Lunch review: Authentic flavors of Korea in Howard County

Side dishes of various kimchi at Shin Chon Garden.
Side dishes of various kimchi at Shin Chon Garden. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun)

The enclave that is Lotte Plaza is situated on an island, a roughly triangular plot formed by the confluence of highways 29 and 40 that feeds a hurried Ellicott City commercial district. Anchored by a Korean grocery store, the plaza is home to a smattering of restaurants and the usual strip mall suspects made distinctive by Korean subtitles on the doors and windows and a precipitous cultural shift inside. At the far end of the main building, Shin Chon Garden advertises Korean barbecue, which it delivers, along with a bracing (and I suspect for much of its clientele, welcome) out-of-Howard-County experience.

11:33 a.m. We arrive and for a short time have, customer-wise, the place completely to ourselves. We are greeted by a bursting, up-volume, techno-disco-amphetamine agitato. It's like stepping into an anime set without the lurid colors and enormous eyes, wholly wrong for a space serving anything but neon-colored cocktails. Because we were early arrivals and the music took a mellower turn after the first few numbers, I assumed we'd caught the tail end of the tunes the staff cranks up to prep for the lunch-hour onslaught.

The dining room itself, with the exception of a semi-private section, is open, well lighted, and presents a clean utilitarian feel. The mood neutral furnishings appear plucked from a restaurant supply catalog. It's not nearly the vinyl and linoleum of the classic stripper hole-in-the-wall, but it's got close to the same soul, without, thank goodness, the corresponding down-scale character. The setting is comfortable but not necessarily relaxing.

11:44 a.m. We ordered as an intended appetizer the Alaskan maki that for $8 wraps up salmon, crab and avocado. From the "BBQ" sector we picked the bul galbi, beef short ribs, for $22.95 and the Japanese dish chirashi for $16. Shin Chon does offer lunch specials that run $8 to $12, so it's not like you have to break the bank to eat here. But in looking over the menu, we fixed on the goodies that called out to us and didn't gasp at the tab till we were stuffed.

11:53 a.m. Everything arrives. Our starter was the last thing set on the table. The first was the miso soup followed by eight small dishes of kimchis, various pickled veggies and tiny whole anchovies that my dining companion dubbed fish jerky because of their texture and slightly spicy cast. The anchovies and a dark peanut sauce were our two favorite grace notes of the meal, but everything in the collection was a treat.

Once the entrees landed, we had a feast of dishes and trays and bowls that covered the table with colors, textures and aromas to the point of near sensory overload — the good kind of choice surfeit — but it was startling to see it all arrive at once.

The sizzling beef ribs were tender, sweet and savory. They paired surprisingly well with the peanut dip, made an excellent foundation for the chili sauce and played well with the pickled vegetables.

The chirashi, tossed with Shin Chon's marvelous rice and dressed with Siracha sauce included an ample assortment of cubed raw fish, chopped veggies topped with a nest of rice noodles and orange roe all resting on a thick bed of shredded lettuce. Salad is not a grand enough word for this simple dish that must be and in this case certainly was served visibly fresh and crisp.

12:25 p.m. We finish and request a couple carry-out boxes. Our server was efficient and unfailingly polite but not as engaging or as attentive as we expected with only a handful of occupied tables. We chalked that up to communication difficulties. The meal, more than the service, put us at ease in an otherwise businesslike atmosphere.

12:31 p.m. We pay and linger over cups of green tea. How good is Shin Chon Garden? It may depend on your location and expectations. For us, it was a joyous culinary treat that did not spoil us for all other Korean restaurants but was satisfying and fun, if a bit weird in the ambience department. If you live nearby, it's a welcome refuge from typical carry-out joints; it's also worth a trip across town if you don't happen to have a favorite Korean spot or if you want to make your own comparisons.

FYI: Shin Chon will do carryout but unfortunately it doesn't have a menu that you can carry out. I wasn't able to find an online version either.

Shin Chon Garden

Where: 8801 Baltimore National Pike

Contact: 410-461-3280

Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday

Lunch entrees: $8-$12

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]

Dining time 58 minutes

Recommended on Baltimore Sun