If you are not a fan of soondubu jjigae—Korean soft tofu soup—then I can immediately make a couple of Sherlock Holmes-esque deductions about your character. First and foremost, you are not my friend, as I only associate with those cultured cosmopolitan sorts with the finest of tastes. Secondly, it is unlikely that you have ever been drunk, or at least drunk enough to warrant waking up to a hangover that can only be cured by a bubbling hot bowl of custard-soft tofu seasoned with Korean chili flakes and kimchi as savory as a thousand cattle, as fermented as a thousand half-sour pickles,* and as cabbagey as a thousand vinyl children under a 1980'd Christmas tree (if you know what I mean).
*or five hundred full-sour pickles
If, on the other hand, you are a fan of hot tofu soup, you've probably heard of BCD Tofu House, the mini-chain of soft tofu soup restaurants started in LA with outposts all over California, Washington, and the New York area. It was a staple in K-town in Manhattan for a while before it closed down (it's slated to reopen this month on 32nd street), but the real place to get great Korean food near New York City is actually across the Hudson near the shadow of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee. Its population is nearly 25% Korean—driving through the streets you see at least as many signs written in hangul as in English.
My go-to spot has always been So Kong Dong (full review here), a restaurant that serves about a dozen varieties of hot tofu soup and nothing else, unless you count the BBQ kalbi, which nobody seems to order. But after hearing good things about BCD, I decided to change it up.
Right off the bat, there are some differences. While SKD is loud, boisterous, and slightly run-down, BCD is clean, spacious, and elegant in that chain-from-Asia kind of way. It reminded me a lot of the Din Tai Fung chain of dumpling houses (full review here), with its courteous staff and design lines that approach IKEA-levels of cleanness.
The menu is also much larger, with a number of appetizers and entrees sharing the space with their list of tofu soup variations.
Whatever you order, all meals start with a parade of little gifts. Yellow croaker arrives, battered and deep fried until crisp. They plan this so that you'll be so occupied with picking the moist slivers of meat out from between the tiny bones that you won't notice when the first round of banchan is placed on the table.
You look up to find a tangle of re-hydrated dehydrated cuttlefish, glowing red in sweet sticky chili sauce. Kimchi of various shapes, sizes, and levels of fermentation cleanse your palate (or blow it out, depending on which you eat) between bites of crisp iced cucumber pickles and gently wilted water spinach. Slabs of slippery mung bean jelly come coated in a thin vinegary sauce.
Judging on the quality of their banchan alone, BCD is up there with the likes of Mapo BBQ in Murray Hill, Queens (full review here); A full nineteen dishes landed around the table before our first appetizer even arrived.
I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the appetizers, considering how different they are from the house soup specialty. Hae Mul Pha Jun ($8.95/small $17.95/large), described on the menu as "Korean-style pizza" is a mung bean-based seafood pancake that, while a bit skimpy on the seafood, comes out extra-crisp with those craggly edges that are prefect for absorbing sauce.
A Tofu Salad ($10.95) is also strangely proportioned with far more chopped lettuce than actual tofu, but the fried, vegetable-stuffed triangles of bean curd it did come with were a good hint at the quality of the tofu to come.
When it comes to the main course, BCD mostly nails it. The Tofu Soup ($11.95) comes in eleven different flavors, from plain tofu to oyster to seafood and beef. The soon tofu is indeed silky soft, custardy, and generous, filling a hot stone dolsot practically to the brim as the fiery red liquid (available in five heat levels—even the hottest is relatively mild) bubbles vigorously around it. But the broth is disappointingly flat tasting.
I want my tofu soup chef to be a little heavy handed with the seasoning. I want that extra drop of soy sauce and gochujang. When he smells that jar of kimchi and thinks, "has this gone bad yet?", I want him to say, "aw screw it. Funk is flavor," and pour it right on in. I want a broth flecked with dried chilis and long-simmered scallions.
In short, I just wish BCD were a little less clean, and a little more fun.
While I wouldn't kick BCD's jjigae out of bed on a headache-filled, cold, clammy morning-after-a-few-too-many-bad-decisions, I would be left wondering how So Kong Dong manages to capture more depth, more nuance, more savoriness, more soul in each spoonful. Perhaps MSG is the answer.
Or perhaps it's the sterilization that necessarily comes with international chain restaurants. Again, the Din Tai Fung comparison seems particularly apt. Both restaurants serve food that it can be difficult to find flaw with from a purely technical and aesthetic perspective, but both lack that certain ineffable quality that makes for a truly memorable meal, turning a down-and-dirty soul food into something entirely too clean and civilized.
BCD Tofu House
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.