Our first forays into Korean dining taught us some valuable lessons: Expect the unexpected, and don't be surprised if the wait staff doesn't speak fluent English. Be patient, open-minded and -- most of all -- enjoy the food, because it's delicious.
Oh, and you might want to brush up on your use of chopsticks before you go; otherwise you might have to eat with a plastic fork.
There are almost a dozen Korean restaurants dotting Ellicott City's Route 40 corridor -- some specialize in Korean barbecue or soon doo boo (tofu stew), while others offer a mix of Korean, Japanese and Chinese fare.
For those who enjoy expanding their tastebud horizons and haven't already delved into Korean cuisine, these eateries merit exploration.
GRILLED TO PERFECTION
Part of the fun of Korean barbecue is participating -- watching your meal cook right before your eyes on a gas grill built into your table, and the hot-off-the-grill taste.
One of Howard County's more established Korean hotspots is Shin Chon Garden, which opened in the Golden Triangle Shopping Center in 2003. Current owners Jum Suh and her husband, Hyung Suh, of Ellicott City, took over the operation in 2004 and have since expanded the place from six grill tables to 17.
But you're still likely to encounter a wait on weekends, when patrons are willing to be patient in order to snag a barbecue table to feast on the most popular dishes, galbi (short ribs) and bulgogi (thinly sliced beef).
And, no, that's not graffiti on the walls -- they're autographs of some notable visitors, including Simon Cho, a bronze medalist in short track speedskating at the 2010 Olympic Games, and LPGA golfer Kyeong Bae.
At Honey Pig BBQ, farther west on Route 40, tabletop grills also are the centerpieces at each table, where you will find everything from bulgogi, pork rib and pork bellies to tripe and octopus sizzling.
Often accompanying an order of bulgogi is a dish of large lettuce leaves, meant to be stuffed with beef off the grill, rice and hot pepper sauce. The lettuce adds a refreshing crunch to the flavors wrapped inside.
Korean food pulls its flavor from hot red pepper, garlic, soy sauce, sesame seeds, sesame oil, scallions and ginger (rather than butter or heavy oils). And it's a cuisine that's meant for sharing, with platters of beef and pork serving between two and five people. Some restaurants also offer chicken, although you're less likely to find it printed on the menu.
The tenderness? Meats are marinated for at least 48 hours in soy sauce, sesame oil and other spices for tenderness and flavor, according to Shin Chon's Jum Suh, a mother of two who was born in Daegu, South Korea's third-largest city.
Some aspects unique to Korean dining, she says, are the variety of side dishes that automatically arrive at your table and the communal nature of the meal.
"In Korean culture, we like to share," she says. "We like to share food. They'll bring soups, meats, vegetables, kimchi. We just dig in.
"In almost any other country, everyone gets their own dishes -- Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, American -- only Korean food serves it with side dishes," she explains. "With Korean, everybody gets a bowl of rice. That steamed rice doesn't have any flavor to it. You can blend it with little bits of the side dishes to mix the flavors."
The side dishes (called panchan or banchan) vary, but are generally similar from restaurant to restaurant and often include broccoli, cold chapchae noodles, sweet radish kimchi, bean sprouts, thinly sliced turnips and cold pepper steak with zucchini and onion.
Of course a Korean meal would not be complete without kimchi, fermented cabbage seasoned with ginger, garlic and pepper, said to aid in digestion and overall well-being.
"Most Koreans, when they have a meal, they have to have kimchi," Suh says. "Kimchi is good for you. On the Korean table, you have to have kimchi, even on Thanksgiving with the turkey."
Also said to help digestion is the barley tea.
CHOPSTICKS, LADLES ... AND SCISSORS
The spacious dining room at Lighthouse Tofu & BBQ, one of the area's newest Korean restaurants, can be packed even on a weeknight. This restaurant's menu is divided into three categories: soon doo boo (tofu stew), meat or octopus, and pancakes. Waitresses deliver food to the table by rolling carts.
The seafood soon doo boo is rich and red, with plenty of large chunks of tofu, whole shrimp and clams still in their shells. A raw egg is cracked and stirred quickly into the boiling stew at the table. This hearty stew comes in many variations of ingredients and levels of spiciness.
At Lighthouse, rice is served from a stone pot and spooned into individual bowls. Barley tea is then poured into the stone pot to scorch the remaining rice (called nurungi) to steep. This is to be sipped to aid in digestion.
While some foods and drinks are said to help digestion, others claim to boost longevity. The chilled Korean rice wine Baek Se Ju, offered at Han Joong Kwan restaurant, means "100 year wine," and folk wisdom says that those who imbibe it will live to be 100 years old. Naturally, our diners tried a glass.
Han Joong Kwan boasts an elaborate menu with both Korean and Chinese offerings -- including soups, noodle dishes, pork, fowl, beef, seafood, rice and fried rice.
The Wool Mein lunch special features squid, scallops, shrimp, mussels, vegetables and egg drop, while the Sam Sun Tang is a noodle dish with shrimp, scallops and sea cucumber.
There are some curiosities to the experience that we haven't definitively figured out. For instance, an order of beef ribs at Lighthouse Tofu came with a pair of tongs and scissors -- we assume to cut the meat off the bone.
Scissors aside, the only utensils were metal chopsticks, which made for slippery grabbing of the pickled side dishes of zucchini, kimchi, bean sprouts and a salty clam relish.
Scissors again came into play at Han Joong Kwan, when a waitress who had noticed one of our diners having difficulty ladling long slippery noodles arrived with scissors and swiftly snipped the noodles to a more manageable length.
When it comes to Korean food neophytes, Suh simply says, "When I see them, I know."
"If it's their first time trying, they don't know what's going on," she says with a laugh. "They see the side dishes and they look confused -- 'I didn't order that.' They look lost, so I go over to their table to save them, explain, make them feel comfortable."
So, Korean food newcomers, take heart.
There's a great meal in it for you if you're willing to give this cuisine a whirl.
If you're looking for an exotic dessert for a party, or a sweet snack to go, feast your eyes on the shelves of two Korean bakeries in Ellicott City. Red bean, green bean, and white bean buns surprise tired tastebuds dulled by one too many sugar-coated doughnuts. Decorated sweet potato cakes are a multi-generational favorite. Plus, savory breads and a few European and American options are also available for the less adventurous. Most buns come individually wrapped, a Korean tradition, which makes it easy to take one on the road. These pastries are no strain on the wallet, either. Who wouldn't mind handing over a couple of bucks to try something new? Warning: one bite and you're hooked.
La Boulangerie, 8815 Baltimore National Pike, Suite C, Ellicott City • 410-203-2000
For too long, this pioneer Korean bakery, which Mr. and Mrs. Yong Han opened 10 years ago, was a well-kept secret in the Golden Triangle Shopping Center across from Lotte supermarket. No more. This bakery carries more than 80 varieties of baked goods in a small, marketlike space. Its whipped cream-filled buns, sweet rice doughnuts and individual sponge cakes in several flavors make great lunch box fillers. Madeleines, corn raisin bread, pumpkin and sweet potato breads, and boxed baby white bean pastries or almond cookies are moderately priced. La Boulangerie also takes custom orders for Korean sweet potato cake, chocolate cake and tiramisu. Sponge cake rolls come filled with nuts, fruit and in a very pretty rainbow-colored variety. White bread, which Koreans call milk bread, is a staple along with vegetable dinner rolls, corn and wheat bread. Coffee and bubble tea also are available. Two small tables look out over the parking lot.
Bon Appetit Bakery & Café, 10155 Baltimore National Pike, Suite 106, Ellicott City • 410-203-2071
The new bakery on the Route 40 strip, Bon Appetit offers more than 100 pastries, breads and cookies, plus a sizable café that can seat about 30 people. Grab a basket and a pair of tongs by the door, and browse the shelves supplied fresh daily by owners Houn and Jina Han. Houn is the baker trained in Korean, French and Japanese pastries, which means that the shop offers not only traditional Korean buns, rolls and cookies but also Japanese mochi and chick manju, baguettes (try the shrimp), croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese) and meat and cheese-filled breakfast breads and buns. The glass case is filled with whole and sliced cakes and fruit, pudding and jello parfaits. Try the mocha bread; it's like eating a cup of coffee. Bon Appetit also makes deli sandwiches like turkey, chicken breast and steak and cheese. Coffee, bubble tea, smoothies and frozen yogurt also are on the menu. What's even better? The bakery/café is open until 10 p.m. most nights.
WHERE TO EAT
Shin Chon Garden
Golden Triangle Shopping Center
8801 Baltimore National Pike
Ellicott Lighthouse Tofu & BBQ
9380 Baltimore National Pike, Suite 105
Han Joong Kwan
Village Green Shopping Center
9338 Baltimore National Pike
410-461-1099 and 410-461-1167
Honey Pig BBQ Restaurant
10045 Baltimore National Pike
Bethany 40 Shopping Center
10194 Baltimore National Pike, Suite 111
Frederick Crossing Shopping Center
3570 St. Johns Lane, Suite 102
Kimko (formerly Bethany Seafood Restaurant)
Bethany 40 Shopping Center
10176 Baltimore National Pike, Suite 116
Bethany 40 Shopping Center
10194 Baltimore National Pike, Suite 103
Blue Sky Cafe
9065 Frederick Road, Suite D
Kim Bob Na Ra
9339 Baltimore National Pike