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There's No Tofu Like Soft Tofu

August 18, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition

Soft Tofu Restaurant is a small, ramshackle Garden Grove place with a menu printed almost entirely in Korean. It aims for a Korean clientele, although the staff is quite welcoming to other diners--considering how surprised they are to see any.

I recently ate at Soft Tofu with some friends, and we all came away thinking it was our best Orange County meal of the year. As I write this, nearly a week later, I realize the impression was more than a casual one.

Before you rush out to Soft Tofu Restaurant--and I hope you plan to--here is a brief description of Korean food, probably the least known and least appreciated of the major Asian cuisines. You may have eaten Korean barbecue, but that's just the beginning. Korean cuisine is distinctive: more substantial than Japanese, more rustic and strongly flavored than Chinese.

As in neighboring China and Japan, rice is the staple of the diet. It's always accompanied by a variety of side dishes known as panch'an , which can be anything from humble boiled bamboo to highly spiced oysters. The most famous accompaniment is kimchi, vegetables highly seasoned with red pepper and garlic and pickled with dried shrimp. There are dozens of kinds of kimchi, the most common being the crimson-colored, fiery-hot cabbage version. Western diners often recoil from kimchi when they first encounter it (the aroma can be pretty strong), but many are surprised to find themselves falling in love with it.

There are no courses, per se, in a formal Korean meal. The table fills up gradually, and guests are expected to begin eating as soon as the first dishes arrive (you don't wait for everyone to be served, as in a Western meal). At Soft Tofu, the biggest hurdle is getting the waitress to give you advice. If you don't come here with a clear idea about what you want, chances are she will be shy about counseling you.

Well, the natural place to begin is with soft tofu, an increasingly popular item in the restaurants of L.A.'s Koreatown and one of the most elegant light foods in the world. Those who have eaten tofu only in a Chinese or Japanese restaurant are in for a major attitude adjustment here. They only know the usual squares of soybean curd. Eaten alone, that kind of tofu--nutritious and digestible though it is--has a neutral taste and a texture not unlike that of an undercooked omelet.

But then there is soft tofu, made by screening liquidized soybean through silk (yes, real silk). I first ate it in Japan, and the difference astounded me. Soft tofu has a slippery, mousse-like, downright silken texture; it's a magical foodstuff that absorbs the flavors of whatever is cooked with it with unmatched grace. By comparison, commercial tofu is rough, stiff and gelatinous.

There are essentially three ways to eat your soft tofu here: with fresh oysters, sliced beef or both. I had the combination, served with (natch) rice and panch'an, and it was astonishing. Delicate little clouds of tofu swim to the surface as you spoon up the hot broth. Underneath, more firmly cooked (but still delicate) chunks await the edge of a spoon to scrape them up.

The ritual begins here when the waitress brings you bowls of iced rice tea ( poricha ) in cold stainless steel cups. That is followed by hot bowls of rice (also in stainless steel--the Korean steel industry is booming) and assorted panch'an, which might be, say, boiled spinach with a fermented soy dressing, two kinds of kimchi (cucumber and cabbage) and a dish of marinated seaweed.

The soft tofu itself comes in a special iron crock known as a duk bekki . The tofu is boiled inside it, and it rests on a wooden base, remaining hot throughout your meal.

And there is plenty besides soft tofu to be had. Sunde (pronounced soon-day ) is a long, thin-sliced tube akin to andouille , the French sausage made from tripe, and every bit as delicious. This one contains pig stomach, rice, spices and a bit of blood in the forcemeat to darken it. Koreans slice it into thin rounds and eat it with spiced salt.

If you like chili, tomato and rice, consider the dish called chik sak duk poke (pronounce it chick-sock-duck-po-kay and you will be understood). Here you get a boiling pot of red soup that reduces and slowly caramelizes as you linger over it. The main component is rice cakes, which are cylindrical and pasta-like--not flat, as you might expect from the name. The rice cakes are al dente. Let them boil long enough, though, and they get as soft as baby food.

The best cold dish here is naeng myun (nang mee-un). This cold, refreshing vegetarian noodle dish is popular on hot summer days in Korea. The noodle used here is close to angel hair pasta, but it's tossed with sesame oil, red pepper, thin-sliced cucumbers and more than a hint of garlic. Koreans like it bordering on ice cold.

The restaurant also makes a mean mandu kuk , the Korean won ton soup. Mandu is a thick-skinned, more garlicky won ton than you are probably used to, with a finely ground meat filling. The broth loaded with garlic and cabbage and may look like minestrone, but watch out--its red color comes from dried chilies, not tomato.

The complimentary dessert, if you want to call it that, is chikkei , a sugared rice liquid that is almost as refreshing as the cold noodles. Few Koreans leave here without downing their bowl of chikkei.

How is it that a restaurant like this goes largely unnoticed, while Chinese steam-table takeouts spring up in every corner mini-mall? This must be one of those mysteries of the inscrutable West.

Soft Tofu restaurant is inexpensive. Dishes run between $4.99 and $6.99.

* SOFT TOFU RESTAURANT

* 9542 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove.

* (714) 539-4511.

* Open daily, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

* Cash only.

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