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Hot bubbly tofu

When you think Korean food you usually think of the traditional BBQ meats flavored with a distinctive sweet yet garlicy marinade.  But I enjoy a different type of Korean food.

Tofu soups became popular in their native country during the Korean War.  It is basically a tofu soup/stew with a rich soup base and silken tofu.  The soup usually has pork, beef, seafood, kimchee, veggies, and/or a variety of other ingredients.  They are served in individual “hot pots” and come to the table boiling hot.  Crack a fresh raw egg into the mixture and the bubbling hot soup cooks the egg right in the bowl, thickening the stew/soup and adding protein.  The Tofu House (“So Gong Dong Tofu House”) on El Camino in Palo Alto serves various tofu soups, along with bibimbob (classic Korean rice bowl in an earthenware bowl with rice, egg, veggies, and various marinated meats) and Korean BBQ dishes as well.

The Tofu House serves some of the best tofu soups in the Bay Area and is one of my favorite places to visit for a satisfying, inexpensive, exotic meal on a chilly evening.

I ordered the Kimchee Tofu Soup and my husband had the Combo Tofu Soup (seafood and meat).  We went on a recent Friday night and the place was packed, but the wait was only about 10 minutes.  Good thing because we were starving!

Don’t expect anything other than bland tables and chairs and completely stark white walls inside.  But I’ve heard it said that the color is in the food, and that’s absolutely the case here.

tofu.jpg photo by Kake S.

Once you order, they bring a big orange tray of what they call “banchan,” which are little plates (about five or six of them) of savory appetizers to intice the palate before the main course arrives.  The banchan varies from time to time, but will always include a plate of kimchee (the national dish of Korea which is pickled napa cabbage marinated mostly with a heavy dose of vinegar, chilis) that’s spicy and pungent, just like it should be.  Our array of banchan also included pickled cucumbers, soft boiled potatoes with a sweet sesame sauce, mung bean sprouts, and sweet marinated rice noodles with carrots and black pepper.  It’s a wonderful array of colors and tastes.  And if you want more of any of these little dishes, just ask.  They pretty much give you as much as you want.

Now, if you order the tofu soup they’ll also bring you a raw egg and a small bowl of rice.  At most Korean tofu soup restaurants it’s a bowl of white rice, but here they serve you red rice with red beans in it.  It’s just another touch that makes this place better than most.  The red rice makes the tofu soup you’re about to get much heartier.  You basically eat the rice and tofu soup together.

My husband’s Combo Tofu Soup was excellent as usual.  It’s got a mild yet extremely flavorful base.  He enjoyed every single drop and would lick the bowl clean if he could.  It was brimming with fresh seafood flavor from the shrimp and clams that are right in the broth.  Just the right amount of spice gave it kick without competing with the mild seafood flavor.

My Kimchee Tofu Soup was excellent as well.  It’s funny how two dishes that look so similar can taste so completely different.  They both have that bright orangy red broth, but because mine had the distinct vinegary, spicy flavor of kimchee in it, it tasted totally different than my husband’s.  The egg that you crack into the soup adds thickness and just completes the dish overall.  And the napa cabbage adds texture and a slight crunch to the soup with its smooth silken tofu.

There’s something about a nice hot bubbly bowl of goodness chock full of fresh, interesting ingredients to get you excited about your meal.  And with the wide array of banchan they serve you before your entree, it’s easy to look forward to eveything this kitchen puts out. 

But caution: if you enjoy spicy food, order your dish “medium” heat.  Going with the “hot” might just kill you, unless you enjoy that kind of torture.

If you’re looking for something completely different with a little variety and adventure thrown in, this will surely satify that craving.  There’s something so satisfying about it.  And a $20 tab for two doesn’t hurt either.


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