Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Korean 101: Take Two For Winter Warmth; Or "I Try Again To Entice Howard County Explorers"

Pork belly and a tofu stew -- a great way to try Korean food
Two years ago, I made a pitch for people who would want to try Korean food -- a step-by-step guide for trying barbecue at Shin Chon Garden.

That's still one of my favorite meals in Howard County, but I'm back with a second "Korean 101" pitch -- this time aimed at folks who might want to try something warm this winter.

Soon doo boo is a basic Korean stew made with tofu.  You can get all kinds of variations -- from mild to spicy, from mushrooms to beef to seafood.  Your key first step is going to Lighthouse Tofu BBQ on Rte 40 to try it out.

Lighthouse is an outpost of an Annandale restaurant that serves up a delicious food and offers newsbies the benefit of a limited menu.  As I wrote a few years ago, it's a simpler place than Shin Chon Garden.  But it is casual and friendly, and the food made Washingtonian's 2013 "Cheap Eats" list.

My big pitch for trying Korean food is that Howard County offers so many options that you can get more variety than almost any other cuisine.  But the virtue of Lighthouse as a starting point is that you'll be guaranteed warmth and flavor with just a few decisions.

Soon doo boo has a base of pepper-tinged broth filled with vegetables, firm slices of tofu, and your choice of mushrooms or meat.  The tofu alone makes the dish filling with a terrific texture.  They're firm enough to hold their shape, but soft enough to cut with a spoon.  Respect the spiciness.  They'll make soon doo boo from mild to super-spicy, and the top level is seriously fiery.

The meat provides a nice contrast.  Neither the beef or pork are as crispy as the grill-in-yourself meals at a barbecue speciality restaurant.  But they come marinated and cooked with onions.  Both bulgogi and pork belly have provided a meaty, toothsome match to the spoonfuls of stew.  Alternate with bites of kimchi and other panchan, and you can enjoy a full Korean meal in an easy setting.

Here's step-by-step to enjoy all the secrets of a friendly restaurant:

Step One:  Go to Lighthouse.  It's on the north side of Rte 40 west of Rte 29.  It's next to Jerry's Subs and Boston Market.  Turn before Boston Market and consider parking in the side lot.  There are few spots right in front of Lighthouse, but not many.

Step Two:  Order up.  I'd recommend that you split between orders of the tofu stew and orders of meat -- sliced beef (bulgogi) or short ribs (kalbi) or pork belly.  On our last visit, we did a mushroom soon doo boo and an order of the spicy pork belly.  Bonus move:  Ask for hot tea if you're interested.  Often I have seen waitresses serve hot barley tea to customers who look Korean and ice water to those who don't.  The barley tea is warm and mild, and it's free.

Step Three:  Little free dishes.  Most Korean dinners come with panchan.  You'll get a few small dishes with a few bites in each.  Some kimchi.  Some pickled cucumbers.  Maybe a seaweed.  Maybe a little piece of fish.  They're sized to eat with chopsticks, but they'll gladly give you forks.  You can snack before your entrees arrive.

Step Four:  Here comes the food.  You'll get your two entrees -- the meat on a metal platter, the soon doo boo in a metal bowl.  You'll get rice, which the waitress will scoop out of a stone bowl and into individual metal bowls for each diner.  More on that later.  You'll also get an egg, which you can crack into the stew where it will cook -- stir it up to get "egg drop"-style strands or just spoon hot stew on the egg to submerge it and get a a poached egg.

If you have kids who like to try new foods, then Lighthouse can be perfect.  It's cheaper than Shin Chon.  Dishes hover around $10-15, and there are familiar parts to hot soup and sliced meat.  The restaurant itself is casual and modern with a cool wallpaper of Korean text.  Very kid-friendly.

Step Five: Eat up.  We generally share the dishes.  We just passed the stew bowl, but you could ask for smaller dishes and spoon out stew.  Bulgogi is a safe bet for a first meal.  It's thin-sliced beef, marinated and broiled.  On our last visit, we had the spicy pork belly to try something new.

Ask for more panchan if you eat up the ones that you like.  The waitresses are generally attentive and will refill panchan if you ask.  Bonus: Korean diners don't expect waitresses to check in as often.  In other restaurants, they leave you alone until you push a button on the table.  Lighthouse doesn't have those buttons, so feel free to make eye contact and call over a waitress.

Step Six: "Burnt rice" tea to settle your stomach.  Once the waitress scoops out the rice, she will pour water into the stone rice bowl.  That will brew while you eat.  When you're done, pour a little of the burnt rice tea into the small plastic bowls next to the rice.  It's a palate cleanser.  It tastes like crispy rice.

Red bean donut at Shilla Bakery
Step Seven:  Dessert across the street.  When you walk outside Lighthouse, look across Rte 40 for Shilla Bakery.  That's too close to miss.  You can U-turn on Rte 40 and be enjoying coffee, sweet potato lattes, and all kinds of desserts.  My starter suggestion:  The red bean donut.  But they have all kinds of cakes, cookies and pastries.

Seriously, I recommend Shilla as much as I recommend Lighthouse.  Lighthouse can serve you a quick dinner, but coffee and a sweet at Shilla can extend your date -- great for chatting in the coffee shop atmosphere.

Again, Howard County offers all kinds of great Korean options.  I've said it one of our three deepest cuisines.  You can get everything from traditional dishes to modern fried chicken, from Korea's Chinese food to frozen dumplings to cook at home.  Scroll through all the HowChow posts about Korean food.   Or start with the prior trio of posts that described a bunch of Korean restaurants along Rte 40 and provided a step-by-step on barbecue at Shin Chon.


SHZ said...

Love this place. My 3 year old daughter is a huge fan of the mandu (dumplings) and bean sprout 'pasta' panchan. We have to order a full size (12 dumplings) just for her. My personal favorite is the mushroom soon tubu and my hubby loves the dumpling soup, although he requests an extra spicy version.

Katie said...

Every time I drive by Lighthouse, I wonder if it is a diner, Korean restaurant, or both. Now I will definitely need to check it out. I recently went to Shilla and didn't see the sweet potato latte you got on the menu :( My husband and I shared a Korean iced coffee which was really good!

EGKate said...

I did just this yesterday! I tried out one of the combos Lighthouse offers. The combo includes a dish and a small bowl of either beef or mushroom soon doo boo, plus banchan and rice tea.

I got an order of stir-fried octopus and veggies in a gochujang-heavy sauce, and mushroom soon doo boo. It was delicious. The octopus was not too chewy, and there were loads of tender but still crisp veggies. I really liked the rich mushroom taste of the soon doo boo. The last time I had it, I found the mushrooms too chewy, but this time they were a bit softer and lent a nice texture to the stew. I found the combo to be too much food for one person, but I don't think it would have been enough to split with someone else, especially the small bowl of soon doo boo.

I loved my lunch, but at $15, it's not as good a value as just getting soon doo boo for $8.99. I think I'll stick to that in the future.

After lunch I went to Shilla and got a red bean donut. I was too full to eat it then, but I just had it for breakfast, and it was delicious! Their prices on baked goods are really good. I only had a dollar and change on me, and they had plenty to choose from.

Then I went to Wegmans, where I couldn't bring myself to pay $14 for Sumos! Thanks for the inspiration, it was a great day!

Katie said...

This is so funny! Every time my husband and I go to Kimco I get served the barley tea and he gets water lol.