Sometimes when restaurants close for an extended period of time, they never quite recover when they reopen. This is not the case with Shin Chon. Since it reopened after major renovations, it's on its way to becoming the Korean equivalent of the Cheesecake Factory - at least as far as a lengthy wait for a table goes. OK, a slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean.
True, Howard County has a sizable Korean population and Shin Chon is, as far as I know, the only restaurant in the county that offers Korean barbecue cooked at the table. But on a weeknight in August, the slowest time of year for many restaurants, it was standing room only in Shin Chon's foyer. Standing room only, as in packed together like sardines.
Like other Korean restaurants in the Baltimore area, Shin Chon can do very well without attracting non-Korean customers. In fact, we were almost the only Caucasians eating there one night recently. Still, owner Jum Suh, who is so engaging as to almost make up for any deficiencies in service otherwise, is anxious to make her native food accessible to everyone. She's patient with questions about the menu and her English is excellent, which can't be said of the servers who brought us our food. They were friendly, but communication was nonexistent. When the place is busy, that makes it difficult to get the forgotten drinks - or the check, for that matter.
The biggest problem I had with the service was that after we ordered, everything came quickly - but all at once. (Except for the beer, rice wine and sake. Those we had trouble getting.) This, of course, included the little panchan dishes, the most famous of which is kimchi. It was an amazing amount of food for one table, and it was hard to know what was missing and what sauce went with what.
If you're new to Korean food, you may want to concentrate on Shin Chon's specialty, meat cooked by you or the server on the new gas grills at the center of granite-topped tables. It's fun, and you can tailor your meal to your personal taste.
The waitress will bring you a large platter of raw meat (in our case, slices of pork belly, the cut that bacon is made from; thinly sliced beef brisket, rolled to show off its marbling; and cubes of boneless prime short ribs) with a couple of mushrooms and broccoli florets for decoration. She starts the process by putting pieces of brisket on the grill; you can add more when these are cooked and eaten, or you can let her do all the cooking. If you're a garlic eater, place a few of the cloves you've been brought on the grill with the meat.
When the meat is cooked, you use it to create mini "sandwiches." At Shin Chon, the wrappers are squares of rice noodle or large, thin rounds of daikon radish. (I've had lettuce leaves in Los Angeles.) Add some shredded scallion or grilled garlic clove, a slice of hot pepper or two, some soybean paste and either the hot sauce or the slightly less hot soy-vinegar sauce.
While no one is going to scold, it's best not to pile on the panchan dishes, but eat them separately - the kimchi, pickled vegetables, grilled zucchini, spinach, cubes of tofu with broccoli florets and so on. I think we had eight, but there was so much else on the table it was hard to tell.
Everyone gets a long-handled spoon, but only one bowl of soybean paste soup is brought to the table as part of the meal. You eat it family-style, along with the "steamed eggs," a sort of delicate, unsweetened egg custard. Rice, of course, also comes with the meal.
You might add a seafood and scallion pancake for variety, cut in wedges like a pizza. It's one of the Chef's Specials. Or if you want something less meat-heavy than the barbecue, try the glass noodles with shredded beef and vegetables. It's flavorful enough, but it doesn't have the looks or the pizazz of the barbecue.
You don't really need appetizers. The panchan should arrive shortly after you order to keep you busy until more substantial food arrives. But Shin Chon does have fat little steamed dumplings filled with ground pork, beef and vegetables. An order of the excellent shrimp tempura (with vegetables, of course) or the tender skewered chicken yaki will keep nonred meat eaters happy.
Jum Suh has added a number of Japanese dishes, including sushi, to the menu to tempt folks who aren't familiar with Korean cuisine and are afraid to jump in. She didn't have to. At every table I saw that evening, people were either eating the barbecue or some other traditional Korean dish.
Still, it's nice to have that option. Your kids might turn their noses up at Korean food, but be perfectly comfortable these days with the idea of something as familiar as sushi.
shin chon Address: Lotte Plaza, 8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$9.95; entrees, $9.95-$37.95.
Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor *