Making Kimchi Chic

Hashigo Tofu makes Koreanfood cool. And delicious

There is one reason why Korean food has never really taken off, and that reason is marketing. Being also from a land where dog is still a dish—where the deer and the Kim Jong-il play—doesn't help, but really? Marketing. If someone had ever invented the Korean equivalent of the California roll—and served it with roving shot girl

s at the end of a free limousine ride—you'd be reading this drunk in a Korean sushi bar right now.

The folks behind Hashigo Tofu in Costa Mesa have obviously tried to correct this. They run a handsome, dark-wooded little place with a full bar and a nice lunch and dinner menu, which they have the great good sense to soften for American palates. Our waiter asked us twice how spicy we'd like our food, and some of the dishes could actually have had more chile. Still, we like.

Some of your best choices are the fusion dishes. Hashigo's combinations are quite nice: tasty short ribs, sliced beef, or spicy pork and a United Nations of side dishes—potato salad (American); rice (Asian), gyozas (Chinese fried meat dumplings in rice paper)—but they're too pan-Asian to truly stand out. (Similar to what some Tiki-style restaurants still serve.)

What you need is a sinsun-lo, a traditional Korean hot pot. It's a small pot—stoneware, in this case—heated over a fire and filled partway with cooked white rice. Over this are mushrooms, green onions, shredded carrot, cabbage, a fried egg over-medium (with the yolk still soft) and your choice of marinated beef strips or octopus. On the side is a small dish of kochujan, the Korean red pepper bean paste, which was mild enough to not send you into cardiac arrest. It's a great dish: the hot pot caramelizes the outer layer of rice, deepening the flavor—which plays off nicely with the delicate soy sauce tang of the beef. The fried egg was still soft enough to coat everything and join the taste, which added a nice comfort food factor on a cold December day.

Eggs—a traditional complement in Korea—are in your tofu stew, too, but here they're raw at first. Your stew arrives boiling, in a little iron pot, with an egg in a little white spouty dish. Crack it into the dish—or directly into the pot—and the tofu stew cooks it for you. Makes you feel like a boxer, like Rocky (but not 60 years old. Sixty!). Stir vigorously if you like your egg thready, and enjoy. The broth is heavy with soy and chunks of tofu and it, too, is perfect on a chilly afternoon—provided you wait long enough to not scald your tongue. It comes with your choice of beef, pork or chicken, or seafood—clams, oysters, octopus, or a mix—but when I ordered clams I got one. One clam! That ain't right, even at lunch. Needs more clams.

Hoping for a better result, I went back and had the spicy octopus pasta—and that's exactly what I got, with lots of octopus. This is a great dish, and an excellent example of fusion; it's pasta, which is Chinese originally—but at Hashigo they use soba noodles, which are Japanese. With? Octopus, which is everywhere. It was chewy. And spicy, with just the right amount of chile.

The only thing I'd rather have been eating was the kimchi bacon stack, which was what I'd tried for an appetizer; it was the best use of bacon ever—but then, this was no ordinary bacon. It was thick-cut, extremely lean, and it didn't taste like bacon at all. It looked like ordinary slabs of beef—with just enough fat to be bacon-y—and it was sandwiched with lightly grilled pieces of kimchi, or Korean pickled vegetables. Here, they used cabbage, dotted with red pepper flakes. It could have been spicier for me, but otherwise, this was an awesome dish.

Korea is not known for its desserts. Hashigo offers mochi ice cream (little blobs of mango, strawberry or green tea ice cream surrounded by thin capsules of frozen mochi rice-flour dough)—from Japan. I almost finished up with another order of the bacon stack, but I was too full.

HASHIGO TOFU RESTAURANT, 3033 BRISTOL ST., STE. M, COSTA MESA, (714) 557-4911. OPEN FOR LUNCH MON.-SAT., 11 A.M.-2:30 P.M.; DINNER MON.-SUN., 5-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO $25. BEER, WINE.

 
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