"Soon tofu" is Korean for "tofu soup." If you are picturing the miso dishwater they give you at the sushi bar, you are way off. The soon tofu I tried at Tofu Village on Bellaire at the Beltway was a bubbling bowl of fiery funk.
The soon tofu's bright orange color was the result of the generous amount of Korean chile paste used in the broth. The strong aroma came from the pile of fermented kimchi in the bottom of the bowl. The tofu in the soup was in the form of big jiggly chunks — which essentially served as the "noodles." You can get tofu soup with beef, clams, oysters, prawns or all of the above.
I got the oyster soup the first time I tried it. When the waitress set my soup down, she also gave me a plate with an egg on it. I asked her what that was about. She picked the raw egg up and cracked it into the hot oyster and tofu soup, where it slowly poached in the chile sauce. I ate the half-congealed yolk with fermented cabbage and hot spicy broth. Yow.
I ordered my soup from the "combination menu," which allows you to combine your choice of any tofu soup with one of a list of various meat and seafood dishes. I got barbecued beef short ribs on the side. They were cooked until tender, and they were tangy with lots of dark, savory sauce. The restaurant has lots of Korean barbecue dishes, including rib eye, ribs, chicken and octopus, but you don't cook them yourself at a table grill; they prepare them for you in the kitchen.
The spicy oyster tofu soup and the tangy barbecued short ribs would have made an exceptional meal by themselves, but Korean restaurants are often judged by the array of side dishes they send to your table for free. And the spread we got at Tofu Village was nearly as intriguing as the entrées.
Banchan is what they call the selection of appetizers served in little bowls. At some Korean restaurants, they impress you with the quantity. Twelve bowls of appetizers including pickles, seaweed, potatoes, fried tofu and other tidbits is not unusual. At Tofu Village, it's the quality rather than the quantity of the banchan that's amazing.
The dried tofu is delicious, as are the seaweed salad and pickled turnips. But the most remarkable of the free appetizers is a little fish about twice the size of a sardine that is fried whole and served piping hot. The waitress told me it was a yellowfish. I ate it with a little rice.
The rice at Tofu Village is also exceptional. It is served in a stone bowl like the ones they use for the famous Korean rice hash called dol sot bibimbap. The rice sticks to the bottom of the hot stone bowl, and you scrape it up with a metal spoon. The crust gives the rice a wonderful texture, and since the bowl stays hot, you can keep scraping up more as you go.
I kept spooning rice onto the plates with my entrées and appetizers, but after a stroll to the restroom, I noticed that most of the Korean diners did it the other way around. They were spooning the other stuff into the rice bowl, which sat directly in front of them. I think I'll switch to this method next time.
We also sampled an appetizer "pancake" with kimchi and scallions. The pancake looks like a big, thin omelet. I usually get the seafood pancake, but the kimchi version was a nice change of pace — and it was outrageously spicy.
But the number-one reason to order the Korean pancake appetizer at Tofu Village is the big round metal skillet they serve it on. It reminded me of the sizzling comal that you get under your fajitas. The hot metal not only keeps the pancake warm, it gives it a crunchy crust. It's so hot, I had to turn our pancake over to keep it from getting burnt on one side. Tofu Village is definitely raising the bar for Korean food in this town.
The Asian modern interior design is pretty impressive, too, compared to the hokey happy kitty decor you often see in Korean joints. (Check out the flying saucer faucets in the restrooms.) The walls are decorated with oversize posters of young Korean movie stars and pop singers.
The service is incredibly slow. Don't dawdle when ordering or you'll never see your waitperson again. Be prepared for a long wait to get your food if the restaurant is crowded — which is almost always. And forget about getting your water or iced tea refilled. (I have found that appealing to the Spanish-speaking bus people is the best way to avoid dying of thirst.)
When I see the word "tofu," I think "meat substitute." And I recall such ersatz foodstuffs as tofu burgers; "faken," the tofu bacon; and "Tofu Pups," the pale vegetarian "not dogs." I might say that tofu tastes like crap, but that wouldn't be accurate; tofu tastes like nothing.
Now, granted, if you stuff this flavorless bean paste with ground meat or shrimp and then slather it with salty soy and fiery chile sauce, then you can render it pretty tasty. And I must admit that I have eaten fried tofu and stuffed fried tofu entrées at Vietnamese restaurants and I have actually liked the stuff. But I always considered these to be rare aberrations.
So the odds of my trying a restaurant named "Tofu Village" would have been close to nil had I not heard a breathless report about the place from an acquaintance with a yen for great Asian food. I was further encouraged by the small legend above the door of the place that says "Korean barbecue." Who would think of going to a restaurant called Tofu Village for the barbecue?
Tofu Village is a long way from a vegetarian restaurant. At first, I thought there weren't any tofu dishes for vegetarians at all. But closer study revealed that there was one vegetarian soft tofu soup made with carrots, broccoli, mushrooms and pumpkin for our meat-challenged friends.
The Korean approach to tofu that I discovered here is nothing short of astonishing. Like the soft and comforting potatoes in the middle of a bowl of fiery curry, or the neutral tortilla that holds the picante taco meat, the fresh tofu at Tofu Village is a deliciously bland counterpoint to a host of enticing hot and spicy flavors.
The fact that there are so few tofu dishes made without meat makes this tofu restaurant a poor choice for vegetarian diners. But it's a great place for everybody else. And I especially recommend Tofu Village to misguided tofu mockers who never considered eating the stuff before. Give it a try, and this place will truly change your mind about "toad food."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.