From my first miraculous spoonful of egg drop soup, I knew that Jang Won was not a typical Chinese restaurant.
The steaming brew, far better than the usual mix of chicken broth and egg ribbons, featured tiny, succulent scallops, as well as morsels of shrimp and bits of carrot. It was terrific.
At $13.50, the soup was many times the price one normally pays, but it was intended to be part of a family-style meal, and the portion was large enough to easily serve four.
Like many Chinese restaurants, Jang Won isn't much to look at. But it's kind of cool in a noncool way, with a television showing Hello Kitty commercials and Korean cooking shows, and lazy Susans in the center of the round tables, making requests to pass the soy sauce ridiculously fun. And if you are not in the mood for kitsch, there's always the popular takeout option.
But if the decor isn't taken seriously here, the food certainly is.
This restaurant, owned by Chang Yon Huh, serves what it calls Korean-style Chinese food, most notably noodles that are made from scratch while you wait. It also boasts the freshest, most flavorful seafood I have had in a long time and an abundance of vegetables, cooked to tender-crisp perfection.
Though you can get some standard fare such as egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken here, most of the dishes are not what you would find in your neighborhood takeout. And don't bother looking for fortune cookies at the end of the meal, or those fried crunchy noodles to start. They are not offered, and it's just as well. You need to save your appetite for the good stuff.
Items such as shark fin (self-explanatory) and sea cucumber (a sort of eel with tentacles) are given prominence on the menu, as well as abalone, a large mollusk. But when we asked for Abalone in Special Sauce ($33.50), our waitress tried to talk us out of it, indicating that it was not suitable for our American taste buds.
We insisted and were glad we did. The snow-white meat, accompanied by a mix of vegetables and blanketed in a velvety garlic sauce, was sliced thin, alleviating the chewiness, and was mild in flavor. We gobbled it up.
Dishes at Jang Won arrive in no particular order, just when they are ready. They are placed, steaming hot, on the lazy Susan. Since the noodles take longest to prepare, they come last. Saving some appetite for them is well worth the effort. They are slippery, slightly elastic and fresh beyond fresh. Once they are on the table, they are ceremoniously snipped with scissors to divide the long ribbon into strands.
We had three noodle dishes -- Noodles with Seafood, Meat and Vegetables in Meat Soup ($8.95), Beef and Vegetable Starch Noodle in Sauce ($18.50) and the Jang Won Special Noodle with seafood and vegetables ($15.50).
I wish I could tell you which one was best. They were all terrific. While the noodles in the meat soup offered superior slurping pleasures, the Jang Won special featured noodles made slippery by a fantastic sauce that tasted of soy sauce and vinegar and delivered a subtle kick of heat. The noodles in the beef dish were thinner and springier. All three dishes featured impeccable seafood, meat and vegetables.
A dish that may seem more familiar, the Fried Prawn with Vegetables in Sweet, Sour and Hot Sauce ($25.50), was set apart by the unusually fresh flavor and firm texture of the shrimp, which were batter-fried and coated in a bright pink sweet-hot glaze.
Even egg rolls -- the only item written in English, not Chinese, on our check -- were better than average, fried to a golden crisp and stuffed with a gingery mix of ground pork, onion and cabbage.
The prices at Jang Won are higher than in many Chinese restaurants. Though the casual setting means it's probably not the best destination for a big-deal night on the town, the food is well worth the price. You are paying for large portions and unusually high quality.
1111 N. Rolling Road, Catonsville
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, closed Tuesday
Appetizers $2.95-$13.50, entrees $7.50-$49.50
*** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Atmosphere: ** (2 stars)
[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*