Imagine Little Italy without a spaghetti house or Greektown sans moussaka.
That has been the situation in Howard County, the Baltimore area's strongest Korean-American enclave. Howard supports nearly a dozen Korean-language churches, two bureaus of Korean-language daily newspapers and a giant Korean supermarket. But there wasn't a single kalbijip, the traditional Korean open-flame barbecue house.
"It was amazing. I couldn't understand why there wasn't one here," said Tae Kim, a Kings Contrivance resident who would drive to Glen Burnie or Wheaton to get traditional Korean fare cooked over a grill in the middle of the table.
Nobody is sure why Howard County never had a kalbijip. But since a restaurant called Shin Chon opened in July near the Lotte supermarket in Ellicott City, local Korean-Americans have been breathing a sigh of relief. They don't have to travel far for traditional Korean food and, more importantly, many say, Shin Chon fills a major void in the community.
"We're complete now," said Sue Song, a local resident. "This is the traditional bedrock of Korean cuisine."
Barbecued meat marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil is one of the foundations of Korean cuisine. At most Howard County Korean restaurants, the meat is cooked in the kitchen and then brought to the table, a practice many purists say detracts from the dish.
"You're meant to cook it at the table. If you cook it in the kitchen and bring it out to the table, it takes at least five minutes and you lose some of the flavor and heat," said Alex Park, Shin Chon's owner.
So Park decided to open a restaurant with some tables that have grills in the center. Such restaurants are popular in other Korean-American strongholds -- more than 30 are listed in Korean language Yellow Pages for the Annandale, Va., area.
Howard County Korean-American leaders say that they have long wanted to have a kalbijip, but many said that they were afraid it would never be allowed because the food is cooked at the table and could be a health code violation.
But Park and others dismiss the concerns as rumors. "I didn't have any problems," Park said.
"It went through the same process as anyone else," said Theresa Holland, director of the county's food protection program, who pointed out that two other restaurants in Howard cook food at the table.
Shin Chon, which roughly translates to "new town," opened about two months ago and has formed a solid fan base among the county's nearly 7,000 Korean-American residents. The closest kalbijips are in Baltimore and Glen Burnie, and many families drove to Montgomery or Prince George's counties for Korean meals. "It's a more authentic flavor ... and it's too hard to cook at home," said Kings Contrivance resident Kim.
While Shin Chon also serves sushi and other Korean dishes, most people come for the barbecue. On a recent evening, all of the diners were sitting at tables equipped with grills, and the scent of cooking meat and sesame oil lingered in the air.
"Sometimes vegetarians come here," said Park, a former liquor store owner who emigrated from Korea nearly 18 years ago. "I'm not sure what to tell them."
Cooking at the table means more work for the diners -- someone has to be responsible for flipping the meat -- but many say it is part of the appeal. "It's more fun this way," said Sunny Ho as she arranged layers of bulgogi, thinly sliced beef, on the sizzling grill. The cooked meat can be eaten on rice or wrapped in lettuce with side dishes and spicy condiments.
Chris Lane, a Severna Park resident, took some out-of-town guests to Shin Chon to sample three types of barbecue. Lane said he didn't want to take his guests to a restaurant where the food was cooked in the kitchen.
"We wanted to give them traditional Korean dining atmosphere," Lane said. "So we came here."