Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Korean Restaurants On Rte 40 -- Looking To Trade Advice About Ellicott City's World Cuisine

Pork belly and more at Honey Pig
There is a world of Korean food along Rte 40 in Ellicott City, and I'm looking to trade advice about what to try and where to eat.

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
With some help from Min, this is the layout that I know along the run from Bethany Lane into Catonsville:

  • 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.


Steve Fine said...

Thanks for this quick guide to Route 40's Korean Cuisine. I had become a big fan of Honey Pig, but on my last two visits the service was worse than bad, it was down right rude and the food was subpar.

On the other hand, there is the new Lighthouse Tofu, which sounds vegetarian, but isn't. There, the food was great and the service was excellent and very friendly. I'm looking forward to trying Rainpa.

carotte sauvage said...

I'd like to know if anyone has any tips for vegetarians. I went to Lighthouse and they offered to make the tofu soup with water instead of beef broth (they were very helpful) but other than that I am at a loss as to what to order at Korean places. Back in my meat eating days I had the very delicious bi bim bap at Beseto in Catonsville but I can't remember if it had meat in it. Anyone know if any of the these places serve or can make a bi bim bap without meat or fish?

Slim said...

be careful with honeypig, it's not the place you go to if you're not that hungry. they force you to order a dish to person minimum. Don't know what the real ratio is, I think its (N-1) dishes for N people.

Service also is very hustle and bustle. They care about getting you out more than customer service. Not the typical kind of restaurant but it's still good none the less.

EastCoastMatt said...

the deal with the soup at the end of the sashimi is that they use the whole fish. I can't remember which fish it is, but they cut out the meat and make sashimi with it, and then they use the bones, non-sashimi-able meat, and head and make a spicy fish broth soup with it. it's called "mae-woon-tang", literally translated meaning spicy soup.
I was just there this past weekend, and had a great dinner sashimi dinner there.

Usually, especially with bibimbap, you can just ask to make it vegetarian at any place. Just ask the server, and they'll get rid of the meat/egg (if you don't want the egg either), and put in a bit of extra veggies.
I can't think of anything off the top of my head that's strictly vegetarian, though I do sense a business idea... =P

HowChow said...

@ Matthew - Thanks. That sounds great.

@ Carotte - You can absolutely eat vegetarian. First, scallion pancake appetizer (or the age (sp?) tofu appetizer at Shin Chon). Second, bi bim bop can be just rice, vegetables and spicy sauce as Mathew suggested. Third, chap chae can just be noodles and vegetables.

We once filled a table with Korean food for people who didn't eat beef, pork or spicy food. It was delicious vegetarian food with a "add your own" level of spiciness. I would suggest that you start at a place like Shin Chon Garden where people absolutely speak English and the manager loves to provide advice and answer questions. If you ask, I think they'll find you other options.

Anonymous said...

There is one other place that comes to mind like Kimbop Nara which sells various korean snack foods like ttukkbohkee, but specialize in korean sushi.

carotte sauvage said...

Thanks for the advice! I have been to a few Asian restaurants that insisted dishes with meat could not be made any other way, so it's nice to get this advice before I try a new place out, only to find out that there's nothing I can eat.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the name of the place that has the entrance right next to Bippy's? It's below Mirocjo -- the same complex as Bethany Seafood and Rainpia Chicken. I have been to the restaurant that is next to Bippy's twice and they have some really nice sushi but also different Korean menu items from what other places offer. The entrance makes it look like it's a carryout store but there is a nice restaurant if you detour to the left once you walk inside.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Rainpia, which has been renovated recently?, has a charm of its own with the picnic tables and beach bar feel.

HowChow said...

@Anon1 -- Where is Kimbop Nara? And what would you order? I don't know Korean snack food. I'd love a few suggestions to order on a first visit.

@Anon2 -- I don't know Bippy's, but Yetnal was a takeout-looking place under Mirocjo. It is on the first floor of that shopping center on the short side of the "L." Rainpia on the long side. I haven't been there in a long time. Does it have a restaurant section now?

Anonymous said...

yes, Yetnal House. That is it under Mirocjo. I like the squid and meat stir fry dishes but the sushi selection is pretty good too.

I am not the anon who mentioned Kim Bob Na Ra, but yes, that place has a lot of snack offerings and their entree items are nice as well -- huge portions and very spicy. I haven't tried the ramen yet but am curious about it. This is at the end of a small strip center very near the Canopy. There is a liquor store in the same shopping center. I often see young Korean families there.

HowChow said...

@Most-Recent Anon -- What snacks would you order? What entrees? Any specific suggestion is a place to start.

Unknown said...

duk mandu guk is one of my favorites. pronounced (duck-mahn-doo-gook). lots of variations in spelling - mandoo guk, tuk mandu, etc.

literal translation - duk = rice cake, mandu = meat/vegetable dumping, guk = soup.

people like to eat it at new years but it's a year round dish - real user friendly.

there's no duck involved in this dish. no affiliation to me, but www.koreanamericanmommy.com did a nice writeup about it this morning and i bet you'll gain some insight into korean dishes from her food blog.

i also like to get soo-jae-bee, which is kinda similar to mandu-gook but uses flour dumplings instead of rice cake and has a thick consistency. i think my brother had it at yetnal house and said it wasn't bad.

EastCoastMatt said...

@howchow. the kimbop nara specializes in kimbop. kimbop being the "sushi roll" looking thing that has no fish in it. you can get a few variations of it. with meat. no meat. other stuff in it.
the other kinda snaky thing is dumplings.

otherwise, they have ramen and some other brothy stuff. great for a quick meal.

Anonymous said...

@howchow - at Kimbop Nara, tuna kimbop is delicious. also ddukbokki (spicy rice cakes) and jjambbong ramen (spicy noodles) is good as well. try it out! =)