Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Korean Soon Tofu Soup Explorations in Koreatown and SGV

The chill is in the air (literally), which means it's perfect soup weather and if you're someone like me who loves strong, bold flavors than sometimes the only kind of soup that will do is Korean Soon Tofu or Dubu (depending on who you ask). But before I talk about 6 restaurants that serve these sizzling bowls of tofu soup, let's learn a little more about tofu and Korean tofu soups.

What is Tofu?

Before we can even delve into Korean Soon Tofu Soup, first, a quick introduction for tofu itself. Tofu (the Japanese "Romaji" spelling), also called doufu (the Chinese "Pinyin" spelling often used in
Chinese recipes) or bean curd (the literal translation), is a food of Chinese origin, made by coagulating soy milk, and then pressing the resulting curds into blocks. The making of tofu from soy milk is similar to the technique of making cheese from milk. Wheat gluten, or seitan, in its steamed and fried forms, is often mistakenly called "tofu" in Asian or vegetarian dishes.

There are basically three types of tofu: soft/silken tofu, Asian firm tofu and Western firm/dried tofu. For Korean Soon Tofu Soups, the tofu of choice is the soft/silken tofu.

What is Soft/Silken Tofu?

This undrained tofu contains the highest moisture content of all fresh tofus. Its texture can be described as similar to that of very fine custard. In Korea and Japan, traditional soft tofu is made with seawater which has an
even higher moisture content and is often eaten as a dessert, but sometimes with salty pickles or hot sauce added instead. Because it is nearly impossible to pick up this type of tofu with chopsticks, it is generally eaten with a spoon.

What is Korean Soon Tofu Soup?

In Korea, tofu is often served not as a substitute for meat, but alongside it, with a small amount of meat flavoring enriching the silken tofu, which adds its incomparable body and mouth feel.

The Korean specialty soon dubu (tofu) chigae (soup or stew) combines soft tofu, spicy broth and bits of meat or seafood or kimchi. Like all Korean soups and stews, it is served hot enough to boil an egg, which is exactly what you do; at "soon houses" all over the world.

Now that you've learned m
ore about Korean Soon Tofu Soup, let's talk about some Korean Soon Tofu Houses in the LA area that you may or may not wish to check out for yourself.

BCD Tofu House

I've heard people refer to BCD Tofu House as the McDonald's of Tofu Houses in general. Now this could be a bad thing or a good thing depending on how you feel about McDonald's. I decided to go with an open mind, although I mentally prepared myself for food that might probably be just ok. Lo and behold, it was just ok, if not disappointing. The panchan was pretty uninspired with the fried fish, more chewy than crispy and with kimchi that was downright bland. Both the pork bulgogi and beef kalbi had at least some flavorand a little bit of caramelization from being grilled, but both meat dishes were too oily.

As for the Original Premium Tofu with Seafood that I ordered with a medium spice, I might as well have ordered the "white" version of this soup, which comes without any spices at all. I was expecting some heat, but got embers instead and maybe, just one ember at that, plus the soup itself seemed a bit watery. The tofu, which was soft, maybe even a little mushy was by no means close to being silky. Definitely no repeat visit for me.

BCD Tofu House
869 S Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 380-3807

To see pics, go to:

Beverly Soon Tofu

At Beverly Soon Tofu, our meal started with a tofu appetizer topped with seaweed in a bowl of sesame oil. The tofu was so airy and cloud-like that it definitely bode well for things to come. The panchan was also a step above BCD and of a much better quality. The bean sprouts and cucumber were cool and crunchy and the kimchi had a nice kick to it. Before our soon tofu soups arrived, we shared a bowl of bibimbap, which had white rice topped with lettuce, carrots, beef short ribs bean sprouts, mushrooms, tofu, a fried egg as well as other items. With the addition of the chili paste tossed with the bibimbap, it could have easily been a meal onto itself and a delicious one at that.

Finally, our soups arrived. I ordered the beef and kimchee soon tofu, which was steaming away when it hit the table and of course, hot enough to cook the raw egg I broke into the bowl. It looked and smelled good and my firste was sheer heaven. The soup itself was flavorful, full-bodied and rich. Care was definitely put into the making of it. Just like the tofu appetizer we had earlier, the tofu in the soup was soft, silky and gave you the feeling that it was going to melt away in your mouth. If only this tofu house was closer to where I lived, I'd probably be a dedicated repeat customer.

Beverly Soon Tofu
2717 W Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 380-1113

To see pics, go to:

Sokongdong Soon Tofu

With Sokongdong right across the street from Beverly Soon Tofu, they make for natural competitors and in my research to find out which tofu houses had the most buzz, both Sokongdong and Beverly Soon Tofu always came up with the most raves. After a stellar dining experience at BST, I was definitely looking forward to making the comparison.

First, a quickie note about the panchan. I like the panchan a little better at BST for more variety and plus I felt that the chili used for the kimchi cabbage and cucumbers seemed just a tad vinegary. Sokongdong is also known for their raw chili crab which was part of the panchan, but there was so little meat that all you were left with was licking the chili sauce off the shell, if you were so inclined. We also ordered dumplings (mandu) and were pretty much underwhelmed. The dumpling skin seemed really thick and the meat filling didn't seem seasoned enough.

Finally, the soon tofu soups arrived. I ordered the soon tofu soup with beef. I have to say that it was that tofu soup that saved the day. Just like BST, the soup was rich, chock full of flavor with a nice heat to it and the tofu had a nice silkiness to it as well. I can see why people go back and forth between BST and Sokongdong; however, my vote goes to Beverly Soon Tofu. There are just too many more things I like, food-wise and even atmosphere-wise, more at BST than Sokongdong.

Sokongdong Soon Tofu
2716 W Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 380-3737
To see pics, go to:

Young Dong Tofu

In my other explorations, I also came upon Young Dong Tofu in San Gabriel. I think it's part of a small chain since there's also one in Arcadia. When I initially tried to find some reviews about Young Dong, I couldn't find much information about it. Of course, now there's a whole slew of Yelp reviews about it. However, with it being a closer drive than Koreatown, I decided to take a chance and check it out and I have to say that I'm glad I did.

At Young Dong, along with 5 panchan dishes, you also got a miniature dressed lettuce salad, a green onion pancake and rice in a stone bowl. The last three items mentioned did not come as side dishes in the 3 tofu houses mentioned above, although BCD did have one large piece of lettuce as part of their tofu set. The panchan at Young Dong Tofu was definitely on the mark for me, definitely better than BCD ad Sonkongdong and almost good as BST. The panchan tasted fresh and crisp and speaking of crispy, I also enjoyed the onion pancake. When it arrived, I could already tell I was going to enjoy it when I spotted its browned crispy edges.

As for the soon tofu soup, while not as complex as either BST or Sokongdong, the soup was satisfying and the tofu soft to the palate. I also enjoyed how green onions were a more prominent ingredient in Young Dong's soon tofu soup compared to BCD and Sokongdong where there was just a limited quantity and BST where there were none at all. The green onions added a nice subtle hit of grassiness that I appreciated. Young Dong for me, was a nice find.

Young Dong Tofu
927 E. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA 91778
(626) 286-6031

To see pics, go to:

Young Dong Garden

Young Dong Garden, unlike the 4 restaurants mentioned above, isn't a tofu house and while it serves soon tofu soup, it doesn't specialize in it. I was definitely curious as to how it would compare and let me tell you, eating the soon tofu soup there was like eating a xia long bao at a Hunan restaurant as opposed to a Shanghai restaurant.

Before I even get to the soup, I have to give some mentions about the
panchan and the other food I ordered. One word. Terrible. The panchan wasn't fresh, with browning bean sprouts and veggies that lacked any kind of crunch or crispness. As for the bulgogi, the meat looked really pale as if it wasn't grilled enough plus I think the seasoning was still hiding in the spice jars. The dumplings/mandu looked better than they tasted - unseasoned, oily and with a funny, strange after taste.

When the tofu soup arrived, I was hoping it would save my meal, but it didn't. The soup had some good flavor, but was so thick that a fork would have stood upright in the middle of the bowl with no worry about it falling down. Inside the soup, the tofu was a little mushy and it didn't help that the soup in general cooled down really quickly. Lukewarm soon tofu soup is just not right. Needless to say, I'm never going back.

Young Dong Garden
19 Huntington Drive
Arcadia, CA 91006
(626) 698-6198

To see pics, go to:

Myung Dong Tofu Restaurant

My first ever experience with soon tofu soup was at Myung Dong Tofu Restaurant, namely because compared to Koreatown, this restaurant is a closer Eastside choice for me. I have to say that it's actually a remarkable that I've become a repeat customer. At my first visit, I really enjoyed the panchan, the savory pancake and the tasty, albeit greasy, kalbi; however, my mushroom soon tofu soup seemed watered down. For my second visit, I again enjoyed everything but the soup itself, which this time had a strange, metallic, tangy after taste that I didn't like at all.

It seemed pointless to return for a third time, so for awhile, I traveled elsewhere for soon tofu soup, even if that meant hitting the freeways to Koreatown and of course, a whole new world of soon tofu goodness opened up to me. However, I didn't want to drive to Koreatown every time I had a soon tofu soup craving, so I decided to give Myung Dong Tofu, one final chance.

I'm glad I did. Finally, I got a bowl of soon tofu soup that I actually liked. The broth is still a little too watery for my taste and the tofu is far from being clouds of tofu bliss, but it has a nice
amount of spice and since then, it has hit the spot every time I've visited. Not as good as Beverly Soon or Sokongdong, but definitely way above BCD and certainly Yong Dong Garden.

Myung Dong Tofu Restaurant
1025 S. Glendora Avenue
West Covina, CA 91790
(626) 338-0414

To see pics, go to:

Anyway, although my thoughts aren't comprehensive, I hope that you found my experiences helpful and if you've never tried Korean Soon Tofu Soup before, than you should give it a try and perhaps, you've seen some viable options in this write-up worth checking out for yourself.

Beverly Soon Tofu House on Urbanspoon


mattatouille said...

very nice, I've been eating soontobu (or tofu) since I was very little. Good observations and roundup. I'm liking Tofu Village (in various locations), but Young Dong in Arcadia is perhaps one of the city's best. Beverly is old-school and pretty good, and usually where I go when I'm Ktown.

WeezerMonkey said...

Aww, I like BCD! It's not the best, but it's certainly reliable.

Beverly is my fave, though.

Aaron said...

I've never been crazy about soon tofu, but maybe it's just cuz I haven't found the right place. Such an extensive write-up. I'm impressed Abby. I'll use it as a guide for my next Korean (non-bbq) adventure

pleasurepalate said...

mattatouille: I never heard of Tofu Village before. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

WeezerMonkey: BCD does have the advantage of being open late, so that's a good thing if you have a craving.

Aaron: I hope that you do check out at the very least Beverly Soon Tofu. You may find it to your liking.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Great exploration / report. :) Definitely agree w/ your assessment of the Arcadia Soft Tofu place (blech). If you end up going to O.C., let me know and I'll send you some recs for some great Soft Tofu in Garden Grove.

H. C. said...

Nice primer on soon tofu -- BCD is my generic go-to since the locations I know are 24/7. One I really enjoy recently is Tofu Village (been to the Rowland Heights one, there's also one in Little Tokyo) -- which has tastier side dishes and a choice of rice (black/purple and green in addition to the standard white)