Wonjo Tofu House is a modest little Korean restaurant in a rather hardscrabble strip mall on Fireweed Lane. Perhaps that's why I've driven past it hundreds of times without it making an appreciable blip on my culinary radar.
It's a surprising oversight considering my (probably tediously) well-documented love for Korean food. In fact, it took an out-of-towner to bring it to my attention. My friend Laurie, who lives in Homer and once lived in Korea, makes a point to eat at Wonjo Tofu House whenever she's in town. I recently followed her example, and I'm so glad I did. It's a gem.
The exterior is … unpromising. But inside, the dining room is cozy, well-lit and unexpectedly serene. I'm not usually a fan of frosted windows, but they're used to good effect here. The traffic from neighboring businesses and the busy road felt miles away. Our server greeted me and my husband warmly at the door, invited us to tuck into a cozy booth and brought us menus and water with smiles, friendly chatter and offers to answer any menu questions. We immediately felt like regulars.
We placed our order and our server returned with a tray of plentiful and diverse banchan — the spread of little side dishes that accompanies most Korean meals. Helpfully, she described each dish as she placed them on the table. On that day, the banchan included kimchi (of course), zucchini, bean sprouts and broccoli salads, cold marinated potatoes, spicy dried radish (a new dish for me and a new favorite), and the enchantingly beautiful pickled lotus root (another new favorite). You could easily make a meal of just the banchan with a scoop of rice, so self-restraint is imperative.
We began our meal with orders of steamed dumplings ($9.99) and spicy tofu ($12.99). The dumplings — slippery, plump little pillows with a meaty, savory filling — were just right. The noodle wrapper was substantial enough to hold the dumpling together and wasn't too thick or gummy. But it was the spicy tofu that got my attention. The thin squares of firm tofu were browned and crisped before being braised in a spicy sauce with assertive chili flavor and lots of umami. Tofu, with its subtle, earthy flavor, was the perfect vehicle for this bright marinade, and once I had finished the dish, I couldn't resist using my spoon to scrape up the remaining sauce.
For his main course, my husband opted for bulgogi ($18.99). This generous plateful of barbecued rib-eye was satisfying but somehow lacked spark. It may have had a hard time competing with my order of kimchi jaeyuk tofu ($18.99), which we both agreed was the dish to beat: rich, buttery pork belly sauteed with kimchi and wreathed by wedges of silky, custard-y, soft tofu. Each bite was a microcosm of what I love most about Korean cuisine: spicy, acidic, salty, sour, creamy and crunchy — this dish had it all. My husband’s chopsticks kept stealing over to my plate. Resentment brewed.
We returned the following week to try out their lunch specials (available Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m.). If we were greeted like friends on our first visit, we were greeted like family on our second stop. My husband couldn't resist ordering the dumplings again — fried, this time, which gave the noodles a pleasant crunch and chewiness. These disappeared quickly and I'm not sure I got my half. Marriage is hard.
The banchan arrived, which, this time, included fish cakes, sweet cucumber salad and a dish of spicy tofu (though I was sad to miss the pickled lotus root).
For our entrees we decided to share the galbi ($15.99) and the yook gae jang stew ($12.99). The galbi (Korean short ribs) were delicious. Perfectly cooked, pleasantly fatty, with a subtle smokiness from the grill, these thin slices of beef with their sweet and savory marinade are just the thing to soothe your carnivorous yearnings. I couldn't resist picking the slices up and nibbling around the bone. It might not have been pretty. There's a reason we picked a corner booth.
The beef and vegetable stew was, like the kimchi jaeyuk, an excellent argument against "less is more." It was swimming with beef, bean sprouts, mushrooms, eggs, peppers, glass noodles and spice. Lots and lots of spice. I kept my water glass close (and our server kept it full) and bravely worked my way down to the bottom of the bowl. My husband dipped in from time to time, but by then we had chosen sides. I was Team Spice. Steamy, savory and substantial, I filed this dish under: "things to eat in the dead of winter." But, if I'm being honest with myself, I probably won't be able to wait that long.
Wonjo Tofu House
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Monday-Saturday
Location: 515 W. Fireweed Lane