By Keith Plocek
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By Dave Mau
By Gustavo Arellano
It's cold out. Rainy, in fact. The wind pricks at your face as though made of daggers of ice, and you can't remember the last time your toes moved. What you crave is what you want every winter: soft tofu soup, or soondubu. The antidote. The cure.
4961 La Palma
La Palma, CA 90623
Region: La Palma
This soup—what's perhaps the best-known Korean dish after barbecue—is the food equivalent to warm socks, a crackling fireplace and a cozy robe rolled into one. As is the custom at all Korean restaurants that specialize in it, Soy Tofu in La Palma gives it to you boiling-hot in a heavy-gauge iron cauldron. And it's not just boiling; it's sputtering like the rivers of hell. The minute the soup comes out, you crack an egg into it, spooning the silken slips of soy custard to bury the yolk so it will eventually poach to a soft-boiled state. In the meantime, you sip and slurp, the curds disintegrating in your mouth, washed away by spoonfuls of the chile-red soup. Your core temperature immediately inches up from hypothermia. You dribble a little of the elixir to soak into a bowl of rice, take a few more nibbles of the complimentary side dishes called panchan, helping yourself to jiggly chap chae noodles here, a refreshing potato salad there, and then, a bracing hit of garlicky kimchi to finish.
Soy Tofu is a bona fide hole-in-the-wall. What constitutes a private banquet area is designated by the placement of a fold-out room divider behind a single table near the corner. The chairs on one half of the restaurant do not match the chairs on the other. On the plain, white walls are a few framed glamour shots of dishes offered here. And in the middle of the space, there are inexplicable lamp poles you imagine Gene Kelly might dance around during a downpour. Otherwise, the restaurant is as blank as the sheets of copy paper it uses as place mats. Yet this is still one of the better soondubu purveyors in OC.
While other joints will give you only two shrimp per soup, Soy Tofu includes at least four. Eaters can customize the spiciness level, but the base broth is already so savory even those who order "white" are in for a treat. The variety and the quality of the panchan is each as generous as it's exemplary. At least nine offerings constitute the norm on most evenings. The side dishes rotate, but if you're lucky, you'll find among them square swatches of pajeon, chewy, almost-elastic pancakes made of flour and egg with veins of scallions running through them.
The woman who single-handedly caters to a full house on some nights is always in a chipper mood, no matter how busy she gets, a whirlwind of hospitality and warmth. Bring a toddler, and she'll pinch his cheeks. Finish off a panchan plate, she'll offer you more. Order the dol dot bibimbap, and she'll mix it for you tableside using a spoon to mash the rice, vegetables and raw cracked egg against the hot stone pot until it sizzles to a crisp. And when she finally comes out with the soondubu, she'll do it cooing, "Be careful! This is very hot!"
You shouldn't just order the soondubus. The combos add a Korean barbecue dish to the soups for a few bucks more. The bulgogi is served sizzling on a cast-iron skillet with sliced onions and is so completely sweetened by its marinade it causes instantaneous cavities. But there's also spicy pork, chicken and kalbi so tender it can be cut with a spoon.
Another trip and the help of a few friends is required to attempt the non-soondubu dishes. The best has to be the kalbi-jim, a stew pot of immense proportions containing intensely flavored, slow-cooked boulders of beef short ribs, jujubes, carrots, hazelnuts and chewy cylinders of rice cake mired in a slowly thickening broth redolent of black pepper. Also try the haemul pajeon, a seafood pancake the diameter of a hubcap studded with pieces of clam meat, shrimp and squid. Eat the wedges quickly, though—the crispiness is fleeting.
Save the oddest dish, tonkatsu pizza, for a night when you intend to get serious about the Hite beer. This gigantic, breaded pork cutlet sprinkled with typical pizza toppings of melted mozzarella, mushrooms and bell peppers is perhaps too much when you're sober and craving the simple nourishment of soondubu.
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