Monday, April 21, 2014

Fire burn and cauldron bubble

I think I first had soon tofu in a modest little joint in a college town, years ago. It was a hot soupy stew with chunks of tofu in it. It was okay, I guess, but nothing special.

So when I began my exploration of the food and culture of Los Angeles' Koreatown, I didn't pay much attention to the restaurants that specialized in soon tofu.

But I didn't realize until recently that soon tofu, a dish that is popular throughout the Korean diaspora and even in South Korea itself, may have actually been invented in Koreatown.  Similar to the great Los Angeles French-dip sandwich debate, there are two established restaurants vying for the name of being the first to sell soon tofu.

Beverly Soon Tofu is the older of the two, started in 1986, first on Beverly Boulevard and later moved to a little strip mall on Olympic.

Inside it's fitted out with rustic-looking wooden décor - massive beams, wood lattice and fittings evoking historical country cabins, with furniture made of huge polished slices of tree trunks. It's kind of like a Hansel and Gretel cottage, only Korean.

A friendly waitress, clad in a red smock, brought me a plastic bottle of iced barley tea and a steel tea-bowl to sip from. I ordered the number one combo, beef with oyster and baby clam, medium spicy.

Six small bowls of panchan swiftly appeared, and a little twig basket cradling a raw egg. A few moments later, she came to the table bearing a dolsot, or stone pot, hissing and bubbling like a fiery red witch's brew. She quickly cracked the egg into the cauldron. As I stirred it up, the steam billowing up fogged my glasses.

The stew was so hot I had to wait a while before I could bring a spoonful to my lips. As I stirred the brew, the egg broke up and congealed. It was hard to distinguish egg white from the tofu, which was creamy and formed soft curds, almost like a custard. Within the bubbling mass, there were bits of shredded beef and small clamshells I fished out to chopstick out their briny morsels.

The panchan included the usual cabbage kimchee, some pickled cucumbers that were mildly sweet, and marinated mung bean sprouts. There was julienned white radish in a pickle with black sesame seeds; kkak dugi, or hearty chunks of pickled radish in a rich red sauce, and steamed potato or yam in sesame oil. There was also a dish of sliced tofu bathed in a sesame oil marinade topped with slivers of toasted seaweed. The tofu was creamy and reminded me of fresh mozzarella.

The stew comes with a bowl of rice, which you can add to the pot, making soon tofu a filling meal.

Beverly's soon tofu is available in several flavors. I had the basic combo, but there is also a super-charged kimchee combo with the same meats. If you like shellfish, you can go for a seafood version, with oysters, clams, mussels and shrimp; or squid with vegetables. There's a veggie-only version which may or may not be truly vegetarian.

If you've got a big appetite, you can pair your soon tofu in combination with grilled meats - galbi (short ribs), bulgogi (rib eye) squid steak or chicken.

In addition to the refreshing iced barley tea, Beverly Soon Tofu serves alcohol, including some  offerings beyond the usual beer and soju. When I looked at the online menu, I was intrigued by something called sungruju, described as Korean pomegranate wine. However, when I came at lunchtime, the table-top menu didn't mention any beverages at all. I debated whether to ask the waitress, but then decided I didn't need wine at lunch, anyway.

So I'll have to make a second visit, for sungruju and soon tofu with cod roe, mushrooms and zucchini!

Come to Beverly Soon Tofu, to try a bubbling brew and magical potions, served in a rustic cottage, presided over by brisk yet kindly ladies who aren't witches at all! 

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