Ask and ye shall receive
Cho Dang Tofu House9243 Folsom Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95826
But that was a minor detour compared with my second blunder. Not wanting to look dumb, I failed to ask about a whole category of untranslated dishes on the menu, called “soon dubu.” I ordered from another section that was more readily comprehensible to my non-Korean-speaking self. Our very nice server, of course, would have been glad to explain—as she was at the end of the meal, when I finally pointed at that part of the menu and said, “What are these?”
“Those are our house specialty,” she said. “Tofu soup. That’s why we’re called Tofu House.”
Well, I had been wondering why it didn’t seem like there was any tofu on the menu. Suffice it to say that I felt a lot dumber having asked after we ate than before. Happily, I wasn’t exactly punished for my oversight. I just had to go back and try the tofu soup, and I was glad I had the chance.
Returning meant we got a second crack at the assortment of kimchi and other little pickles that come out before the main courses. The menu lists no appetizers, but each meal comes with eight or nine tiny bowls of highly flavored snacks, from familiar, pungent kimchi made with cabbage to “water kim chi"—daikon floating in salted water. Spinach with a nutty sesame dressing, sweetly spicy greens, and spicy pressed tofu with a deep soy flavor were some of our favorites. I didn’t care for the spiced potatoes, which were texturally challenging. Some of the offerings were different on our second visit, including tiny whole fish. (I couldn’t quite go there.)
Despite the name “Tofu House,” these various pickled vegetables may be the last chance for vegetarians to eat at the restaurant. Nearly everything on the menu includes beef or beef broth. At our first dinner, I had the woo geo ji kal bi tang, a cabbage and short-rib soup with a deep, beefy flavor and lots of scallions in the cloudy, savory broth. The cabbage was cooked until soft, and the soup came out bubbling furiously in its thick, hot bowl.
My husband’s bi bim bob, a rice bowl that may be one of the most familiar Korean dishes to Americans, was similar in temperature. Spring for the extra dollar to get yours served “dol sot"—that is, in a heated stoneware bowl. The heat cooks the rice down at the bottom into a crunchy, tooth-sticking layer that’s pleasantly redolent of buttered popcorn. Aside from tasting good, with a mélange of flavors tied together by the unifying soy-infused rice, the dish was colorful and visually appealing. It came out topped with bright vegetables and bits of beef. The smooth chili sauce that accompanied the dish in a squeeze bottle added sweet, mild spiciness.
To drink, Korean beers are on offer. Watch out, as they are both extra-strong and extra-large (they come in a giant bottle that’s big enough to share). In addition, tea appears at your table as soon as you sit down.
On our second visit, I went straight for the soon dubu, choosing the one at the very top of the menu. Listed as the “original,” it came with a choice of beef or pork. (There were also versions of soon dubu with mushrooms, with kimchi, with chitterlings and with short ribs, among others.) There’s a choice of mild or regular, which I hesitated over. I didn’t know how incendiary it would be. Our server encouraged me to try the spicier version and kindly offered to add more broth if it proved too hot, but it was great as it was: just spicy enough to get the sinuses working, but balanced out by the huge chunks of soft, almost custard-like tofu that floated in the soup.
The soon dubu, like the other soup, arrived boiling like a witch’s cauldron, with a raw egg to break in yourself. Adding the egg made the soup nearly semisolid, in a good way. The soft tofu broke apart at the touch of a chopstick, and spooning it up with the broth and the little bits of beef was a delicious challenge.
At this meal, my husband tried the lunchbox special of bulgogi (marinated beef) with rice and a salad. The savory-sweet soy and garlic marinade gave the beef a good flavor, but this was perhaps the most ordinary (or most predictable) of the various dishes we tried. We also saw people around us eating yet other items, which we’ll have to go back and ask about. What makes Cho Dang Tofu House a pleasure to visit are the dishes that are hard to find elsewhere. Just learn a lesson from me and ask for a translation before you order, not after.