Shin Chon Garden is popular to the point of overflowing. Even on a drizzly weeknight, the tables at this Ellicott City restaurant are full of diners. A friend, arriving a few minutes before I did, texted: "place smells AMAZING."
When Andrew Zimmern, the host of the long-running Travel Channel show "Bizarre Foods," came to Shin Chon Garden last summer, he told the world, via Twitter, that Shin Chon "is one of top ten Korean BBQ experiences in America. A must for anyone who loves food. Major discovery."
The Baltimore episode of "Bizarre Foods" airs Monday night, and if America sees him carrying on about Shin Chon Garden like he did last summer, look out.
For its part, Shin Chon Garden seems comfortable with crowds. And the crowds that come to Shin Chon seem comfortable with what can be a frantically paced meal.
Not only are the tables overflowing with customers, the tables are overflowing with food.
Order one thing at Shin Chon Garden, and the table fills up with bowls, plates and condiments. Within minutes of placing your order, small bowls of shared appetizers known as panchan arrive. These are variations of kimchi, pickled radish or cabbage, and vinegary vegetables.
And if you order a barbecue combination — which is the way to go, especially on a first visit — your table really starts to fill up.
First, cups of soup show up; later, small earthenware bowls arrive filled with sizzling eggs, steamed with chicken broth and fish sauce. This is all in addition to the sea of things that come with a barbecue order: all of the sour-spicy condiments, lettuce leaves (for wrapping the meat in), rice paper wraps (for making little open-faced sandwiches), scallions and sliced peppers.
At one point, we had so much food on our table that a casserole we ordered, and which requires some tabletop preparation, had to be parked at a neighboring table until it was ready to serve.
Shin Chon's calling card is its tabletop barbecue, and it has invested in an elaborate exhaust system that includes shiny copper tubes hanging over each table. It gives the restaurant, which was renovated in 2009 with an expanse of blond wood, the look of a day spa or an eating laboratory.
Shin Chon has barbecuing down to a science, more so than Baltimore's downtown Korean restaurants, where the tabletop barbecuing can be, charmingly, a little improvisational.
The essential cuts are beef brisket and pork belly, followed by short ribs, which can be ordered in cubes, marinated, or unseasoned and still on the bone. The tabletop grill is tended, by the staff, at your table. The diner has only to pick the meat off the grill, dip it in seasoned oil, wrap it in lettuce, and eat it.
You'll want to order more than just barbecue, but it might be better to wait until your next visit.
Once you order it, the food starts coming and doesn't stop. We over-ordered. A casserole, bul nak jun gol, sounded so good, and it was. Filled with octopus, including parts of the head, long, slurp-y noodles and beef in a potent beef broth, it's a wonderful dish that shouldn't play backup to a barbecue.
The same goes for other two other dishes we ordered — tang su yuk, a dish of deep-fried pork with cucumbers and pear, was a subtle and simple rethinking of sweet and sour. Ojinguh bokeum, stir-fried octopus in spicy red sauce, was a model of straightforward preparation.
Food comes and goes. This is old-fashioned Korean food. Flavors are strong and pungent, clean and stimulating. You wish you could slow down. You want to have ordered less and still have more.
Stuffed, we ordered a seafood and scallion pancake. Shin Chon's version of this comfort food favorite was exceptionally delicate and pretty, held together by magic.
Shin Chon's vast menu also lists a couple dozen traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap, beef-bone soup, monkfish stew and kimchi-pork casserole. And did we mention the Japanese section of the menu?
Dining at Shin Chon means either restraining yourself or accepting that you've overdone it. Either way, it's worth it.
Shin Chon Garden
Where: 8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
Open: Daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers $5.95-$7.95; entrees $10.95-$26.95
Food: Korean barbecue and traditional dishes and Japanese dishes
Service: Energetic and skillful, working as a team.
Best dishes: Barbecued beef brisket and pork belly
Parking: Large parking lot
Children: Children will like what their parents like.
Noise level: Comfortable
Dress code: Come as you are.
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]