Such was my aversion to tofu that I completely avoided Tofu House until last year, when two of my Korean friends suggested we eat dinner there. When I saw the array of banchan (side dishes) and stoneware pots full of bubbling deliciousness, I was saddened, then a little angry. I had been missing out for years, and all because of a silly misunderstanding.
First, Tofu House serves up a lot more than tofu; it is a veritable playground for an adventurous palate. Black goat ($40.99) is something I've never seen on a menu, and I'm still looking for people willing to try it with me.
Second, tofu does not deserve a reputation for being the exclusive food of vegetarians and hippies. It is an incredibly versatile ingredient, capable of being the star of a dish or a willing vehicle for other flavors. I have just recently forged a relationship with tofu -- we're still in the honeymoon stage, where I like it in all of its forms. We met because I realized that my long-term devotion to bacon and butter would lead to a premature "till death do us part."
But the primary reason for eating any food is taste, and the tofu at Tofu House is a lustrous wonder. My girlfriend and I ordered the bibimbap and soft tofu soup combination ($20.99). There are a number of options available for the soup: dumpling, seafood, fish egg, gut (like I said, something for everyone). We went with the kimchi mushroom, heat level "spicy."
We also got japchae ($14.99) and a kimchi pancake appetizer ($16.99), then watched in approval as our table filled up with over a dozen dishes.
Banchan is a stroke of culinary genius. It is complimentary and complements every meal -- here, a little dish of creamy broccoli salad and briny seaweed; there, a perfectly fried little fish and pickled spicy cucumber.
The appetizer was a neon orange circle of scallion-flecked egg and sautéed kimchi. Surprisingly, it had no heat, but was comforting when paired with rice and a drizzle of the soy dipping sauce. It would have made an ideal breakfast. The kimchi and tofu soup came in a blazing hot bowl, still burbling away. Even "spicy" wasn't all that spicy. In the future, I suspect I'll have to make eye contact and convey the air of a person who can handle Korean-spicy.
The japchae was the best I've eaten in a restaurant. I've had a Korean mother make it for me, and this tasted like she was in the kitchen. The noodles are made from sweet potatoes and some sugar is added to the stir-fry dish, but the sweetness is subtle and elusive. The savory meat, vegetable crispness and sesame oil made it a complex favorite.
The bibimbap, on the other hand, didn't impress. The raw egg, pickled condiments and sprouts were served in a separate bowl, instead of piled on top of rice. One of the great pleasures of this dish is mixing the egg into the rice and watching it coat everything in the bowl. This was easily solved, however, and the gochujang (Korean chili paste) served with it finally delivered the heat I was craving.
I brought a neophyte on my next visit. She ordered the kalbi lunch special ($11.99) and fried dumplings ($13.99). I went with the pork bulgogi ($10.99). "Spicy," I told our server, making eye contact.
Our food came out all at once, and the server was whipping out dishes like a crazed lunch lady. My friend bravely tried everything, and to her surprise, liked it all. She spent a few minutes musing over the banchan: "Is that potato? I think that's potato." She was afraid the food might be too spicy, but once again, it wasn't spicy! I'll have to bring that Korean mother with me next time and have her order.
We loved the flavor of the kalbi and bulgogi, but both dishes were a little fatty. Nevertheless, we plowed through almost all of the food, inhaling crisp dumplings like so many pieces of popcorn and making sure to get all the saucy grains of rice in our bowls.
"Dear Tofu House, I am so glad I met you. Let's spice things up a bit. Love, Riza."
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By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent