A proper bowl of soondubu arrives at the table looking like a volcano, a roiling red stew that also holds cloudlike scoops of silken tofu inside the mini-cauldron of its blazing-hot stone bowl.
Typically, you can get more than a dozen different add-ins for this ultimate meal of spicy Korean comfort, from seafood to mushrooms, kimchi, dumplings, or tripe, not to mention a whole egg you can hard-boil or crack open to stir in and thicken the stew. And the sensation of eating it, usually spooned over a little rice, is a fascinating study in contrasts, the crimson brew's chili heat tempered by the blandness of the tofu, and the bean curd's soft custard pressed against a tender poached oyster, the snap of a shiitake, the crunch of cabbage, or the tender chew of thin-sliced beef.
But not all soondubus are created equal. And at Dubu in Elkins Park, which makes one of the region's best, each bowl of soondubu is actually several weeks in the making. The oxtail stew at its base called sagol yook-soo takes at least 48 hours to simmer. But then it's combined to order with a yang-nyum spice paste that's made from a blend of infused pepper oil, ginger, scallions, onions, and chilies that ages for two weeks before it's ready. The resulting brew brings not just a burst of spicy heat, but a depth of flavors that unfurl slowly, drawing your spoon back for more.
Philadelphia is in the midst of a Korean awakening right now, with a forthcoming project in Center City from Peter Serpico (Kyong Ho), a number of Korean-themed bars and quick-serve bibimbap shops (SouthGate and Giwa), and an authentic new offering called Dae Bok in the Chinatown Square food hall. One of Olney's Koreatown standbys, Seo Ra Bol, has said it hopes to open a Center City branch this fall.
Now you can add Dubu, which is among the best of them all, to that spicy stew of Korean movers. Managing director Steven Lee, a veteran of Manhattan's BCD Tofu House chain who helped open this impressive independent at the back of an Elkins Park strip mall beside the H Mart two years ago, says they're planning a branch somewhere "near Chinatown" this fall. And it won't be just tofu, because grilled meats ("gogi") are chef Chris Kim's specialty.
I believe it, based on my meals at Dubu, where the menu covers the full spectrum of Korean classics. Of course, I knew this place was legit from the opening moment, when I dug chopsticks and fingers first into a crisply fried whole little croaker fish that came with the banchan, the half-dozen complimentary little plates delivered to start the meal. Dubu has a separate chef just for its banchan, Yi Soon Cho, and the kimchi was particularly stellar - a fresh rendition made twice daily that mixes fresh raw oysters into the napa cabbage's pepper paste, which lends a vaguely tidal funk (along with fermented shrimp and fish sauce) to the punchy chili heat, soft sweetness of Asian pear, and a nutty wave of ground sesame on the finish.
The rest of Kim's menu followed suit with similar complexity. And just like that labor-intensive soondubu broth, virtually every dish is the result of a distinctive, time-consuming process that doesn't take shortcuts. The L.A. galbi short ribs are steeped for two days in a complex marinade (garlic, soy, sesame oil, sake, and no fewer than four fruits, including kiwi) that leave those thin pads of grilled beef incredibly tender without being too sweet. A similar marinade for rib eye results in a stone pot variation on bulgogi I've never seen before. The meat is simmered in a shallow pool of its own juice with onions and glass noodles, instead of being grilled, producing a surprisingly delicate result.
A pork variation on bulgogi hit a spicier tune, but the fire gochujang red pepper paste was balanced with sesame, apples, and onions.
There were a few moments, especially during the bustling lunch service in this surprisingly modern space decorated in wood accents, when the kitchen skimped a bit on seafood. The pajeon pancake had the perfect balance of outer crisp and doughy center, as squid is ground into the mix, but there weren't enough chunks of whole seafood in the batter. The lunch-portion seafood soondubu was also light on shellfish. A sauté of less-than-tender octopus ladled in spicy gravy over a brick of sizzling tofu was one of my few disappointments at dinner.
Then again, we had so much good food on our table, and all so fairly priced considering almost the entire menu is under $20, that these were mere quibbles. I loved the handmade mandoo, especially the wrinkly steamed dumplings filled with pork and scallions. The japchae noodle stir-fry was notable because the sweet potato glass noodles were neither too oily nor too stuck together and bore the smoky singe of a deft turn through a rocket-fired wok.
If you like a good dolsot bibimbap served in a hot stone bowl, you will love Dubu's dolpan bibimbap, which is served in a wider, more shallow stone bowl that has more surface area for rice on the bottom to roast into a golden crisp. And every element of its garnish (blanched watercress, boiled radish, royal ferns, Asian chives, mung beans, and tender beef) is perfectly cooked before it's added to the pinwheel of ingredients on top and then mixed in with a squirt of hot sauce.
All this is not to take away from Dubu's tofu casseroles, which are outstanding, including a vegetarian option (with mushroom and vegetable broth), and an unusual variation with curry that tastes almost Japanese, but with a welcome hit of Korean spice.
But it's chef Kim's complex sauces I keep thinking about, including a mysteriously spicy-sweet dark chili sauce for the gejang, which morphed from great to amazing as I crunched down and released the oceanic savor of the raw softshell crabs that had marinated inside it for a day. Yes, the jellied texture of that uncooked crab was admittedly disconcerting for a novice. But if you're up for an intense food experience, toast your tablemates with a glass of cold soju liquor from Dubu's list, and go for the gejang.
Of course, I thought we'd also conquered the even more daring challenge of a spicy puffer fish tartare. It was supposed to be served beside a chilled mound of the outstanding housemade naengmyun sweet potato flour vermicelli, which get snipped with kitchen shears tableside by the servers, and topped with a half-frozen slushy sauce blended from cucumbers, powdered roast chicken, peanuts, and chilies, plus a splash of brisket stock and a tableside splash of cucumber lemon water.
It made for amazingly refreshing warm-weather eating, even if the fish was unexpectedly crunchy. And Lee later informed me that a translating error on the menu had mistakenly identified skate wing (sliced with its bones) as the potentially poisonous fugu blowfish. Dubu's Korean spice packs a confident punch, but thankfully not a lethal one. Even so, next time I'll be trying my naengmyun with beef.