This episode of Dueling Dishes is about soft tofu. Korean soft tofu. This week we pit together two houses of curd, BCD Tofu House and Kaya, who compete in the same town, serving the same dish. That town would be Irvine, where there exists six or maybe more restaurants who offer the same speciality.
Soft tofu restaurants to Irvine is like taquerias to Santa Ana. I admit that that's probably not exactly analogous since I see more than six taquerias just driving on Main St. a few blocks; but still, Irvine is probably second only to Garden Grove for largest population density of soondubu (that's Korean for soft tofu soup) restaurants.
What we ordered at both BCD and Kaya is the combo, which serves two people easily (at least us) and consists of tofu soup and a side of kalbi (Korean BBQ short ribs).
First the cost: For dinner, BCD charges $15.99. Kaya, $17.99.
But let's do the real numbers: At my visit, BCD serves seven of the traditional Korean side dishes called panchan (not counting the raw egg to be cracked into the soup, or the salad they serve to start). Kaya offers ten panchan dishes (not counting the hot, crispy panjeon (Korean pancake) they serve as complimentary appetizer, or the raw egg).
Though there's nothing wrong with the quality of BCD's panchan, Kaya seems to put a little more detail into their prep. There's egg in their creamy and cooling potato salad. The chap chae is well-done. And the stewed potato cubes taste like they were glazed in honey.
Now let's talk soup: BCD's broth is thinner, lighter in consistency than Kaya's, which is bolder, more robust, and frankly made me break into a sweat. Also BCD's is lighter in protein content. I counted roughly half the number of shrimp in BCD's mixed meats tofu soup than Kaya's. Also there are actual clams in Kaya's brew.
Their kalbi is nearly identical, but their service could not be more diametrically opposed.
Since it seems to be owned by a single family, Kaya kills itself to please. They did not charge me for the extra bowl of rice my date received. BCD, which is part of a chain, charged me a dollar (as they should) when I asked for it. At Kaya, they'll greet you warmly as you arrive, bid you farewell and thank you as you leave. BCD's servers are too preoccupied with turning over tables to even look up.
At BCD, you'll have to wave them down if you want more water. And when you do, they'll give you the whole water jug so that you won't have to ask them again. At Kaya, they'll automatically pour more water into your glass if they see that it's empty.
But there may be an explanation for this discrepancy. First of all, BCD is the newest entrant to the soondubu scene to Irvine, so perhaps they are still calibrating. But most importantly, BCD is open 24 hours, one of the few places in Irvine that never, ever closes. As such, I can't blame the wait staff for being "less than obsequious" (as I wrote in an earlier review).
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If work never ends and customers never stop coming, it's bound to have an effect on morale and attitude. They do what is required, nothing more. BCD is to soft tofu as Denny's is to egg breakfasts.
Kaya, on the other hand, is not; and therefore our winner this week.
BCD Tofu House
2700 Alton Pkwy, Ste 135
Irvine, CA 92606
14120 Culver Dr, Ste G
Irvine, CA 92604