I still remember the first time I ever tried “soon tofu” — which is how Koreans refer to this tofu “casserole” of sorts. I had just moved to Los Angeles, and a friend of mine was taking me to lunch. He suggested “soon tofu” — which would translate to “pure tofu”, which excited me none at all. I imagined a place where they serve housemade tofu with soy sauce —and at the age of 19, tofu was something I’d eat at the age when people started wearing dentures.
So imagine my surprise when a beautiful, bright red and spicy soup emerged from the kitchen at Beverly Tofu….I had accidentally discovered the perfect food. For the next few months, I probably ate this tofu soup no less than 3-4 times per week. Most of the times, I went to Beverly Tofu House but sometimes, I went to the Sogondong (the original SGD), too. Later on, I’d also happily eat at Bukchangdong Soon Tofu (known as BCD).
Fast forward many years, and since moving to the Bay Area some 100 years ago, I find that one of the first things I search out upon landing in Los Angeles is Koreatown’s Soon Tofu Soup. Is it better in Korea? Yes — but Korea is much further than LA.
Now let me share a story. There are many dishes I never tried to replicate, but with Korean food, especially given my mother’s cooking and what she’s taught me, there is very little in the world I can’t taste and replicate. No, to be clear, there is ONE thing I cannot replicate to save my life.
I have probably attempted this soup no less than 100 times and I quit about five years ago. I gave up. There’s SOMETHING missing and I cannot identify what it is. What I make is good — and for anyone who hasn’t had the real thing, they might even say it’s delicious. But trust me — it ain’t it. Something is missing — and I don’t know what.
At almost every single Korean restaurant I have visited in the Bay Area, I have ordered this soup. Every single one is missing that special umph, and the majority can’t even make it as good as the lacking one that I cook.
All I can do is taste it, shake my head and eat something else.
Sogongdong Tofu House
And then I ended up at Sogongdong Tofu House.
I expected nothing — but I had an appointment nearby and an hour to kill. Realizing they say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results — I did it again. I was actually trying to go to SGD Tofu House on El Camino, which is pretty good — but Google Maps directed me here, and not wanting to drive to Santa Clara, I figured I’d give this a try.
There’s always McDonald’s I can grab on the way home, I thought.
First, if you look at the exterior photo up above, the sign reads, “So Gong Dong BBQ” — except Sogondong is in Korean, and BBQ is not what I was looking for. I found it because I can read Korean but I have no idea how they expect anyone else to find it based on the building signage. When circling the parking lot area, you can’t really see the window, and just scanning the signs, anybody who doesn’t have perfect vision and can read Korean will continue circling that lot.
Add to this that you don’t search Sogongdong for “BBQ” reasons — the huge BBQ sign actually convinces you this place is NOT what you’re looking for.
I was >this close< to begin dinging this place starting right at this moment. I mean, that’s just dumb to not have proper signage except in your window.
Walking in, the place is near packed and there are two empty tables remaining. We grab one and as I sit down, this is my view. Typical Korean ajushees (old dudes would be my translation) sitting about grilling meat — and one’s bare foot showing with his slipper strewn off below the table. It’s not the most appetizing thing I’ve ever seen…and I’m now wondering what time my favorite pho place in San Jose closes tonight.[wc_divider style=”solid” line=”single” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=””]
While we weren’t wanting a large meal, I did have to try the tofu soup, or 순두부찌개 — and Mr. K decided on the dolsot bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥) — the kind that comes out in Korean stoneware, for those of who have tried it.
I ordered a pork tofu soup — and the gentleman who was serving our order asked how spicy – – so I requested as spicy as it can get.
Then came the critical moment at each tofu place where I ask the determining question: “Can you include oysters?”
You see, I like my pork tofu soup with some oysters. As the majority of tofu places have a seafood tofu soup combination, the majority of them have oysters on hand. Charge me more, or not, I don’t care — I merely want to know if you can include a few oysters into my pork broth. You’d be shocked to see how many places tell you that they CANNOT.
How is it that you have both on-hand and you cannot accommodate one tiny special request? Short of it being pre-packaged, what’s the problem?
So this question, “Can you include oysters?” — is a big one for me.
The gentleman replies with, “You want oysters in your pork broth?”
The Banchan at Sogongdong Tofu House
Just then, the banchan came out. Six items for banchan at a tofu house is pretty good. They included a staple cucumber dish, and provided some other typical banchan including bean sprouts and kimchi. Having tasted each one, I’ll tell you these were delicious. I’m not a big fan of any of these except the cucumbers, and still, they tasted freshly made and really quite nicely seasoned. The jabchae was plain and didn’t even have the ingredients you’d expect in jabchae, but it tasted GREAT.
But the soup. That’s all I care about — how is the soup?
The Tofu Soup at Sogongdong Tofu House
What got served was quite amazing in appearance, red/orange in color and bubbling over from coming fresh off the stove. It creates an incredible mess on your placemat, which is part of the “soon tofu” eating experience. (Leave your white shirts at home, or cover up before this gets served — you’ve been warned.)
The color, the appearance and the aromas coming from this bowl all looked right.
You should have a raw egg already served on your table, as shown in the banchan photo earlier in the post. Crack that egg into your tofu soup immediately and carefully cover with the hot soup so the egg drops to the bottom, which will ensure it cooks as much as it can in the soup.
Later on, if you carefully eat your soup with your rice without digging around too much, your yolk will be perfectly runny, and much of the egg white will have cooked, as shown above. This is the best part! Combined with the ingredients and spiciness of the soup, it’s absolutely divine cooked this way. Place it over your rice and scoop it up in one bite, or pop it over your white rice.
While you’re eating, you’ll find the kimchi and the cucumber mixed kimchi are best to cool off your mouth as you slurp up the hot soup and hot rice. It’s really so incredibly hot until you’re about half-finished with the bowl. If you top each bite with some kimchi, you’ll find it incredibly refreshing. This is also why almost every real tofu house will serve cucumbers as their banchan — for their cooling effect.
The flavor of this soup was spot-on. While it’s been awhile since I’ve been in Los Angeles, if I am recalling the taste correctly, it’s almost identical to Beverly Soon Tofu, my favorite tofu house in Los Angeles. It’s dense with pork flavor, and there’s a good number of oysters in the soup as I had requested. Spiciness level is nowhere near as spicy as I want it, but it never is anywhere. That extra umph that is always missing when I cook it is present.
This soup rocks and it’s as authentic as you’re going to find in the Bay Area.
So one mission is complete: I have found a restaurant that can satisfy my authentic tofu soup cravings. It’s not close to my house, but it’s driving distance — so I am thankful for that.
But we had one more dish to try Sogongdong Tofu House: the Dolsot Bibimbap.
The Dolsot Bibimbap at Sogongdong Tofu House
First off, this thing is HUGE. The stone pot is about twice the width of normal pots used when this dish is ordered, and about half the height. But the stoneware used by other restaurants is normally only half full, while this is over the top piled with vegetables, meat and rice!
When you receive this, leave it as-is for at least a few minutes. Part of the appeal of dolsot bibimbap is the crispy burnt rice on the bottom, and if you mix this up right now, it’s just a much hotter serving of bibimbap. I like to leave mine for at least five minutes and then scrape off the burnt rice on the bottom.
There should be a red spicy sauce on the table — and you add as much of that as you can handle, starting off with a little as you can always add more.
The portion of this is such that four people could really share it for a small bowlful each. I watched the table next to us both have half their portions leftover, and pack it to take home. The taste of it is quite good, and I think it’s worth ordering just for the sight of it.
But at Sogongdong, it appears the “BBQ” signed I dinged it for when I was entering was justified as almost every table in here had ordered grilled meat. Looking around, though I couldn’t take any shots of it, the meat looked plentiful and really fresh, especially their thick-cut pork belly, so I wasn’t surprised. It must be pretty good that these Korean folks are opting for Sogondong over the plentiful BBQ restaurants in the area to come here to grill meat.
So while I haven’t tried the Korean barbecue here, I feel comfortable in recommending that you try it, and include one soup and one dolsot bibimbap. But whatever you do, don’t skip out on the tofu soup.
I recommend trying it the way I always order it with pork and oysters, but if that doesn’t float your boat, Sogongdong Tofu House has kimchi, seafood, beef, pork, or combination tofu soups as well as a ramen tofu soup and a roe-filled tofu soup, which is probably next on my list.
To be clear, this is the location at 491 Saratoga Avenue in San Jose. I’ve been to the one in Palo Alto, which wasn’t this good; I’ve been to the one on El Camino Real in Santa Clara, which was nearly as good but not quite, though I haven’t been back to that one in awhile. There’s one in Milpitas, which was also consistently good when I used to go often when I worked in Fremont.
But dare I say it, this location beats out all of them in terms of taste, authenticity, generosity and quality of ingredients and banchan quality.
I go to the one in Palo Alto all the time! SO GOOD!
That looks sooooo good!
Do you have BCD up there? I wish there was one in San Diego.
Jeanny Lee — unfortunately, NOOOO!!
Please let us know about any discoveries here in DC!
Grace, you and Keith should move back to Hawaii and become the food reviewer for Honolulu Magazine.