Soon tofu with mushrooms
I had only had Korean food once before, when I was 15 and had not yet discovered my love of food due to my upbringing of PBJ and Campbell's minestrone soup. One of my friends had a birthday party at a Korean restaurant, and apparently I insulted his family by not eating the barbecue. I wasn't eating meat at the time, and didn't see how it would have been any less insulting for them to expect me to change my values for them. Maybe it's a Korean thing that I don't understand. Maybe his family was just easily offended.
I remembered nothing about the food, only the controversey surrounding it, so I was more than eager to finally re-try Korean food. One of my friends often bemoans the absence of not just a good Korean restaurant, but any Korean restaurant, on the Westside. He used to frequent a tofu house in Westwood, and there was once a full-service Korean restaurant in Santa Monica. He also enjoyed a great tofu house on Pico across from Santa Monica College which was run by a woman single-handedly. All of these places closed, leaving behind only small a la carte stops in the food courts of Santa Monica Place and the mall in Century City.
So when I spotted Tofu-ya on Sawtelle, we went as soon as we could.
The small restaurant is casual, but the dark wood tables make it an elegant casual. Though there are only about fifteen tables, acoustics seemingly weren't considered in the restaurant's design, and it was quite noisy. On a Wednesday around 6:30, the restaurant was a little over half-full, whereas most of the restaurants I've been to at this day and time usually have somewhere between an almost empty to one-third full dining room.
I was slightly skeptical when we were seated near the door, as I don't consider that a great table location, but I soon realized that our hostess meant no ill-will when she asked me if I was cold, which indicated to me that she was considering moving us to a potentially warmer table (I was wearing an unseasonably heavy jacket). She also told me what a pretty face I had, and told my friend what a pretty friend he had. Hmm. It's not often that another woman compliments my appearance--it's usually just skeezy men on the street. She started speaking Korean to my friend, who is Korean but claims that his knowledge of Spanish is better than his knowledge of Korean. We learned that the owners were Korean and also own Asahi Ramen (next door), the restaurant just opened on August 10, and it's been doing very well.
I can see why. The food is inexpensive (according to my friend, less expensive than other Korean restaurants), the service is extremely friendly and unpretentious, and the food is quite good. A simple menu offers not much more than variations on the same tofu dish--you can get your tofu with clam, oyster, beef, shrimp, chicken, pork, mushrooms, or a couple of combinations of the above. They also serve a few kinds of barbecue (barbecued beef, beef ribs, or pork), bibim-bap, and a couple of other things that I can't recall.
Having never eaten Korean tofu before, I wasn't expecting soup. It's served bubbling hot, with an egg cracked into it at your table as it's served, in a black kettle-like bowl (is it a clay pot?) that does an amazing job of keeping the soup steaming hot for as long as it's sitting in front of you. Hot silken tofu, with all its water content, is merciless: In my overzealousness to try the new dish in front of me, I actually managed to burn the back of my throat in an attempt to not burn my tongue. Neither my friend nor I know what the soup base is made of, but it may be made from a meat stock because I think I encountered a couple of tiny pieces of meat in my soup (or were they meaty mushrooms?) I was skeptical of the egg, since they aren't my favorite, but I've definitey been sold, as the texture of the soup-cooked egg white was a nice addition to the soup and was kind of like a cross between the soft, smooth texture of the tofu and the chewier texture of the mushrooms. There were several kinds of mushrooms, though aside from the enokis, I couldn't identify them. I ordered my soup medium spicy, and it wasn't too spicy at all, but I'd be reluctant to order it hot out of fear that the heat would obscure the other flavors of the soup.
Note that some of the soups have shellfish in them, so if you're allergic, make sure to point this out when you order. On my second visit to Tofu-ya, I found out the hard way that the soup that somes with the barbecue has a whole shrimp, beady eyes and all, along with clams (which I can eat). They wouldn't replace my soup, which really made me mad, but I think the problem may have been a language barrier, as our server didn't speak very good English. Still, I'd really appreciate it if they would point out on the menu that poison will be swimming in my soup unless I request otherwise.
I learned that Korean meals tend to come with side dishes. In this case, there were four, but if you're at a restaurant eating family style, you're likely to get around twenty. Tofu-ya served bean sprouts, which weren't that exciting; seaweed, which was good because I really like seaweed, but otherwise nothing special; kimchee, which was good but not as spicy as I was expecting, and thankfully did not contain and shrimp paste (some do, at least at the grocery store); and something we couldn't identify but which seemed like fried tofu skins but turned out to be fish cake (free of shellfish) served with chunks of bell pepper. The latter was my favorite--it had a sweet, rich, fried flavor that I could have enjoyed an entire plate of.
The rice that came with the meal (wow, no extra charge?) came in a clay pot similar to the soup pot and the server spooned it into bowls for us. She then poured hot water into the pots and let them sit at the edge of the table while we ate. When we were almost done with our soup, she came back and pushed them towards us to indicate that they were ready. I tried it plain, and it just tasted like watery burnt rice. I tried adding some kimchee to it, but that didn't help much. Maybe it's just because I'm a gaijin, but I didn't get any pleasure from this part of the meal.
On my second visit, I ventured into the world of Korean barbecue. The meat came out on a plate much like a fajita plate at a Mexican restaurant--a pile of meat and onion slices, garnished with slivers of scallion. The meat looked plain, so I was surprised when it had a delicious, sweet flavor. I, the former vegetarian with the small appetite, ate the entire pile of meat.
Overall on my first visit, I liked my food very much. I also liked the service and the new (to me) dishes and flavors. On my second visit, I still liked the food, but of the two servers I dealt with, one was rather rude (maybe she was having a bad day), and the other wouldn't replace or comp my shellfishy soup. So now I have mixed feelings about Tofu-ya, but I'll probably still return, making sure to order my soup sans-shellfish, and making sure my server understands my order.
Next to Asahi Ramen on Sawtelle
Open 11:30-9:00 daily, closed Thursdays
Other Los Angeles Area Korean Restaurants