In Irvine, where Koreans constitute only 5.3% of the city's population, there are six Korean soft tofu restaurants. Serendipitiously, three of the six are clustered together like mushrooms in the same sprawling neighborhood shopping center.
Figuring out how and why this happened might be a good subject for a graduate thesis on free market economics. But whatever the reason, one thing is clear -- you can't just tell a friend to meet up at the Korean restaurant at the corner of Culver and Walnut. Unless, that is, you intend to play a hilarious prank.
Although each restaurant is unique in look and atmosphere, all feature the beloved sundubu jjigae -- a bubbling hot cauldron of soft tofu soup served table side.
This dish is comfort food to Koreans, but enjoyed by all hungry people alike. It is especially satisfying during this time of the year when the weather is bone-chilling and heavy rain clouds gather omnimously overhead.
--- KOBA TOFU GRILL ---
The newest of the trio of restaurants is Koba Tofu Grill, which until recently was the Irvine outpost of the popular soft tofu chain BCD Tofu House.
As BCD, it gained instant popularity when it opened for business not more than a few months ago. It was the new bride in white and stole all the attention away from the other maidens, if not only on the merits of the BCD name.
But the honeymoon between the owners of the Irvine restaurant and the parent company was short-lived, and the divorce was final even before I got a chance to try the restaurant under its BCD moniker. By the time I finally stepped through its glass and chrome doorway last Friday, the restaurant had severed all ties with BCD and rechristened itself Koba Tofu Grill.
All traces of its former life as a BCD concubine was erased form the menus, the marquee, and the placemats -- not unlike it went through a brain wipe a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Unchanged was the restaurant's modern interior. Utilizing stark white, grey granite, and brushed metal motifs, the end result was an environment as cold and sterile as a hospital operating room.
The utensils provided on each table push this theme to an uncomfortable extreme. The chopsticks were made of polished stainless steel rods, making them so awkward, slippery, and dangerous to handle that even the most dexterous will abandon them for a spoon, for fear of chipping a tooth or poking out an eye.
And although I cannot compare its food to what was served during its halcyon days as BCD, the dishes I consumed Koba Tofu Grill remains by-the-book and traditional. Sundubu jjigae is the featured entree of choice -- a boiling soup of custard-soft tofu, diced beef, unshelled shrimp, and a clam served in small cast-iron cauldron.
For the two of us, we ordered one Combination ($14), which included the soup, rice cooked in a stone-pot, several small side dishes, and our choice of a second entree. We picked the ubiquitous Korean BBQ short ribs, called kalbi and asked for an extra order of stone-pot rice for $2, so that we could each have our own.
Upon bringing the stone-pots of rice, our kind server scooped out its contents into a second bowl. Almost immediately afterward, he poured a pitcher of liquid into the pot, submerging what remained of the crisped, stuck-on rice under hot water. For those unfamiliar with this practice: he was making rice soup.
Although favored by some, I've always thought the product of this impromptu demonstration looked and tasted like dirty dish water. I much prefer scraping off the crunchy rice with a spoon at the end of the meal, eating it up like crackers.
Next to arrive was an array of small side items called banchan, served in small saucers. Kimchi, napa cabbage pickled in a fiery red Korean chili paste, is a staple for any Korean meal and it was good here. Along with being tart and crisp, it harnessed a slow but hot pepper burn.
Another favorite was the whole yellow croaker, a small fish the length of two pinky fingers, deep fried golden with a crunchy batter. I relished picking up each morsel of its moist flesh and saved the salty skin for last.
The rest of the banchan consisted of different marinated vegetables and a tuft of black seaweed, none of which were very memorable, unfortunately.
The soft tofu soup was standard issue. Good but not great.
Although we always order it "white", meaning "hold the gochujang", the broth lacked soulfullness and body. The soft tofu curds, however, readily melted into a mouth-filling blanket of warmth, making for a wholly satisfying sensation.
A point of minor disappointment was the kalbi. Being cut too thickly, it was far too chewy to be pleasant. What I did manage to masticate and swallow lacked flavor. A longer soak in the marinade might have allowed it to pick up more of the requisite sweetness of sugar, the nuttiness of sesame oil, and the saltiness of soy.
--- KOREAN DAE MYOUNG OK RESTAURANT ---
The oldest and most no-nonsense of the bunch is Korean Dae Myong OK Restaurant.
Residing in the middle of Heritage Square, its marquee is unceremoniously stenciled with the simple phrase "Korean Restaurant". Inside, the tabletops are worn from thousand of elbows, and the walls are barren, save for a few stock posters of the old country.
This is a dive which ignores trends and sticks to what works -- good food, cooked by people who've done it forever. And although I haven't revisited this establishment in a few years, I am sure that nothing's changed.
Rice will be served in metal bowls, and the generous variety of banchan offered will cover the table like a quilt -- a dizzying patchwork of colors and textures.
--- KAYA TOFU HOUSE ---
Kaya Tofu House is tucked away in the northernmost corner of the plaza and is my current favorite out of the triumvirate.
Inside the cozy restaurant, dark hued woods added warmth and wallpaper made of aged parchment was scribbled with cascading patterns of Korean script, suggesting a reverence for tradition.
Coupled with this, a call button was glued on the wall next to each table. When we pushed it, our table number lit up on a LED display above the kitchen doorway while an audible 'ping' reverbed through the tiny restaurant.
Even more beguiling than the elaborate paging system is the fact that most of the waitresses seem to ignore it, responding more readily to a raised hand or just a slight nod.
As for the food, it's great in every way. We ordered the sundubu jjigae combo which was also priced at $14 and included all the side dishes, and one stone-pot rice. An extra order of rice was also $2 here.
The soup contained all the components of those served at Koba and Dae Myoung, but was richer and deeper in character. It's the sort of soup that soothed as much as it satisfied, like coming home to a place that's familiar and warm.
The banchan served by Kaya was one of the most varied and innovative I've had in Irvine. Stewed potatoes crumbled softly after a long simmer in a soy and mirin broth. Dried anchovies were fried to a crisp and paired with sweet green pepper pods. Chilled potato salad was dressed in cooling mayonnaise. Even the green salad and pickled cucumbers had a brightness of flavor that surprised and refreshed my palate.
The bulgogi, tender ribbons of cooked beef served on a sizzling hot plate with softened onions, was pitch perfect, without being too sweet or cloying. Dusted with sesame seeds and sprinkled with chopped scallions, this was a dish that begged for hot steamed rice.
All differences aside, each of these restaurants offers a complete and hearty Korean meal that nourishes the body as much as it delights the tongue, and for no more than $10 per person on average.
So pick one and tell a friend to meet you at one of the three below:
Koba Tofu Grill
14370 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92604
Korean Dae Myoung Ok Rstrnt
14250 Culver Dr # B
Irvine, CA 92604
14120 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92604