Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Big Three: Howard County's Deepest Cuisines Are Flavors That Will Lure Your City Friends

Korean barbecue at Honey Pig
There are at least three cuisines where you could make yourself very happy arguing about the best restaurant in Howard County.

You'll be happy because an answer will demand in-depth research and repeat visits.  You could leisurely work your way through great restaurants and probably still reach no consensus about the county's Big Three:  sushi, Indian and Korean.

This is part of HowChow's 2012 guide to Howard County -- "Welcome Home."  Ten posts to prove there are dozens of places worth your time, that you can find great food all across the county.  It's written for someone new to Howard County (maybe a link you send a friend thinking about moving here), but hopefully it's useful to anyone.

These are also the cuisines that I'd recommend you dangle in front of your city friends.  A few odd food-lovers will come to try gas station tacos with you.  But most of your friends will want dinner in your new neighborhood, and you'll want to make to their drive worthwhile.   At the top end, these joints are as good as any options in Baltimore and almost anything in Washington except the restaurants priced for lobbyists.

Yama Sushi is new, but competing
I remember when eating raw fish -- any raw fish -- was a shocking idea, so I'm doubly surprised when I see it become a staple in American eating.  They make spicy tuna rolls in the supermarket!  Around here, they make sushi from basic to exquisite.  You can get whatever you want, and we regularly entice fish-loving friends to drive all the way to Columbia to eat with us:
  • Sushi Sono in Columbia.  Our favorite sushi anywhere.  Perfect fish.  A casual, but classy setting. Their reservation system is a bit vague, but everyone eventually gets a seat where they can sample formal sashimi, unique rolls, and Japanese treasures like broiled yellowtail head, monkfish liver and the snapper special.
  • Sushi King in Columbia.  We started at The King, and their rolls are still creative, delicious and enormous.  At either Sono or King, you can reserve a private room and meet friends around an enclosed table.
  • Yama Sushi in Ellicott City.  A bit more casual, the newcomer to our top list serves up its own creative rolls.  I had never seen this "big roll" style until I came to Columbia, and Yama does really great combinations and sauces.  If anything, lighter sauces and spicier options.
If you're looking for a neighborhood place, there are other casual places.  Click here for all the posts about Japanese food.  Keep an eye on Hanamura in Columbia.  Remember Fuji Restaurant in Ellicott City and the new Nari Sushi in Columbia.  Think about the all-you-can-eat Korean-style sushi at Kimco in Ellicott City.

House of India has been our go-to place for comfort food, but I'm happy to say that it might be only the third-best Indian restaurant in Howard County.  Now that Mango Grove has opened its new location, there are three great restaurants clustered south of Rte 175 in eastern Columbia:
House of India takeout
  • Mango Grove in Columbia.  They have opened their new location off Dobbin Road, so you can take the easiest adventure eating of your life.  Mango Grove is delicious.  It's full of unusual items like dosas, oothapapam, idli and jack fruit curries.  But's vegetarian so you can try anything without worrying.  The food is delicious.  The new location should be fun.  This is a unique enough menu to attract friends from your own neighborhood.
  • House of India in Columbia.  This is Mrs. HowChow's comfort food.  The flavors are right -- fresh and bright with spices and herbs.  Look for Northern Indian staples like tandoori chicken, curries, samosas, etc., plus specials like a rock fish that was beautiful from the tandoor oven.  Takeout works great, and the portions are enormous.
  • Royal Taj in Columbia.  Even with those two, this is the kitchen that people talk about the most these days.  The lunch buffet is creative and deep. and the dinners come on white tablecloths with wonderful curries and extras.  There are several people saying that Royal Taj is the best Indian around.
Indian food has expanded as much as anything since I came to town.  Akbar in Columbia is a location of the Baltimore institution.  Last year, Flavors of India opened with a mix of northern and southern dishes in Columbia, and Tandoori Grill converted a casual, counter-service deli on Johns Hopkins Road into a place that gets raves.  I'm a Tandoori fan, although Mrs. HowChow still wants her comfort food from House of India or Royal Taj.  You could run through all the posts about Indian food, then set out to discover.  You also need to keep your eyes out to see if Fulton gets a restaurant from the folks who own The Ambassador Dining Room in Baltimore.

The Korean restaurants in Howard County cluster along Rte 40, and picking three barely skims the surface of all the options that you can try along several miles of road.  Check the survey posts linked below, and you'll see there are places to serve everything from tofu stews to drinking snacks to Korean sushi.  

I'll start you off with three great restaurants that serve food that would please almost everyone -- barbecue, noodles, and fried chicken:
Feast at Shin Chon
  • Shin Chon Garden in Ellicott City.  This can be a perfect restaurant.  It's casual.  It's inviting.  They serve spectacular Korean barbecue that you can control because you pick your own meat, make your own lettuce wraps with rice and sauces, and eat whichever of the side dishes look good to you.  You won't get better Korean in Maryland, and it's easy for your friends to find at the intersection of Rte 40 and Rte 29.
  • Honey Pig in Ellicott City.  It's a bit cheaper, a bit younger, and a bit more chaotic than Shin Chon.  I'd recommend it for people who like Korean barbecue and have a craving along the lines of a "burger and beer" night.  Enjoy the scene, eat 24 hours a day, order the pork belly.
  • Tian Chinese Cuisine in Ellicott City.  In Seoul, this is Chinese food.  Here, the cuisine is better described as Chinese-Korean.  They make their own noodles, and the simplest serving is a black bean sauce.  It's delicious, cheap and unique.  Plus, they serve Korean fried chicken, which is hot, spicy and crunchy.  One order of noodles.  One order of chicken.  Go now.
Last year, I posted a survey of all the Korean restaurants with expert commentary from friend-of-the-blog Kevin.  Start with my amateur post, then click through to Kevin's hilarious rundown.  That was before the Bon Chon fried chicken joint was announced in late 2011.   I have said that, in many ways, there is nothing I'd like more than a little Korean, and there are many posts about the food.  (Nicki -- That's for you again.)

Shin Chon is my suggested way to try Korean for the first time.  I'm going to post an amateur's step-by-step instruction next week.  But you could ease your way into Korean with a discrete place like spicy tofu stews at Lighthouse Tofu in Ellicott City or a fusion dish like bulgogi tacos at Anna's Coffee Roastery in Columbia.

What I Don't Know:  What's your favorite cuisine in Howard County?  What trio of restaurants could compete with the ones above?  What restaurants do you think are good enough to attract your friends to drive from the city?  What are your favorites among the sushi, Indian and Korean spots?


travelinsnorkel said...

I love Sushi Sono for the freshness, quality, and variety. I also love Sushi King for the freshness, quality, and my favorite Double Six Roll. In terms of Indian, I am loyal to House of India. I have never had a bad meal there and am always disappointed if I try Indian from somewhere else, however, I have heard that House of Taj is very good! I tried Honey Pig once, but I think that the language barrier prevented me from ordering the right thing and then I wasn't sure if I was eating it correctly. There are so many great choices in the 'burbs!

Gabrielle said...

I completely agree with your assessment of Shin Chon and Honey Pig. We tend to go to Shin Chon when we want Korean food that's not Korean BBQ (although they do have that) and love the huge variety of panchan/little sides. The service is friendly, helpful, and incredibly attentive. Honey Pig is a great casual Korean BBQ place but the atmosphere is definitely more casual and noisy and chaotic than Shin Chon. Not bad, just different from Shin Chon. My 6-year old has a great time at both restaurants and loved the "cheater chopsticks" that they gave him at Honey Pig. Both are a "must try"!

Vicky said...

I second the commendation of Honey Pig. It's a great way for newbies to be introduced to Korean BBQ, and but it's obviously a genuine place with some foods that the more adventurous (tripe, anyone?) could try. We went here at 9pm on a Saturday and it was PACKED.

AnnieRie said...

We would stop at Katana in Clarksville after leaving the park and ride at Ten Oaks Ballroom.

They also do a great party combo of sushi.

These days, when I want sushi at home, I use Harissa Teeter in Maple Lawn. I like the guys that work there and they fix things for you.


AnnieRie said...

I have no idea why this stupid iPad turned Harris into Harissa. Food on its brain maybe?


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Christina said...

Love Sushi Sono. Great rolls, Chirashi bowl and tempura ice cream!

Royal Taj is my pick for Indian buffet. Tasty, good variety, and free chai!

You forgot to mention that Shin Chon also serves their KBBQ dduk bo ssam style (rice noodle wrap). That plus their large variety of panchan, makes it my pick over Honey Pig. Honey Pig is affordable, open late, and has free delicious coffee.

Araka said...

I know this may sound weird, but a place that has awesome Indian food is Gateway Subs and Pizza in Elkridge. I have a lot of coworkers who are of Indian Heritage and they Love this place. Their Shrimp Tikka Masala is exquisite!

Brian said...

I'm a bit underwhelmed by the sushi in Hoco.

However, the Indian and Korean is LEGIT. I enjoy the Royal Taj buffet and their service but if pressed, I'm going to choose House of India. Huge fan of the Matter Paneer dish (ubiquitous in pretty much any Indian menu) its a good control dish to gauge a kitchen. A creamy sauce with a semi-firm, almost flavorless Indian cheese, very tofu-like, with green peas. Vegetarian and delicious. HOI does it the best, IMO.

Honey Pig is just fun. Its quite intimidating at first trying to figure the menu out and communicating with your server but you get the hang of it easy enough and the atmosphere sets them apart. Its a fun space, young, lively. Very come as you are, everyone blends in.

kam said...

Any local non-HoCo places you recommend for sushi?


Brian said...


Not really :( it is what it is around here, I've heard good things about Towson but haven't checked those places out yet.