowChow reader who reported that one of my finds had changed names from Bethany Seafood to Kimko and had started offering a weekday sushi buffet at lunch:
We just checked out Kimko buffet, and it was pretty decent, for sushi buffets: about a dozen variety of sushi rolls and nigiri sushi, plus another dozen of traditional Korean hot (bulgogi, BBQ pork, BBQ squid) and cold dishes (chap jae). Also included are some very impressive fried rice (not much soy sauce involved -- the authentic way to make fried rice), the Korean version of miso soup (less sweet compared to its Japanese counterpart), and a seaweed broth based congee.
In the past, we went to Kimko mostly for the seafood pancakes and its sashimi combo ($55 to feed 2 to 3 grownups). The latter starts with about 10 appetizers/sides, a plate of about 30 pieces of sashimi (though the variety of fish is limited), and finally a bowl of fish stew plus another 5 to 6 sides. Now we will certainly go back again for the lunch buffet.
Sashimi combo? Appetizers, sashimi, stew and then more sides? Korean dinners top my list in large part because of the panchan -- the three, six or even 10 small dishes that are normally served with your main courses. You get a dozen flavors for the price of two or three. Often the panchan are pickled vegetables, ranging from still-crisp cucumbers to spicy, cured cabbage. With Kimko's sashimi and stew, Min was describing a Korean dinner that I had never had before.
|So much food at Shin Chon|
- Shin Chon Garden - your parent's favorite place for a nice night out. It's classy. It's friendly. You can order off a huge menu, but I'd start off grilling bulgogi or kalbi on a table-top grill. Maybe an order of dolset bi bim bop. Check out my post describing a standard feast. Ask for the rice noodle wrappers.
- Honey Pig Gooldaegee - the casual, hip newcomer for BBQ. It's modern and hip. Expect few panchan than Shin Chon, but order the pork belly and either the brisket or kalbi. It's a louder, more casual place. Sometimes, the waitresses don't have a huge English vocabulary. Keep asking. They'll explain.
- Lighthouse Tofu - my spot for tofu stew with beef and pork. That's a great winter dinner, and Lighthouse serves up casual along the lines of most Chinese joints around here.
- Rainpia - the best place for a beer and a snack. Rainpia serves Korean fried chicken in a brightly-lit bar. Burn your fingertips hot. Lick your fingertips delicious. Go "mixed" so half your pieces come crunchy and half come dunked into the sweet sauce.
- Kimko - formerly Bethany Seafood - for the sashimi combo, seafood pancake and the weekday lunch buffet. That's Min's suggestion, and it's on my list to try.
- HanSung for hwae dup bap. That's Min's suggestion again. I don't know the restaurant or the dish, which turns out to be fish mixed with rice, vegetables and hot pepper sauce. Ji K on Yelp also recommends the scallion pancakes called pa jun and a beef stew called yook gae jang.
- Mirocjo - another Korean BBQ place. This was my find in 2008, but we haven't been back recently because Shin Chon is so delicious and seems to cover what Mirocjo offers. Anyone have suggestions about where Mirocjo shines?
- HanJoonKwan and Tian Chinese Cuisine -- two outposts for Chinese-Korean cuisine, the peninsula's importation of Chinese food in the way that America created General Tso's chicken. Min recommends this place for noodles. I had posted some basics like the three most-common dishes, linking to the dearly-missed Kevin and Ann Eat Anything blog. For now, I'd start with Yelp for reviews by Su K, Hansoo J, Ji K and others. (Su K. also Yelps about Da Rae Won in Beltsville.)
- Yetnal Asian Food Service House - the takeout joint with the mystery items. Min says it's a secretive spot for Korean snacks like rice cakes. I ate takeout soup once, but the place looks like a successful catering/takeout joint. I have been asking for two years what I should order.
The list isn't comprehensive. For example, you can also look for Korean in the food courts at H Mart and Lotte like Two Youngs in Catonsville. (And it ignores the bulgogi panini at Riverside Coffee.) For newcomers, I always suggest Shin Chon because it's really nice and full of English-speaking help. But you could start with Lighthouse since it's wintertime. Ask questions at any of these restaurants because you might hit a few people with limited English, but you're just as likely to find a waiter who grew up in Howard County and has been explaining Korean food to non-Koreans for 20 years.
So here's the question -- What else should I know about? I love Korean food. I eat broadly, but I'm still not eating head-on shrimp. Korean stews can look intimidating when I don't know exactly what lurks in the bowl. You can assume that I have the unfortunate American aversion to eating organs and other body parts, so feel free to suggest them -- but please explain why.
(Update: Check out Kevin Rhee's breakdown of the Korean places. He explains some basic cuisines and talks about these places and more. Ever been to the Blue Sky Cafe?)
I'd love comments that recommend restaurants and specific dishes. Explain why you like them, maybe how you eat them. There are lots of people who want to try Korean food. We are enthusiastic even after we entertain the dining room by doing something silly like poaching an egg in a bowl of tea. I'd absolutely love longer emails if you want to send me extended descriptions -- and maybe a cell phone photo or two -- of the food along Rte 40.