Its bright orchid paint job is a sure lure for the eye, and indeed Jangtoh Soontofu Restaurant is drawing lots of customers. At lunch only a few weeks after opening, almost every table was occupied.
Jangtoh is geared for Koreans. Signs outside are written in Han-gul, the Korean alphabet, but they do let you know in English that this is a Korean eating place.
Non-Koreans who happen in will find something very different from the usual barbecued meats. The waitress called the fare "healthy food," and said, "You can eat it 10 times a day and it won't give you fat or cellulite." If that is true, Jangtoh should soon be jammed at all hours.
The restaurant serves only two dishes-- soontofu and kongbiji, both of them soups. Soontofu is made with tofu, kongbiji with ground soybeans. That may sound like an extremely limited menu, but there are variations. The fanciest version of soontofu contains beef, clams, shrimp and oysters. Other choices are oyster or shellfish soontofu and a vegetarian version that gets substance from the spicy Korean pickle, kimchi.
Kongbiji's additions are "meat" (beef), pork or kimchi. The beef strips in my kongbiji were tasty little tidbits thoroughly impregnated with garlic, which Koreans adore. Kongbiji is mealier in texture than smooth soontofu and a lighter dish. Orders of soontofu come with a raw egg to crack and stir into the mixture.
The soups arrive in heavy, dark bowls, bubbling energetically. They are so hot that the chunks of ice in a side dish of water kimchi (white radish sticks in lightly seasoned liquid) are almost a necessity. The more familiar red pepper-drenched kimchi also accompanies the soups.
Soontofu can be mild or chile-hot, according to taste. Kongbiji, on the other hand, is always mild. The red pepper flecks that drifted across my bowlful had slipped off a bit of kimchi added with the meat.
Such food may be unfamiliar to a non-Korean, but its freshness and quality are apparent. Jangtoh makes its own tofu, producing several batches a day. If you've never tasted warm, soft, fresh tofu, don't miss the opportunity to try it here. A small bowl of this cloud-like substance comes with each meal. The kitchen garnishes it with a bit of chopped green onion, dried seaweed and sesame seeds. Then you spoon on a wonderful sesame-soy sauce-garlic condiment from a jar on the table. This condiment is meant for the soups too, but Westerners will undoubtedly spoon it over rice. Korean customers don't do that, but it tastes very good.
All soups are the same price, $4.95. That includes the two kimchis (like the tofu, these are made at the restaurant), a bowl of sticky rice, the warm soft tofu, a cup of cold corn tea and, when you pay the bill, a stick of Korean chewing gum.
Jangtoh opened in March. Its slick purple paint job gives no clue to what's inside--a room that brings to mind a rustic Korean village. The table tops are heavily polished slabs of wood. The benches are hewn from logs. And posts designed to represent a pale wooden fence line the walls, on which hang an assortment of Korean objects including a stovepipe hat and straw slippers. The woodwork was made to order for the restaurant at considerable expense.
Bu-A and Brian Chung own Jangtoh. The cooking is done by Bu-A and her brother, Sanghoi Koo, who came from Korea four years ago. They have the restaurant business in their blood, so to speak, for their father is the proprietor of Sam U Jung, a well-known barbecue restaurant in Seoul.
Jangtoh Soontofu Restaurant, 4451 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles (in the Beverly Hobart Plaza); (213) 665-8664. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Cash only. Reservations unnecessary. Park in shopping center lot or on the street.