Thursday, February 23, 2012

Korean 101: You Should Try This Delicious Food

Thin-sliced pork belly on a barbecue table
I try not to proselytize on HowChow, but I'm making my push today for Korean food.

Howard County does Korean food better than anywhere except Annandale.  You get flavors.  You get meat and vegetables.  So don't pass it by.

I know that the alphabet and the food look different.  I know friends who love food, yet haven't been to Shin Chon Garden.  But Korean seems perfect for someone who reads a food blog.  On the one hand, it's so close to "traditional" American food -- meat, vegetables, pickles, and a touch of some things unusual.  On the other, they're mixed in new ways that will surprise and delight you.

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.

If you thrilled at your first taste of Thai curry or an Afghan kabob, then take a shot at Korean.  The food is delicious.  You can control whether it's spicy or mild.  You can absolutely tell what you're eating and get all kinds of help.

A feast at Shin Chon
This is a step-by-step.  A first meal suggestion from a complete amateur.  If you already know Korean, check out last year's post that briefed all kinds of joints on Rte 40.  If you're new, you should start here with barbecue.  Real experts should chime in with comments below to fix my mistakes and to expand on my advice.   [Update: Or check out my later Korean 101 post about tofu soup at Lighthouse Tofu.]

If you want to try Korean food, you should start at Shin Chon Garden on Rte 40.  Order some basics.  Taste a bunch and see what you like.

Below is my suggestion for a first meal -- with some variations.  I'm sure folks with more knowledge would offer more-nuanced ideas.  But I think that many people are held back because they just don't know where to start.  This is a start.

Step One:  Go to Shin Chon Garden.  It's in the Lotte shopping center at Rte 40 and Rte 29.  From Columbia, you take the Rte 40 East exit and stay in the left lane.  You turn immediately left into the shopping center, and Shin Chon is at the end farthest from Lotte.

Step Two:  Talk to the manager who greets the guests.  The normal manager is incredibly nice, and I don't remember a night when she wasn't there.  She'll take your name.  Tell her that it's your first Korean barbecue.  Everyone speaks some English at Shin Chon, but she'll explain anything fluently.

Step Three:  Ask for a table.  If you're just two people, you sit at a regular table.  With four or more, wait for a barbecue table where you'll cook your meat on your own grill.  The metal tubes from the ceiling are vents to suck away the smoke.

(I have to argue for fresh barbecue because the bulgogi is better off the grill.  Fine from the kitchen, but the char and the fun of cooking your own meat makes it worth talking extra people into coming with you.)

Step Four:  Order up.  My starter suggestion -- grilled meats and dolset bi bim bap.  For two, just order the bulgogi and one bi bim bap.  Descriptions below.  For four, order one bulgogi (beef), one pork belly and two dolset bi bim bap.

I swear that's more than enough food.  You'll see below that they fill the table with free side dishes.  The bonus pick, if you're famished, would be the age tofu appetizer.  If you're drinking, check out the Korean beers or the soju, a Korean liquor like sake.  But let's get back to the basics.

Panchan, the side dishes that come with every meal
Step Five: They'll start to bring you food.  First, you'll get panchan.  These are side dishes that come to every table.

Ask your waitress what the panchan are.  They change every day.  You'll get kimchi, a spicy, pickled cabbage.  You'll get some other lightly pickled vegetables, maybe marinated sprouts, maybe blocks of mild tofu or similar items.  There might be one bowl with beef or maybe with a salad that includes squid.

Eat what you like.  You don't have to eat them all.  I promise that you'll like some of them, and they won't be as strange as you think.  (Once I asked a waitress, "What is this dish that looks like potato salad?"  There was a pause.  She explained it was potato salad.)  Ask them to refill anything that you finish.

(Ask for forks as well.  Food comes cut in the kitchen so chopsticks work for everything.  But they're happy to bring forks for anyone.)

Step Six:  The egg and soup.  They'll bring a bowl of miso soup.  Share it, although I think officially it comes with the bi bim bop.  It's one of the best around.  They'll also bring a metal dish filled with piping hot egg.  I think it's simmered covered so that the egg steams.  It's light and delicious, tasting mostly of egg with a bit of oil for richness.  It's really hot.  Spoon it up, and blow to cool it down.

I used to be surprised by the egg.  Honestly, I don't know if it comes with every meal or with one of the items that we order.  But it's one of my favorite parts of dinner now.  The texture is light -- like a custard more than breakfast scrambled eggs.

Dolset bi bim bop with the sauce in a plastic bottle
Step Seven:  Start your dolset bi bim bop.  Dolset means that it comes in a stone bowl.  Bi bim bop means that the bowl comes with rice, a variety of vegetables, a little meat, and an egg on top.  You'll also get a plastic bottle of spicy sauce.

Mix the bowl with a spoon.  The egg cooks in the heat.  The flavors mix, and you can scoop portions onto the small white plates that they'll give to each person.  It's fresh flavors.  It's actually light for the huge amount of food.  You mix in the spicy sauce to taste.  (I like a lot.  You could mix it in the big bowl if everyone agrees.)

Bonus idea: I try to stir without scraping the bottom of the bowl.  That leaves a layer of rice against the hot stone bowl.  It crisps.  When you go back for seconds, you'll find a crunchy crust.  That's delicious.

Bulgogi with lettuce, garlic, sliced hot peppers and the bulgogi sauce

Step Eight: Alternate with meat.  If you're a twosome, they'll cook your bulgogi in the kitchen and bring you a platter like the one in the picture above.

If you're at a barbecue table, they'll actually start a fire.  They'll put a grate on your grill, and they'll bring out two plates of meat.   The bulgogi and the pork belly come sliced paper thin.  Ask the waitress for help.  Normally, they put some meat to cook.  You can use the tongs to flip the meat.  You can pull it to the edge -- or another plate -- when it's done.  It's thin.  When it looks cooked, it is cooked.  You can ask the waitress' opinion as well.

Either way, you're making lettuce rolls.  They'll serve plates of lettuce with some garlic and a different spicy sauce.  Tear some lettuce, put in a little meat, a little rice, some garlic if you want and maybe some of the spicy sauce.  Pop the roll in your mouth.  Chew.

Alternate between the panchan, the bi bim bop, and the meat.  Years ago, I called this a feast, and it's still a table with dozens of flavors and too much food for less money than you'll spent at most high-end restaurants.  Normally, we're too stuffed for dessert. They bring orange slices with the check.

Variations on a theme.  I recommend that menu because you're in control.  Make the food as spicy or mild as you want.  Eat your quantity.  Eat the meat cooked the way you like.  But you can still eat Korean if you don't like what I wrote above.  Read all the Shin Chon posts, try a variation, or read the comments below.

Vegetarian?  Ask for the bi bim bop without meat and order a vegetarian pancake.  They make plate-sized pancakes packed with scallions.  You can go with seafood pancakes if you just avoid red meat.  Just know you'll get squid tentacles, which aren't Mrs. HowChow's favorite.

Want a bigger adventure?  Pick a different mix of meats from the menu.  Ask for rice wrappers along with the lettuce.  Or just order off the menu -- Korean stews are delicious, especially to beat back a winter chill.

What I Don't Know: What would you recommend for someone trying Korean food?  Did you grow up with it?  Did you discover it recently?  What do you suggest -- for the newbie at Shin Chon or for someone else trying to explore Rte 40?


Vicky said...

Honey Pig 2 - west of 29 on route 40 in Ellicott City, in the same shopping center as Forest Diner (close to Centennial). This place is AMAZING. It's wonderful for the newly initiated to Korean BBQ, but it also has an extensive menu for the more experienced. I believe it's open 24 hours, and it's always packed. Great place - and you get some delicious bulgogi for $15.

Work in progress said...

I don't mean to nitpick but your picture is chadolbyegi, beef brisket not bellies.

Work in progress said...

Also, let's organize a howchow korean food meetup! Who's with me

Dianne said...

I would be interested Kevin! I've never had Korean but from the way Mr. HowChow describes it (and the photos), I think I would like it!

AlPal3 said...

I'm all in for a HowChow meetup for a Korean feast.

1ltkls said...

Korean meet up at Shin Chon? Count me in. But, the best reason for going to Shin Chon isn't even mentioned: Bul Kalbi!!! Much fattier (tenderer, with more taste) than Bul Gogi. Many places in HoCo have decent bulgogi, few (no?) others have any bul kalbi.

perrik said...

I'd be up for a HowChow Korean feast! I live a little south of Burtonsville, but like to head northward for food. My favorite Korean place closer to home has changed ownership and gone downhill, so I'm more than willing to try out the Ellicott City/Catonsville options.

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