Food & Drink

Beyond Kimchi

Area restaurants carry on the food traditions of Korea.

When TV personality, chef, and food writer Andrew Zimmern came to Baltimore last summer, he visited a variety of eating establishments including Angie’s Soul Food at Lexington Market and Chaps Charcoal Restaurant for pit beef. But he also wanted to go to several of the area’s Korean restaurants while filming an episode for the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods America. At Nam Kang on Maryland Avenue, Zimmern chowed down on octopus bibimbap and fish-roe jjigae before heading to Shin Chon Garden Restaurant in Ellicott City, where he continued his eating foray. (The episode is scheduled to air in late March.) During his food tour, Zimmern said of the places he visited, “Those things are authentically Baltimore.” Indeed. Beginning in the ’70s and until the ’90s, there were solid pockets of Korean immigrants in Baltimore. Ultimately, urban flight shifted the Asian-population concentrations toward the counties, particularly Howard County with its excellent public-school system. But in the city, a cluster of Korean restaurants still remains in the lower Charles Village neighborhood, just north of where the first Korean grocery once stood (the Far East House on North Avenue) and just south of The Johns Hopkins University, which provides a constant stream of Korean students seeking comfort food. We offer a roundup of several popular restaurants with a glossary of Korean foods and a primer on eating-and-ordering etiquette. All you need to do is bring an appetite—and a sense of adventure.

Baltimore City

Nam Kang, 2126 Maryland Ave., 410-685-6237. While the original Korean restaurant in Baltimore was Seoul restaurant (which later relocated), Nam Kang ranks as one of the oldest in town. The basement space once housed a Brazilian and an Ethiopian restaurant, but now serves arguably the most consistently well-prepared Korean food in the city. Like other restaurants in the neighborhood, it is open until 4 a.m. It features Korean barbecue dishes, but they are prepared in the kitchen rather than traditionally at the table.

Jong Kak, 18 W. 20th St., 410-837-5231. One of the few remaining Korean barbecue restaurants in town (the original, Ehwa, met its demise when Light Rail construction along Howard Street closed that area to traffic), Jong Gak features tabletop barbecue. But unlike most barbecue restaurants, they use braziers with hot charcoal, instead of a gas flame, for cooking.

Nak Won, 12 W. 20th St., 410-244-5501. Located next door to Jong Gak, this restaurant has very similar offerings, as well as a space for private events.

Following Korean etiquette

  • No one should eat until the eldest person at the table begins to eat. In Korea, this is often observed, even among friends belonging to the same age group. But for the sake of practicality, it’s okay to to ask if everyone is ready before starting to eat.
  • Always offer to pour water, tea, and especially alcohol for others before pouring it for yourself (eldest first, of course). When consuming alcohol, pouring yourself a glass is considered bad form, so don’t be surprised if a Korean dining companion insists on pouring it for you. When receiving a pour from someone older than you, hold your cup with two hands.
  • If sharing from communal dishes, do not eat directly from the plates or bowls. Instead transfer them to your own small bowl or plate. (Always ask for extra dishes in advance on such occasions.)
  • Although not commonly observed among those familiar with each other, it is considered polite to transfer food from communal plates to your own by turning your chopsticks around and using the fat ends, so the narrow (germy) ends are away from the food.
  • When eating something that’s accompanied by a dipping sauce (for example, dumplings), instead of dipping directly into the communal sauce dish, ladle some with a spoon onto the morsel you have transferred to your own plate.
  • It’s often observed that Asians “slurp” their noodles. This is not quite true. Koreans employ more of an inhaling action, so that the noodles are sucked in along with air (lips not sealed around noodles), which helps to minimize splashing and also cools the noodles as one eats them.
  • Never leave chopsticks sticking straight up in a bowl of rice and never transfer a piece of food directly from chopstick to chopstick. Both are considered bad luck.

In the ’burbs

Shin Chon Garden Restaurant, 8801 Baltimore National Pike, No. 27, Ellicott City, 410-461-3280. Despite having gone through changes in ownership, Shin Chon remains the best Korean barbecue restaurant in the Baltimore metro area. They employ tabletop gas grills and serve excellent cuts of meat, a dizzying array of condiments and banchan (side dishes), and even supply the traditional barbecue accompaniment—doenjang jjigae, which is a rich, fermented soy-based soup with tofu and squash. Andrew Zimmern declared it one of the top five Korean restaurants he’s visited in the United States.

Han Joong Kwan, 9338 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-461-1099. Serving mostly Chinese-influenced cuisine, the restaurant, also known as the Silver Dragon, is best known for its jajangmyun and jjamppong. The noodles, while not handmade, are regarded as the best in the area.

Kimko Seafood, 10176 Baltimore National Pike, Suite 116, Ellicott City, 410-480-1442. The only restaurant in the area that features hwe, or Korean-style sashimi, Kimko boasts entire walls of fish tanks with all manner of marine animals that provide the freshest possible raw seafood. Most raw fish dishes are served according to how many guests are in a group, or by the actual animal, such as a whole live abalone or even live baby octopus. The cooked food is also excellent, and a multi-course menu offering nearly a dozen dishes can be had for a very fair price.

Honey Pig, 10045 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-696-2426. Honey Pig is a Korean barbecue mini-chain known for being open 24 hours and for its low prices, which makes it popular with students and late-night revelers. The atmosphere can be rather high energy at times. The barbecue is cooked on small hibachi-style camping stoves, so it’s difficult to obtain the proper sear and char, but again, the price is certainly right.

Hansung, 3570 St. Johns Ln., Ellicott City, 410-750-2753. A local favorite that is gaining a wider following, this restaurant is a combination of Korean and Japanese food, including the ubiquitous sushi and sashimi, as well as cooked dishes like yakitori and udon.

BonChon Chicken, 3419 Plum Tree Dr., No. 102, Ellicott City, 410-465-0515. The long-awaited opening of this Korean fried-chicken chain saves devotees a trip to its location in Virginia for the crispy, juicy, spicy-sweet poultry dish. Eat in or order carryout. Call ahead or be prepared to wait. The chicken is cooked to order and takes 20-30 minutes to prepare.

Hanoori Town, 822 N. Rolling Rd., Catonsville, 410-747-8315. Located next to H Mart, this sprawling, free-standing food court with a central dining area is surrounded by counters offering items like Korean soups, rice dishes, broiled fish, sushi made with ham and American cheese, and Korean-style shaved ice topped with fruit or sweet-bean paste.

Lotte Food Court, 8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-750-9656. If you get hungry while grocery shopping in the Lotte Korean supermarket, you can just park your cart and head to the in-house food court. Individual stalls serve traditional Korean food, as well as Japanese home-style food and sushi. There is also a very good Korean bakery.

Lighthouse Tofu BBQ, 9380 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-461-6560. Despite its name’s implications, the restaurant (there’s another location in Rockville) is neither a vegetarian nor a barbecue place. It specializes in soon dooboo, a very soft form of tofu that is most often made into a spicy seafood-and-vegetable-based soup. Soups are customized here, from ingredients to the level of spice.

Goong Jeon, 202 Crain Highway North, Glen Burnie, 410-768-9788. Representing a dwindling pocket of Korean presence in Anne Arundel County, Goong Jeon has been around longer than its Howard County counterparts. The restaurant offers Korean barbecue cooked on gas-flame grills and friendly service.

Woomi Garden, 2423 Hickerson Drive, Wheaton, 301-933-0100. Woomi Garden serves probably the best Korean barbecue in Maryland and is definitely worth the 45-minute trip from Baltimore. It offers fresh meats, excellent marinades, and well-made banchan (side dishes). Also well-prepared are the fresh mung-bean pancakes and another traditional accompaniment to barbecue—naeng myun, which are chewy buckwheat noodles served in a refreshing cold broth.

Understanding the Food

Korean cuisine reflects a geography similar to Maryland.

True Korean cuisine is incredibly diverse, in part a reflection of the country’s varied and compact landscape. In the mountains, wild boar and pickled ferns are served at roadside inns, while just a few hours’ drive east, fresh seafood can be found in port cities dotting the vast coastline. Is it any wonder Koreans chose Maryland as a new home? Korean food is divided into groupings like “soups” and “rice dishes” and into lifestyle categories like what to eat when ill or drinking.
In Baltimore, we have access to a range and quality (if not quantity) of Korean restaurants that rival much larger communities.

Cooking at the Table
One of the most recognizable and influential Korean food imports is Korean barbecue. Its origins lie in a form of preparation called jeok, in which skewers are used to cook meat over an open flame. The modern form involves various cuts of beef, pork, chicken, and sometimes seafood and lamb. The meat is cooked at the table and eaten communally.

A Main Course
Korea is one of the world’s great soup cultures. There are two main delineations: jjigae, which generally refers to highly spiced, heartier stew-type soups, and guk, which usually indicates a higher ratio of broth to solid with less aggressive seasoning. Soups are always a main course. They usually start with fish or meat stock and are often enriched with a soy-bean paste.

Two Main Types
Noodles make up a surprisingly small segment of Korean cuisine, with the most popular noodle dishes derived from Chinese preparations. The two main ones are jajangmyun, which are wheat-flour noodles dressed with a thick gravy made from fermented black beans, and jjamppong, which are the same noodles except they come in a spicy, seafood-laden broth.

Rice in a Stone Bowl
A Korean Casserole
Basically the casserole of Korean cuisine, bibimbap, which translates to mixed-up rice, is rice with an assortment of vegetables and meat (often leftovers when made at home), bound together by a spicy sauce and often enriched with a fried egg. A deluxe version is served in a heated stone bowl, which results in a crust of crunchy browned rice.

Raw Fish
Koreans eat a lot of seafood and especially enjoy it raw. Korean-style raw fish, known as hwe, differs from Japanese sashimi in that the fish is usually a firm, white-fleshed flat fish such as flounder and is often dressed with a soy and garlic sauce without wasabi.

Korean Fried Chicken
Usually Legs and Wings
A niche product that skyrocketed in popularity in the ’90s and early 2000s, Korean fried chicken has lots of fans. The chicken is not battered; rather, it is lightly floured, then “double-fried” and glazed, resulting in a super-crispy, almost glassy exterior with a sweet or spicy, garlicky flavor. Usually only legs and wings are served with pickled radishes.

SHARED FARE: Food For Drinking. The dishes are often salty, spicy, and/or fatty, and are served in large portions meant for sharing. Popular ones include dooboo kimchi bokkeum and samgyupsal.