There were so many stone bowls on our table, it looked like we were eating with the Flintstones. At Jang Guem Tofu & BBQ, the signature "soon tofu" comes in a stone bowl so hot the liquid boils over the side. Another heated stone bowl holds the rice that you eat with the soup. Our appetizer, a spicy kimchi pancake cut into pizza-shaped slices, was served on a hot stone platter to keep it warm. And the bibimbop came in yet another heated stone bowl.
Bibimbop is a collection of shredded vegetables served on hot rice with an over-easy egg on top. Some of the rice sticks to the bottom of the hot stone bowl, creating a crunchy crust. At Jang Guem, the bibimbop comes with a squirt bottle of chile sauce and a long-handled metal spoon. You decorate the egg with as much chile sauce as you like and then use the spoon to scrape the bottom and mix the whole mess up into a rice hash. It's a very healthy dish, but a little dull, if you ask me.
An array of little side dishes known as banchan comes with dinner at most Korean restaurants. Here the selections included pickled zucchini, kimchi, firm tofu, seaweed and a few other spicy condiments. Each diner also got a whole fried fish. Koreans call it yellowfish; I believe it's some sort of small mackerel. I'm usually the only one at my table who even attempts to eat it. It's a strong-flavored fish, and the crispy skin is tasty. But the profusion of tiny bones is sort of forbidding.
"The egg is for the soup," the waiter said as I sat there wondering what to do with the other raw egg he had given me. Imitating the diners at other tables, I cracked the egg into the stone bowl full of hot soon tofu and stirred it around until it cooked into "egg drops."
I thought I hated tofu until I met this stuff. Sundubu, or soon tofu, is actually uncurdled tofu. The creamy, soft white squares serve as the noodles in the outrageously spicy soup. The broth is bright orange thanks to a huge amount of Korean chile powder. The bowl also contains lots of deliciously funky-smelling kimchi and your choice of beef, clams, oysters or all of the above. (Clams are my favorite.) The blandness of the tofu and the spiciness of the stew make for a spectacular yin-and-yang flavor experience.
The recommended combo here is a bowl of soon tofu and a side plate of Korean barbecue. A plate of bulgogi goes for $14, and the bulgogi and soon tofu soup combo is $14.50. Maybe the portion of barbecue is smaller, but how are you going to turn down a soup this good for 50 cents?
The Korean food court of the Super H Mart on Blalock has captivated the attention of food lovers for several months now. The fusion pastries at the Korean-French Tous Les Jours bakery are remarkable, and the other stalls are tempting too. But I am afraid the bright and shiny new place has distracted us from more substantial Korean fare.
I wasn't even looking for Korean food when I stumbled upon Jang Guem Tofu & BBQ. My intended destination was Xiong's Cafe, the wonderful Beijing-style dumpling house in the 9888 Bellaire Shopping Center. But while I was looking for a parking spot, I noticed the Korean restaurant beside Golden Food Supermarket for the first time.
The "Grand Opening" banner above Jang Guem's sign caught my attention. After I sat down, I asked the owner, Daehyung Park, how long the place had been open. I figured he was following in the footsteps of Tofu Village, a tofu and barbecue restaurant in the shopping center across the street. In fact, Park told me that Jang Guem opened its doors more than two years ago — a month before its competitor. (Quite the grand opening celebration.)
Why do we now have two competing tofu and barbecue restaurants? This style of Korean restaurant is quite common in California, but no one had ever heard of tofu and barbecue in Houston until these places opened. Back in 2007, I started wondering about the sudden influx of Thai and Korean food we were seeing in Houston. That's when I first heard about the real estate refugees.
"You sell your house in L.A. for a million, buy the same house in Houston for three or four hundred thousand and use the rest of the money to open a restaurant," an Asian entrepreneur explained. This was back before the real estate bubble burst, of course. But judging by the kind of restaurant Park had opened, I figured he must be one of those real estate refugees.
"Where are you from?" I asked him.
"California," he replied in a thickKorean accent. Park sold his house in Orange County before he moved to Houston and opened the restaurant.
"How many of your customers here areKorean?" I asked Park.
"Only about 10 percent," he said. "Mostly Chinese and Vietnamese people eat here — and some Mexicans."
Across the street, Tofu Village is decorated with posters of Korean pop stars and equipped with ultramodern fixtures. Jang Guem is at the opposite extreme — it sports a woodsy, rustic look. The floors are made from the round end slices of logs that have been polished and lacquered. There are more sliced logs on the walls forming tree shapes.
The restaurant was packed when we stopped in at noon on a weekday. We sampled two of the lunch specials. The beef bulgogi came in the large compartment of a segmented plate. A large mound of rice, kimchi, spicy squid and a bean sprout salad occupied the other sections.
The beef was a little sweet, but the thin-shaved slices were tossed with raw onion crescents after they were grilled, which gave each bite a nice crunchy texture. Spicy pork barbecue came with the same accompaniments, but the meat was squishy. I suspect it was overmarinated.
At lunchtime, the only banchan you get is what comes on your divided plate — plus the fish. I gave it a try, but I've got to say that the funky fried mackerel and the sweet barbecued beef was a weird combination.
Dessert is free. There is a frozen custard machine next to the door stocked with a box of little Eat-It-All cones. You pull the lever and serve yourself. They don't eat much dairy in Asia, so frozen custard is an incongruous finish to an authentic Korean meal. But the vanilla ice cream sure tastes good after all those chiles — it also does a great job of getting the taste of mackerel out of your mouth.