Trail Mix: Tough to go wrong at Tofu House

April 15, 2011, 12:40 a.m.

Trail Mix: Tough to go wrong at Tofu House
Banchan, or Korean side dishes, such as kimchi and and seaweed are served with every meal at So Gong Dong Tofu House in Palo Alto (CELESTE NOCHE/The Stanford Daily).

South Korea takes kimchi very seriously: the spicy cabbage concoction accompanied the first South Korean astronaut into space in 2008 to combat homesickness and as a matter of national pride. The country even established the World Institute of Kimchi specifically to study the various methods of preparation to try to bring the foodstuff to the global stage. At its core, kimchi is not about aesthetics and artistic plating, it’s about piquant and dynamic flavors coupled with just the right texture — which essentially sums up the experience of So Gong Dong Tofu House.

Tofu House is characterized by a bright, colorful interior and a boisterous atmosphere. The restaurant serves well as an extremely casual sit-down for friends grabbing lunch or dinner.

The series of small side dishes, or banchan, that come with your meal are a good source of variety to juxtapose with your entrée. The standard set at Tofu House consists of potatoes with a touch of sweetness, cucumbers, kimchi, glass noodles, bean sprouts and spicy seaweed. They are not particularly interesting unto themselves; the kimchi is too mild, and the seaweed is off, lacking the sparkle that nori often provides. They can, however, add a great crunch to your SoonDuBoo soft tofu bowl or provide some relief if you were too adventurous with your spices. On a related note, the relative heat meter is shockingly skewed, so those looking for something with kick should have no problem ordering from the higher end of the spectrum.

The soft tofu bowls provide amazing taste without being too salty. Added rice gives the entrees a more substantial feel that the extremely smooth tofu alone can’t provide. The various offerings have much in common in terms of their flavor profiles; there is not a huge variation between the SoonDuBoo Original Soft Tofu bowl and the Yache ManDu SoonDuBoo Vegetable Dumpling Soft Tofu bowl, for example. Some of the components, however, fare better than others. In this case, pork in the former bowl adds an excellent heartiness to the dish, while the vegetable dumplings in the latter do not physically hold up well in the broth. The HaeMul SoonDuBoo Seafood Soft Tofu bowl is another fantastic option that pairs subtle seafood flavors extremely well with the soft tofu. The only obstacle is that the shrimp is sometimes not entirely shelled, so the diner either has to do a little extra work or can choose to power through the unusual texture of an unshelled shrimp.

The other carnivorous options are also among Tofu House’s strong suits. The incredible DakGoGi DolSot BiBimBab, for example, is served at rice-crackling temperatures, making the wait while you salivate so much more difficult. The bowl is full of savory vegetables on top of sizzling rice and chicken that is as succulent as the fattier pork and beef options. The barbecue dishes such as the BulGoGi beef are also mouthwatering and perfect for sharing, but they are served bare and require the banchan to complete the experience.

While its meatless options are certainly respectable, Tofu House may not be as much of a destination for the vegetarian or vegan crowd as its name might imply. However, it is tough to go wrong with such a depth of delicious plates, and almost everyone should be able to find something they will enjoy. It’s not a bastion of culinary mastery, but Tofu House is “definitely worth trying.”

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