Seoul is to Food What Moscow is to Fashion Week – Tofu-Ya

soon doo-boo jjigae (soft tofu hot pot) at tofu-ya, west los angeles

Tofu-Ya

2021 Sawtelle Boulevard (@ La Grange)
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Fashion is all about trends. Sometimes insipirations are new and innovative, like many of those horribly gaudy designs from that alien designer Karl Lagerfeld – nothing like I’ve ever seen on this planet. More often however, fashion is nothing new under the sun, and today’s designs are just slightly modified versions of things from yesterday that come back with an ugly, updated vengeance. Remember the shrug? I remember being forced to wear one when I was in grade school, and even then, I thought it was totally useless and made me look like a silly overgrown q-tip. Even as ideas run out and old trends can’t possibly be cycled through for a sixth time (that’s when it becomes “a classic”) then designers turn again to simply remixing two, three maybe even four patterns into voilá! Something new that *pause* well *ahem* isn’t really new.

Food, like fashion, also has trends. What’s hot now? There are some chefs out there that I might not quite call “alien,” but their futuristic concepts in food are so beyond me that I can only imagine that they are inspired from outer space. I may try to visit one or two during my vacation in Chicago, but I’m not sure that I am at a point where I’d be able to appreciate it – you know, pearls before swine. ;)

But beyond these pearls that push the culinary imagination, there is not much else that is incredibly innovative. Like the shrug, like culottes (I don’t think they’re called culottes, though, in this year’s incarantion), like the ballon skirt that have all returned to the runway from my middle school melodrama to punish me for shunning fashionable them for “classic” OP parachute pants and Izod shirts, so also does food go to retro comfort food, fondue, and cupcakes. They are it, they are in, but the only thing that’s new about them is that it’s hot to charge $3.25 for a cupcake and $30 for your meatloaf to taste as dry as Mom’s. And what of mix-and-match, mismatched styles? That’s called fusion.

Shopping around this fall, I noticed a heavy emphasis toward…other countries. Rather than flipping back and forth through time for inspiration, designers simply took a long sip from the bottle, put it back in the globe that doubles as liquor service, closed the northern hemisphere, then arbitrarily chose a country by spinning the globe and pointing. Spin. England. One look for this season is “Mary Poppins,” which is basically a very British nanny with high collars, rows of tiny buttons, long sleeves, and lace up boots. Spin again. Russia. Another one is what I call “spiked with vodka” – enormous furry hats, thick, toggle-front coats lined with fur, deep dark colors, and heavy boots.

In the fashion of food, we are doing the same thing with world cuisines.

Spain is popular these days as the Don of the tapas trend, and knowing the difference between Italy’s regions like Mario Batali does makes you molto hip. Various Asian cuisines have had their moment on the runway. Though they haven’t disappeared and gone the way of MC Hammer pants and mock turtlenecks, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai are sort of everyday, and for me here, almost to the point of American.

It’s time to spin the globe and land on…Korea.

tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca
all tofu. all the time

I’m quite certain that Korean food is on its way to becoming “the next big thing.” It may take a little longer than the others because unlike the rather mild flavors of Japanese food, the dominant flavors in Korean food will take some getting used to – fermented, pungent, full of garlic and red pepper. Then again, there’s nothing subtle about Vietnamese fish sauce, and Thai foods can be quite spicy. Korean restaurants just need to stop camouflaginging themselves as Japanese restaurants. Like Miyako. Like Tofu-ya.

tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - kimchee
nothing screams korean like kimchee
tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - sookjoo namul
sook-joo namul-seasoned sprouts

When I first drove past the spot that used to be occupied by Yuuki, I was happy to see that it had beome a tofu restaurant. At the time, I was on the W-diet and had relegated myself to ingesting mostly tofu and vegetables. With the “ya” attachment, it sounded like it would be a fast-food version of the now defunct (sad I never got there) Umenohana. All tofu. All the time.

tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - odeng
o, dang, it’s odeng (fishcake)
tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - oi and muu

a little spicy for a rookie

But the best part of that drive-by was just one word underneath it’s name on the green awning, “Korean.” I didn’t have to read anything else. I decided to try it. Once we finally made it there for lunch, I knew from the moment we walked in that even though Tofu-Ya is located on a heavily Japanese strip of Sawtelle, it is all Korean. The air was thick with the very familiar smell of smoky grilled galbee and bulgogee mixed with acidic fermented kimchee, and the warm, spicy, slightly briny…soon doo-boo jji-gae. On the tables, tiny dishes of kimchee and other bahnchan were tell-take signs of Korean cuisine, and of course, the dark, lidded earthenware pots used to steam rice and boil the silky tofu, vegetables, clams, meat, in a heavily spiced broth were a dead give-away. Another Korean restaurant is on the Westside!

tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - bulgogee
sizzling like Korean fajitas
tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - bulgogee, up close and personal
sliced ribeye, up close and personal

The menu is very simple. Soon doo-boo is the star of the show with about ten different kinds of added ingredients: clams, shrimp, oysters, all three seafoods, beef, pork, mushrooms, kimchee, dumplings, and dehn-jahng (soybean paste, which they call “miso” on the menu). They are all the same price at $7.99. There are a half dozen barbecue dishes, though only the most expensive $13.99 galbee, bulgogee, and daejee bulgogee are truly from the grill. The others three are chicken katsu (breaded and fried chicken cutlet), donkatsu (made with pork), and chicken teriyaki, for $6.99. The best value, however, are the combinations soon doo-boo jjigae with either a barbecue dish or one of the “special” dishes: dolsot bibimbahp, regular bibimbahp, udon, and california rolls. Very Korean. LOL! !

tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - soondooboo
that’s hot
tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - tofu salad
thousand island on tofu salad

We ordered the bulgogee+soon doo-boo combination to share and a tofu salad to start. The salad looked like the “American Mix” pre-cut and triple-washed out of a bag. There was iceberg lettuce, a few stray juliennes of red cabbage, and cross-cut carrots that were cut thin and so dry they were curling up into tiny orange bowls. Soft, raw tofu had been scooped into three flat-topped domes and placed atop the salad bed. Each tofu dome was doused with the very same mayonnaisse-based tofu salad dressing used everywhere, then garnished with bonito flakes. I tasted the dressing. It tasted like Kraft Thousand Island.

The soon doo-boo and bulgogee came out shortly after with another small pot of steamed white rice. Normally, a raw egg accompanies an order of soon doo jjigae to be added to the boiling broth at the table, but we passed on it. I’m not sure why. The egg cooks to safety in the heat of the broth, and I’m quite certain that if there is any question of germs, they’d be killed off by the level four red pepper and spices. We let the jjigae come to a rest and started on the bulgogee.

The marinade on the bulgogee was nothing special, since its slightly too-sweet flavor seems to be common in most Korean restaurants. Though the meat was cooked all the way through, it didn’t have the smoky charred flavor that comes from the grill, but at the same time, it had to have been grilled for a fairly long time because it tasted a little dry.

tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - soon doo boo with clams
clam sharing its shell with tofu

Once the jji-gae’s rolling boil had settled down to just letting off wisps of steam, we dug in with our silver spoons. Now I know why Koreans have this specially shaped spoon with a thin, elongated handle. It allows for just a little more distance between your bare skin and the escaping steam in jji-gae. Tofu-ya asks you to specify a level of spiciness from one (mild) to four (extra spicy). Well, duh. We asked for extra tasty crispy (oops! wrong restaurant) spicy, but the broth was not as spicy as I expected. It would have rated a “medium” at any of the sketchy scary 24-hour Korean dives in K-town. But as mildly disappointingly medium spicy as it was, the broth was deeply flavorful with garlic, red pepper, and the juices from meat and seafood. Each time I plunged my spoon down into the dark reddish orange broth and fished around for something solid, I came up with something different. This time, a tiny clam sharing its shell with soon doo-boo. Next time, sliced zucchini and mushrooms. One more time and it’s just pure, soft, silken soon doo-boo. We inhaled the whole thing in a matter of minutes.

tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - steamed rice
five forlorn peas
tofu-ya, west los angeles, ca - noo-roong-jee
dishwashing rice pot or noo-roong-jee?

At the beginning of the meal, our waitress had served steamed rice with the five forlorn green peas to our small, individual metal bowl, and told us to leave the little bit behind in the pot. After we finished, the server came by and poured hot water into the now almost-empty rice pot, and scraped up the crusted cooked rice from the bottom and sides of the pot. My family loves this – the crusted rice is called noo-roong-jee, and they even sell it as a snack in Korean markets in flat styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic. Noo-roong-jee in water always made me think of either dishwashing the rice pot or scraping the dregs during times of famine, so I never liked it. I took a bite and it tasted exactly like it always looks. Slightly burnt rice now made chewy in plain water.

Tofu-ya is not haute cuisine, and it probably won’t ever hurtle to the front of the runway as a superstar. For Korean food it isn’t bad. I wouldn’t order the tofu salad again, the soon doo-boo could have been spicier, the bulgogee a little moister, and the bahn-chan a little more exciting, but it’s on the westside. Until Korean food has come the way of cossacks, it’s fine for now.

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  • djjewelz

    excellent stuff Sarah! I was trying to find a good korean place to take a colleague (without having to trek the 10 to k-town). You really should take all your entries and publish a guide to westside dining. :)

  • plau

    We recently found Tofu-ya a few months ago, and have enjoyed having a decent and cheap tofu house on this side of town.

    One of the employees there used to work at Ramen-ya, and I think she said they have the same owners.

    One thing I think you ought to write about is actually how to eat Soon Tofu.

    I remember the first time I went to eat some, we didn’t know what to do with the rice. Do we eat the soup, then the rice, separately? We didn’t have any or our Korean friends with us, so we just watched and found we liked the method of scooping a bit of rice onto a spoon, then dipping it into the soup. Then having a nice bite/slurp.

    Do you have any other methods?

    Oh, and depending on my mood, I like that remaining rice in the bowl crunchy or with the water and pseudo-soupy. Yum. Making me hungry

  • sarah

    djjewelz: i think you work in the area? you should go there for lunch! they have a lunch special for $6.99, but DON’T get it – it’s just a bento box with 4 pieces of california roll and chicken teriyaki. why bother? get the soon doo-boo and your co-workers will love how you smell all afternoon. LOL!

    plau: i think most peopl eat it like you described. although i actually don’t eat rice at all so all i do is eat the soon doo-boo. why waste the space in my stomach?!?

    my dad like to pour ladles of the soon doo boo into his little silver rice bowl and mash it all together into a red rice porridge-y concoction. LOL!

  • Rachael

    Oh honey, no! No, no, no! Karl Lagerfeld is a genius. So chic! So fab! Sigh. I couldn’t read the rest of the post after that…I was too stricken.

  • sarah

    rachael…commented like the true l.a. girl you are ;)

  • JC

    I went there for the first time a couple of days ago. I wasn’t very impressed by the side dishes (since I am so used to what I got in terms of variety and quality at K-town)but hey, I live in the west side and it saved me a trip to K-town and I like the taste of soon doo boo there.

  • Professor Salt

    Sarah, what’s the backstory with the five forlorn peas on steamed rice? I’ve always wondered why this is a thing.

  • sarah

    hey professor! you know…i really have no idea. have wondered that myself. to be quite honest, they don’t even look like they’re cooked in the pot with the rice, just thrown on top at the end just before serving! LOL!

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