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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Tofu! Tofu! Tofu!

January 03, 1991|JONATHAN GOLD

Koreatown at noon. The malls are quiet. The cars on Olympic Boulevard course swiftly from downtown toward the sea.

Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant is full. I am hungry. I stand by the door, by the stripped logs of the wall, behind 14 men in suits who also wait for lunch. Iron pots of tofu hiss on their way to the tables. We will all eat soon.

Above the door and somewhat to its left, a clock chimes the hour, 12, in a nasal electronic drone. It is a shiny clock, a cheap wooden interpretation of a grandfather clock. Its computer chip knows the Big Ben theme. It is on a wall of wood, bamboo, in a room decorated with burnished and irregular burls that have been sliced from logs like cheese and nailed to the walls. The tables and stools and benches of the restaurant are also made from slices of log, glued together and polished to a high shine, gleaming in the filtered sunlight. In addition, the west side of the mini-mall dining room is thatched like a hut.

The restaurant is decorated like the gift shop at a Korean shrine. I had thought this was a traditional thing, a rustic affectation common to tofu specialty restaurants in Korea--both Jangtoh Soontofu and the uptown branch of Beverly Soon Tofu are also havens for logs--but I was recently assured that log-slicing is the longtime hobby of Beverly Soon Tofu's proprietress (she says Jangtoh was "inspired" by Beverly), that logs and tofu aren't necessarily intertwined. The Korean tofu restaurant across the street, called So Kong Dong, has no logs at all. So Kong Dong is also popular with Korean businessmen at lunch, though what you get at Beverly is just slightly more delicious.

What you eat in a Korean tofu restaurant: tofu. Also rice and a couple of different kinds of kimchee . At Beverly you get a simple water kimchee of white radish and a spicy-red kimchee of white radish. All the menus are short, but Beverly's is the shortest of all, listing only three items--each of them a minor variation on the theme of tofu casserole--plus a few widely advertised soft drinks. The thing to drink here is chilled barley tea served in soup bowls, which is very refreshing and is included in the price of the lunch.

The tofu casserole, soontofu , comes bubbling and sputtering, splattering the paper placemat with a fine red mist, forming a burnt crust on the rim of the red-hot cast-iron bowls in which it is served. Until it cools down a bit, soontofu looks more like a scene from the "Rite of Spring" sequence of "Fantasia" than it does like actual food. If you like, the waitress will break an egg over the seething, volcanic mass. The white of the egg sets at once, while the yolk remains pleasantly viscous, a nice, subtle contrast to the velvety smoothness of the thumb-size chunks of tofu and the thick broth. ("The tofu is made fresh every day--even on a holiday," the proprietress says to anybody who will listen.)

Soontofu here is available spiked with oysters, meat and kimchee , with oysters, meat and small clams, or with sheets of toasted seaweed that you crumble on yourself. There is no appreciable difference between the briny, savory tang of the three, though the tiny oysters are a nice touch and the one with the seaweed alone is even lower in calories than the rest. (You could probably have a filling bowl of each variety and still come out better than you would with a Big Mac 'n' fries.) Gradations of possible spiciness range from milky-white (no chile) to a nostril-searing brick-red; you decide.

Dessert, as at most Korean restaurants, is a stick of chewing gum.

Doublemint.

Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant, 2717 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 108, (213) 380-1113. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Dinner for two, food only, $13.

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