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Spicy Korean Tofu Soup (Soondubu Jigae) with a Side of Mackerel

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You'd think that a restaurant with the name "Tofu House" would be vegetarian, but this only applies outside of Chinatown. Inside Chinatown, where the Asians are, people can tell that a name like Jang Guem Tofu House means that it's a Korean restaurant serving a spicy Korean hot tofu soup, known as soondubu jigae.

Lesser known than the larger and more popular Tofu Village across the street, Jang Guem is good for a number of reasons. First there's the decor. When you walk in, it's like visiting a small tavern in a faraway Asian city: everything is brown woods, from the wooden table and chairs to the flooring, which is made of cut up tree trunks placed in the ground unevenly for a cobblestone effect, to the walls, where tree branches are embedded in the wall as art.

There's also the fact that the place is small. The service is quick and efficient, and I enjoy the almost communal nature of the seating arrangement, where tables are situated very close to one other.

And then there's the mackerel. Yes, we are talking about a fried fish, about six to eight inches in length, that is brought out as a complimentary side dish along with several other side dishes like kim chi, pickled seaweed, cold bean sprouts, and salad.

The mackerel may be a bit odoriferous for some, and like sardines, has a stronger fish taste. But people love getting that little fish, one per person with the order of an entree. The bones are small and thin, and you have to pick at it with your chopstick, but I overheard a small boy coming in and the first thing he asked his mom was "am I going to get the fish?"

Now to the tofu. The traditional spicy Korean tofu soup is usually made with seafood, which has clams, mussels and fish, giving the tofu the aroma of a fish stew. At Jang Guem, you can get it with pork, beef, and a myriad of other ingredients, but personally I always order the mushroom tofu soup, mild, and kalbi (Korean short rib) combo, which is value priced at about $15.

The tofu will come bubbling hot and steaming to your table in a cast-iron pot, along with a raw egg on the side, which you can crack directly into the soup and mash up to create an egg flower-type consistency, or you can leave it on the bottom of the boiling mini cauldron until it poaches the egg. The mushroom version comes with a combination of enoki and other specialty mushrooms that adds a chewy texture to the soup that I love.

When you get the combo, you will also get steamed rice served in a stone pot, which if you leave long enough will crisp the rice that adheres to the sides of the pot, giving the rice a nice smokiness and crunchiness. In addition to that, you'll get a sizzling plate of kalbi short ribs on a bed of white onions.

It's a lot of food, and it's quite impressive. I like to go by myself when I'm famished so my eyes can feast at the same time I do, because with all the little dishes, it's like a mini-buffet for one.

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