You haven't really lived until you've sucked on raw crab. At the newest Koba Tofu Grill in Irvine, the spicy blue-crab dish called gae jang starts when the critter is hacked into pieces after it has been freshly killed. Cooks brush off the innards before burying the rest of the uncooked meat under a lava-red marinade as thick as mud, leaving the mess to ferment and pickle. You eat the results chilled, beginning by licking off that candy-sweet, mildly hot pepper paste, tonguing the crevasses for all traces of the flavorful goo. Once swabbed clean, you use your back teeth as a vice to crunch through the shell like our primordial ancestors might have done. Your fingers and the suction from your pursed lips become the force that separates meat from carapace. What you extract wiggles and jiggles, the sort of texture you associate with just-firmed Jell-O, slightly translucent and tasting almost as sweet.
Chase its cold briskness with a spoonful of hot rice, just scooped from a stone pot. Then a slurp of scalding soondubu, soft-tofu soup that sputters and roils in an angry-red broth that you crack an egg into the minute it arrives. Follow it with cubes of stewed potato, the cooling crunch of sesame-oil-seasoned bean sprouts and the tender-crisp steamed broccoli dipped in gochujang. Before long, the push-pull nature of it all—the hot versus the cold, the sweet against the tart—and the full breadth of Korean flavors become your comfort food, even if you've never had it before. And in Irvine, a city with no shortage of soondubu joints, Koba Tofu Grill is close to being one of the best.
This is the second Koba in town. The first, on Culver Drive, started as a soldier of the BCD franchise a few years ago. It soon defected to become Koba Tofu House, and from there, it slowly built an empire of its own. There are now Koba outlets in Diamond Bar and Fullerton, but this newest Irvine location—within walking distance of UC Irvine and its ready population of Korean appetites—is already better than its sister locations. It's certainly preferable to the BCD in Diamond Jamboree, which has become known as the Denny's of soondubu—and not just because it's open 24 hours.
Koba Tofu Grill, www.kobatofugrill.com. Open daily, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, $20-$40, excluding drinks. Beer and soju.
At Koba, it all starts with a fish. While other soondubu joints might give eaters a room-temperature, deep-fried yellow croaker as part of its obligatory array of panchan side dishes, Koba treats its diners to one hot from the fryer. It makes all the difference. As chopsticks surgically maneuver to separate the flaky flesh from bone and guts, a video loops on the large-screen LCD featuring soft-tofu pots violently boiling over fire. By the time you're in there, you should be sold on the idea.
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The far end of restaurant is dedicated to private rooms with sliding doors. The main space feels open and cleanly utilitarian, as good a use for an old Blockbuster as any I've seen. Outside, there's a walk-up window that serves "Kogi" Korean tacos to capitalize on the success of the Twittering Korean taco truck. But it's still Koba's soft-tofu soup that should invite comparisons to others of the same genre. The first few spoonfuls will yield an unbroken swath of the silky curd. Though the broth can be overreduced and salty at times, it's most often perfect. And the kitchen is not above embellishing its signature dish to 14 different permutations; soondubu, like fried rice, is infinitely customizable. A ham-and-sausage soondubu tastes as smoky as the hot dogs that pervade the pot. There's also a golden curry soondubu and another with crab.
The best way to enjoy soondubu, however, is to opt for the combinations, which pair the soup with a protein, a searing stone-pot bowl of bibimbap or a salad. If you want meat, the aforementioned raw crab should be your first choice; the Korean barbecue beef rib called kalbi should be second; and bulgogi, the boneless mound of thinly sliced, marinated barbecue beef the third. But the best protein, the house-special pork with sautéed kimchi, isn't included as a combination meal choice. It still needs to be ordered, especially if you've got extra Hite beer that needs a porcine companion.
This is drunk food at its best, in which fatty pork is pressure cooked to tenderness and sliced into magazine-thick, bite-sized squares and kept warm on a hot plate as a mountain of tart and spicy diced kimchi refreshes the in-between bites like pickles. Really, you haven't lived until you've tried it.
This review appeared in print as "Lovable Lava: Koba Tofu Grill's many soft-tofu soups burn and roil, but, boy, are they delish!