I'm a big fan of sundubu (spicy Korean tofu soup), and for a long time I've thought that someone could make a killing if they opened up a simple and reliable sundubu shop in Boston. It's not a complicated food, but it's one of those things that you really want to get from a place that specializes in it, since the broth can be really dull or "off" (flavors not well integrated) if it's made quickly or with insufficient attention. (Some of the renditions by otherwise respectable Korean restaurants in town have made me want to cry, or worse...) So, I was optimistic when I saw that Kaju Sundubu had opened, in the old Seoul Bakery spot on Harvard, north of Brighton. It turns out that they're from CA (Garden Grove)- I didn't get the full story of whether they're opening a new branch here, or just moved here, but whatever the reason, it's a tremendous coup for us! If the bowls we got tonight are any indication, we're in for a treat.
The main reason to go to Kaju is the sundubu, and that's what most of the menu consists of. They have more flavors than average, including the usual suspects (seafood, beef, mushroom, octopus/beef) and also some less common ones (kimchi/oyster, intestine). (I suspect all of them start with the same anchovy base, and maybe also fish sauce, so vegetarians might want to ask to be sure.) You order the flavor and the heat level (mild/regular/spicy/extra spicy). The sundubu comes with an egg to crack in the moment it arrives (it cooks in the heat), and a side of rice. They do also have some sort of grilled meat and bibimbap offerings, but we didn't investigate those, either. (I did overhear a nearby table commenting amongst themselves that the marinade for the grilled meat was on the sweet side)
- Banchan/sides: a very standard selection of kimchi, pickled radish, some anchovies, bean sprouts, simmered soy beans (kong jorim), broccoli. They were fresh and tasty- the kimchi was quite sweet, but this goes OK with ultra spicy soup, in my book...
- Sundubu: We got an order of extra spicy kimchi oyster, and an order of spicy seafood, along with a seafood pancake (haemul pajeon). The broth was really good: rich with the flavor of seafood and chili pepper cooked long enough to dissolve/integrate fully into the broth, with enough salt to bring out the richness of the soup base (usually anchovies, seaweed, etc.) but not overly salty. The extra spicy broth was perfect- enough to give you that slight euphoria of chili peppers, but not so spicy that you can't eat a whole bowl. (My perennial complaint with the CA sunduberias is that they hold back on the spice level for gringos -- Kaju's "extra spicy" was properly spicy, without being a one-note heat that overwhelmed the seafood). The seafood and the oyster flavors were both adequately generous with the seafood, too, which was pleasing, since a lot of chains have gotten progressively stingier with the seafood over the years. In fact, not only was this the best sundubu I've had in Boston (which is unfortunately not saying much), but it's some of the best I can remember having even at some of my favorite sundubu shops in LA.
- Pancake: the seafood pajeon took much longer to arrive than the sundubu, and it was a bit underdone/soggy and falling apart. Although I like a crispy crunchy pancake as much as the next guy, I also know that sometimes they can be soft and falling apart when they're thick and generously full of seafood and veggies, so it's not necessarily a bad sign if it's falling apart. :) And it was indeed very tasty, with a nice balance of green onion and seafood.
- Rice: like most good sundubu places, the rice comes in a small stone pot, and they ladle it into a bowl for you and leave the stone pot with the remaining rice residue, which keeps cooking on and forming a nice crispy crust (nurungji). When you're getting close to the end of your sundubu, you can ask for them to pour tea (hot barley tea) into the pot and let it sit a few minutes, then eat a soup of the toasty crispy rice in barley tea to finish your meal. (You can order extra rice, but it seems that they haven't adopted the recent trend of allowing you to get "special" rice-- mixed grains, barley, etc.--for a small a surcharge. The only option I saw was white rice, but maybe I missed the others.)
It seems that they're still kind of getting going, and it's a small space that they'll have to manage very efficiently, judging by the lines that were there when we arrived. (There are maybe about 10-12 tables, and there were about 4-5 groups of people waiting when we arrived-- they were pretty good about keeping things moving, but it was clear that if they were more coordinated about getting tables cleared immediately, it could have been faster) Two signs of an "authentic" sundubu experience are that (1) they took our order before we were seated, so that our soup was ready quite soon after we got a talbe, and (2) they have the Korean-style "doorbell" system, with little bells/buzzers built in to each table to call for service when you need it. I didn't see/hear anyone using it when we were there, but maybe it just lights up somewhere discretely, instead of the constant doorbell ringing of some restaurants. In any event, if there had still been a line out the door when we were ready to pay, using the bell might have helped speed up getting the check.
In any event, it seems like they're already doing a brisk business, and I hope they keep up the quality and start a sundubu trend in Boston! They're a bit pricier than the usual CA sundubu place, but judging by what we got tonight, the quality is also better.