|Pork belly and a tofu stew -- a great way to try Korean food|
That's still one of my favorite meals in Howard County, but I'm back with a second "Korean 101" pitch -- this time aimed at folks who might want to try something warm this winter.
Soon doo boo is a basic Korean stew made with tofu. You can get all kinds of variations -- from mild to spicy, from mushrooms to beef to seafood. Your key first step is going to Lighthouse Tofu BBQ on Rte 40 to try it out.
Lighthouse is an outpost of an Annandale restaurant that serves up a delicious food and offers newsbies the benefit of a limited menu. As I wrote a few years ago, it's a simpler place than Shin Chon Garden. But it is casual and friendly, and the food made Washingtonian's 2013 "Cheap Eats" list.
My big pitch for trying Korean food is that Howard County offers so many options that you can get more variety than almost any other cuisine. But the virtue of Lighthouse as a starting point is that you'll be guaranteed warmth and flavor with just a few decisions.
Soon doo boo has a base of pepper-tinged broth filled with vegetables, firm slices of tofu, and your choice of mushrooms or meat. The tofu alone makes the dish filling with a terrific texture. They're firm enough to hold their shape, but soft enough to cut with a spoon. Respect the spiciness. They'll make soon doo boo from mild to super-spicy, and the top level is seriously fiery.
The meat provides a nice contrast. Neither the beef or pork are as crispy as the grill-in-yourself meals at a barbecue speciality restaurant. But they come marinated and cooked with onions. Both bulgogi and pork belly have provided a meaty, toothsome match to the spoonfuls of stew. Alternate with bites of kimchi and other panchan, and you can enjoy a full Korean meal in an easy setting.
Here's step-by-step to enjoy all the secrets of a friendly restaurant:
Step One: Go to Lighthouse. It's on the north side of Rte 40 west of Rte 29. It's next to Jerry's Subs and Boston Market. Turn before Boston Market and consider parking in the side lot. There are few spots right in front of Lighthouse, but not many.
Step Two: Order up. I'd recommend that you split between orders of the tofu stew and orders of meat -- sliced beef (bulgogi) or short ribs (kalbi) or pork belly. On our last visit, we did a mushroom soon doo boo and an order of the spicy pork belly. Bonus move: Ask for hot tea if you're interested. Often I have seen waitresses serve hot barley tea to customers who look Korean and ice water to those who don't. The barley tea is warm and mild, and it's free.
Step Three: Little free dishes. Most Korean dinners come with panchan. You'll get a few small dishes with a few bites in each. Some kimchi. Some pickled cucumbers. Maybe a seaweed. Maybe a little piece of fish. They're sized to eat with chopsticks, but they'll gladly give you forks. You can snack before your entrees arrive.
Step Four: Here comes the food. You'll get your two entrees -- the meat on a metal platter, the soon doo boo in a metal bowl. You'll get rice, which the waitress will scoop out of a stone bowl and into individual metal bowls for each diner. More on that later. You'll also get an egg, which you can crack into the stew where it will cook -- stir it up to get "egg drop"-style strands or just spoon hot stew on the egg to submerge it and get a a poached egg.
If you have kids who like to try new foods, then Lighthouse can be perfect. It's cheaper than Shin Chon. Dishes hover around $10-15, and there are familiar parts to hot soup and sliced meat. The restaurant itself is casual and modern with a cool wallpaper of Korean text. Very kid-friendly.
Step Five: Eat up. We generally share the dishes. We just passed the stew bowl, but you could ask for smaller dishes and spoon out stew. Bulgogi is a safe bet for a first meal. It's thin-sliced beef, marinated and broiled. On our last visit, we had the spicy pork belly to try something new.
Ask for more panchan if you eat up the ones that you like. The waitresses are generally attentive and will refill panchan if you ask. Bonus: Korean diners don't expect waitresses to check in as often. In other restaurants, they leave you alone until you push a button on the table. Lighthouse doesn't have those buttons, so feel free to make eye contact and call over a waitress.
Step Six: "Burnt rice" tea to settle your stomach. Once the waitress scoops out the rice, she will pour water into the stone rice bowl. That will brew while you eat. When you're done, pour a little of the burnt rice tea into the small plastic bowls next to the rice. It's a palate cleanser. It tastes like crispy rice.
|Red bean donut at Shilla Bakery|
Seriously, I recommend Shilla as much as I recommend Lighthouse. Lighthouse can serve you a quick dinner, but coffee and a sweet at Shilla can extend your date -- great for chatting in the coffee shop atmosphere.
Again, Howard County offers all kinds of great Korean options. I've said it one of our three deepest cuisines. You can get everything from traditional dishes to modern fried chicken, from Korea's Chinese food to frozen dumplings to cook at home. Scroll through all the HowChow posts about Korean food. Or start with the prior trio of posts that described a bunch of Korean restaurants along Rte 40 and provided a step-by-step on barbecue at Shin Chon.