Let me explain something about the San Francisco Bay Area.
Ironically, the further south, north or east of San Francisco you go, the less this actually applies because unlike the city, the weather will get pretty consistently hot there, hitting 90 easily on summer days. So they, unlike us, have something called air conditioning.
Anyone I know who pays approximately $4000/month in rent tends to have air conditioning. Those of us who don’t — don’t. This means that when it’s sweltering hot outside, like it is at the time of this writing, we’re baking in our own skin. Baking in our own skin!
As someone who becomes a totally different creature past 78 degrees or so, this is troublesome. It’s 86 degrees right now, which means it’s approximately 164 degrees inside my apartment.
Granted, we don’t have that many hot days a year. But you don’t really need 200 days of being in a sauna to understand it’s too hot for optimal survival. I need about 4.5 minutes to realize this is not for me. I can tolerate Alaskan cold; I cannot do this heat without air conditioning!
Myung Dong Tofu Cabin to the Rescue
I have a backlog of restaurants to review right now, and Myung Dong Tofu Cabin was not next on the list. It was around 10th in line — but today, I decided to review this restaurant because it’s so….damn….HOT. Even looking at these photos, I feel a little bit cooler. So I’m doing this more for me than you.
Myung Dong Tofu Cabin, overall, is just a decent Korean restaurant. I’ve actually visited Myung Dong Tofu Cabin often for lunch because my office was one freeway exit away from here, and this particular strip mall offered the best selection of restaurants in terms of lunch-suitable cuisines.
The biggest ding for Myung Dong Tofu Cabin is the price. For what they offer, everything is quite overpriced. Since their specialty is tofu, ordering the tofu soup (soon duboo, as it’s called in Korean) was the first thing I did. It’s okay — moderately flavorful but really not worth the $10.99 they charge for it. It doesn’t help that I can check out the ingredients and know how much it cost to make the bowl. But it’s a pretty decent lunch.
What they do have that is quite delicious is steamed dumplings. (The steamed ones are good, not the fried ones!)
The skin is just right. The thickness, chewiness and how much give it has when you bite into it is really ideal. But even better is the inside of the dumpling — the stuffing. It’s a nice mixture of meat to cabbage with just enough seasoning to give it a nice flavor on its own, but enhanced with the dipping sauce, shown above. One order, as shown, is $12 — which makes each piece one dollar. By any stretch of the imagination, this is really pricey. Short of being a specialty restaurant for “mandoo” (dumplings), charging a dollar for each piece is expensive. That said, I do end up ordering it on each visit, telling myself that I usually take one piece in two bites, so…it is sort of like getting 24 dumplings. (RIGHT?)
But putting all that aside, God bless Myung Dong Tofu Cabin because this is the only place offering “naengmyun” — and pretty good naengmyun, at that — that is close enough to my house. The exact translation of naengmyun is “cold noodles” (us Koreans…we’re creative, I tell you) — so technically, it could apply to any cold noodle dish. However, most customary is the buckwheat noodle variety in two forms: with a cold broth, or with a spicy sauce, shown above.
My friend DK ordered the spicy sauce variety — and I, needing desperately to cool down STAT, ordered the cold broth naengmyun.
At Myung Dong Tofu Cabin, as is the case with lots of Korean restaurants that serve naengmyun, there’s an option for the noodles plus galbi, typically referred to as “gal-naeng” — taking the first syllable of each dish to refer to the combination. At Myung Dong Tofu Cabin, the combination will cost $20.99 for a small serving of galbi plus a regular sized naengmyun with cold broth, and a dollar more for the bibim naengmyun (spicy mixed one) combination. (Not sure why the latter costs a dollar more…)
After this last visit, I recommend you DO NOT opt for the combination. Economically, it makes more sense to order the naengmyun you want, and an additional order for a meat you want which will cost up to $19.99 for the full serving. Technically, there is no real discount offered by ordering the combination, and you’re limited to galbi. A better meat choice would be the “dwaeji bulgogi” – a marinaded spicy pork dish – which tastes much better than the galbi offered here.
You can’t really ding the place for offering sub-par galbi as nobody really comes here FOR the meat — or at least I don’t.
(If that slice of meat looks really dry to you — that’s because it was.)
However, there is a Korean belief that you will get indigestion if you eat buckwheat cold noodles without meat; they say the slice or two of meat that all naengmyun comes with is for this very reason. I was not a believer of this “story” until it actually happened to me. I still don’t know that I believe it wholeheartedly, but I just order meat anyway just in case.
Naengmyun is served with a slice of beef, some slices of cucumber, a slice or two of Asian pears, and half a boiled egg. How all of that tastes is really secondary to the only two things that matter about naengmyun: how the noodles are cooked and how tasty and COLD the broth actually is.
With bibim naengmyun, which translates to mixed cold noodles, they usually include a little bit of beef broth and a lot of the spicy red pepper paste mixture which is a little sweet, a little sour and a little spicy. At Myung Dong Tofu Cabin, if it feels like it’s going to be too spicy, you can easily remove some of the sauce. But keep in mind that at other places, it often comes pre-mixed, so if you’re not sure what level of spice you can handle, it’s probably safest to order the cold broth naengmyun (referred to as “mool naenmyun” or “broth naengmyun”.)
When you order naengmyun at any Korean restaurant, they will always serve up hot mustard and a bottle of vinegar. In some cases, it’s already on the table if it’s a place where naengmyun is the specialty. The dish tastes just fine without it, but to really enjoy naengmyun, you do need the acidic kick of vinegar and the spicier kick of mustard. Otherwise, it’s a pretty bland and cold beef broth that’s hard to truly “taste” without these two condiments.
As mentioned, a naengmyun only needs two things done right: cold broth and great noodles. At Myung Dong Tofu Cabin, they do both things correctly. The noodles are cooked to the right chewiness, and then washed until they are ice-cold. Folded up, they’re dropped into a bowl and the extremely icy beef broth is poured in. Unbelievably enough, there are places that offer you room temperature noodles with a refrigerated broth — which is blasphemous.
No, no…this is about cooling off to the point of shivering towards the end of the meal. This is about withstanding 100 degree temperatures with 99% humidity and still feeling cold.
Some places will offer to cut your noodles for you, but I noticed Myung Dong Tofu Cabin just offers you scissors. The noodles can be sort of long and continuous, so feel free to give a couple big cuts before mixing it up.
Put the amount of mustard you need (start with a little — because you can’t undo it), and add a good serving of vinegar.
Mix it up and you have a bowl of cold goodness to devour.
There are lots of places where I’ll finish the broth — but the portion size at Myung Dong Tofu Cabin was really quite hefty. Between this and the meat, there was no room left for broth. Besides, by the time I was done, I was so cold in the air-conditioned restaurant with naengmyun in my belly that drinking the icy broth was the last thing on my mind.
Between San Francisco, Oakland and the Peninsula, there really aren’t that many good naengmyun places. Santa Clara has a few — but that’s almost an hour away from where I am! Myung Dong Tofu Cabin does offer a really good bowl of naengmyun — and if you’re in the Peninsula area, I highly recommend going here on a hot, sweltering day when nothing short of an ice bath will cool you off. Also, a big plus for being air conditioned!
You can find Myung Dong Tofu Cabin’s website here with the menu; they are opened from 11:30PM to 9:00PM daily and the location is at 2968 S. Norfolk St. in San Mateo, CA.
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.