Thursday, May 29, 2008

TofuYa - restaurant review

I discovered Korean tofu restaurants a couple of years ago when one of my favorite ramen places turned into a tofu restaurant. The first time I was there, I wasn't quite sure how things worked because it was a different kind of food than I was used to, but I've since learned to (mostly) get the hang of it. Obviously, it helps because I really like tofu.

I noticed a second Korean tofu place pop up not too long ago, so that's what made me decide to try TofuYa.

The restaurant is on busy Sawtelle Boulevard, so of course, parking is an issue. There are only spaces along a few of the neighboring streets, and it's often difficult to find an open space. I've found that it's a little easier during lunchtime. I've driven by at night before and given up because I couldn't find a place to park.

The restaurant itself is fairly small and has fairly generic decor. But then, you're not there for the decorations - you're there for the food. When I got there at 1:25pm, the place was packed, and I had to wait a few minutes for a table. During the first part of my meal, there was the nice steady buzz of conversation in the restaurant from the other patrons. However, by about 1:45pm, half the people were gone - it seems that people frequent the restaurant earlier in the lunch period rather than later.

The menu is pretty limited, but understandably so for a niche restaurant. The majority of the menu contains different varieties of "soon tofu", a spicy Korean soup. The soup comes in a bubbling hot pot, with soft tofu at the bottom of the pot as the base. You can choose a number of different versions of the soup that has different ingredients (e.g., seafood [clam, shrimp, oyster], seafood and beef, kimchee, pork, chicken). You can also pick the flavoring of your soup among mild, medium, spicy and extra spicy.

On this occasion, I decided to try the mushroom soon tofu, which actually comes with mushrooms and beef. I also generally choose medium spicyness.

In addition to soon tofu, they also offer three kinds of salad, and five kinds of barbeque, for those not tofu-inclined. While I've not had anything at this place other than the tofu yet, I have enjoyed the galbi - bbq beef ribs - at the other Korean tofu place, and I've already discovered that I love the flavoring of Korean bbq beef ribs. It's usually less sweet and more flavorful than traditional American bbq. They also offer a few combinations where you get the soon tofu with a smaller portion of one of the other entrees.

The soon tofu comes with five side dishes, which can change depending on what the restaurant has made on a particular day. At least one of them is some kind of kimchee dish. On this day, the side dishes were cucumber kim chee, cabbage kim chee, cooked sprouts, cold sesame glass noodles and fish cakes. They also bring you a small bowl of rice, and that all comes before you get your tofu. Since I've only ever ordered soon tofu, I've always gotten the side dishes. I don't know if you get all of them if you order the bbq as well. I noticed a woman at another table who had not gotten the tofu, and she only had 3 of the side dishes.

With the soon tofu order, they also bring an uncracked raw egg in a bowl. You have the choice of cracking the egg into your hot pot once it arrives, or you can choose to leave it off. Sometimes, they just let you do it yourself, and sometimes, they will ask if you want the egg, and if you say yes, they'll crack it for you.

This is from another restaurant, but here's what the bubbling soon tofu hot pot looks like, with the egg cracked in it.

For me, if the egg doesn't go under the surface of the soup, I will generally spoon soup and other ingredients over the egg to cover it so that it cooks better. I like my yolk cooked intact, but you could also stir it and break the yolk for cooking if you prefer. You have to put the egg in fairly immediately as the bubbling subsides within a minute or so.

I thought the mushroom soon tofu was ok, but it wasn't as good as at the other place, though I can't exactly pinpoint why. I do love soon tofu because I like the plentiful tofu, and there's also generally a good portion of whatever other ingredients you've ordered, and the broth is very tasty as well. It's a particularly good meal for cold weather. It only really works in warmer weather if it's air conditioned well in the restaurant - otherwise, a bubbling hot soup probably doesn't sound very appetizing in sweltering weather.

The service is generally good, appropropriate for a no-frills place. They're always rushing around taking care of things, so they're available if you need to request something. They will also stop by periodically to make sure everything's ok, and they kept my water glass filled. They're not overly friendly, but nicely pleasant.

The only "mistake" that I encountered this day is that when I paid my bill, and they brought the change, they brought me a single $10 bill rather than loose change. Luckily, I had a couple spare singles to leave a tip.

2021 Sawtelle Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 473-2627

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