Soft Tofu Restaurant (So Kong Dong)
130 Main Street, Fort Lee, NJ (map), 201-242-0026
To Get There: Drive, or take the 181 bus across the George Washington Bridge to Lemoine Ave/Main Street
Service: Brusque, bordering on rude, very efficient
Setting: A little loud, but spacious
Must-Haves: Tofu soup!
Cost: Tofu soup, $9; Korean BBQ Ribs, $15
I woke up recently feeling pretty under the weather, and while usually this means a strict regimen of barley tea, noodle soup, and baths, I was fortunate enough to receive a call from my mom, who was headed out to Fort Lee, right across the George Washington for lunch. And that could only mean one thing: soondubu jjigae, Korean soft tofu stew.
A mainstay of the Korean table, jjigae literally translates as stew, and there are hundreds of common varieties. Soondubu jjigae is my favorite. Flavored with pork, beef, or seafood in a broth similar to a Japanese dashi flavored with sea kelp and dried anchovies, it's laced with fiery red pepper powder or fermented gochujang pepper paste and often a handful of chopped, garlicky kimchi. The bulk of the dish is made up of tofu of the soft, silken variety, which develops an ultra-creamy, smooth texture as it heats in the boiling hot broth. Sinus-clearing, nutritious, and easy to down by the dolsot-ful, it's perfect restorative fare.
Soft Tofu Restaurant (yes, that's really its name, though you can call it So Kong Dong if you want to sound smart) is a hidden gem in the truest sense of the word, frequented at all hours from its 10am opening (I love the smell of gochujang in the morning) to its 11pm closing with the local Koreans who make up over 30% of Fort Lee's population. That is, it was a hidden gem, up until the time that Tony Bourdain outed it in the New Jersey Episode of No Reservations (check the 3:00 mark on the clip). Since then, you can expect a line out the door during prime meal time, particularly on weekends, though the decor has not changed much and the food is still just as good as it's ever been (if a little pricier).
In fact, unless you know it's there, it's a really easy spot to miss. Not because it's small, but because it's recessed from the main streetside storefronts behind a large parking lot, with only a single, non-uniformed attendant calling you in off the street.
Despite lines, the service is efficient (if a little brusque), with the staff calling you up by number in to place your order before you're even seated. Luckily, deciding what to eat at Soft Tofu Restaurant is pretty simple, since they've really only got two options, soondubu jjigae, and kalbi—Korean BBQ short ribs.
That's not to say you can't customize your meal to a degree: You still have your choice of flavors, ranging from a simple, plain tofu or mushroom flavored bowl, to an ultra-porky pork broth (maybe too porky for some), a few seafood variations, or—my favorite—the beef and kimchee version (all $9). All soups can be ordered mild, medium, hot, or very hot (which may be pushing it for many diners).
After being seated, in typical Korean fashion, what may appear simple on the menu quickly evolves into an all-out feast on the table.
Every meal starts with a large dolsot filled with rice, the ripping-hot stone bowl charring the edges of the rice into a nice, nutty golden brown. After spooning the rice into individual serving bowls, the waiter pours a pitcher of tea into the empty dolsot, in an eruption of steam. This, you should leave on the side of your table until the end of your meal. You'll get back to it.
Next comes a small bowl of cold radish soup (I never did like that stuff), and a small parade of banchan, the pickled and fermented side dishes that are meant to be eaten along with your rice. The selection at Soft Tofu Restaurant may not be as large as your typical K-Town spot, but what they give you is all spot-on. At this meal, it was sweet and spicy cabbage kimchi, cucumbers lightly pickled with chili, a chilled bean sprout salad, and fiery cubes of daikon radish laced with chopped green chilis and red chili powder.
When the main attraction finally does arrive at the table, it comes with a flourish. Served in individual stone pots, it comes so hot that it is literally boiling at your table for a full two or three minutes after it arrives, deep red and active, like an angry volcano. The residual heat gives you just enough time to barely cook through the raw egg which you are expected to crack into the soup and gently stir to enrich the broth.
Rich, warm and satisfying, it's a remarkably complex broth that cuts straight to the senses. Deep and beefy, heightened by the umami-buttressing anchovy and cut with the sharp bite of kimchi and intense heat of chilis, slurping down these tender curds of tofu is about as soul-satisfying as food can get.
If you must order the Korean BBQ Ribs ($15) as well, you probably won't be disappointed. Unlike the best dedicated Korean BBQ joints that cook their meat over open coals, the meat here seems more like it's broiled than grilled. It doesn't have the fantastic char or contrasting textures that I look for in kalbi, but it's sweet, savory, and tender, and will do for a quick fix. Honestly, just stick with the tofu.
After you've finished your stew (if you manage to finish all of the rather generous portions here), remember that stone pot with rice. You'll find that the tea—still hot from the stone bowl—has picked up the nutty aroma of the charred rice grains, forming a sort of impromptu version of genmai-cha, and a perfect way to close the meal.
I left feeling happily fortified. I may still be a little under the weather, but I'm well on the road to recovery. That I had plenty of leftovers for dinner certainly helped.