I really know very little about Korean cuisine. I've had Korean barbecue and bibimbap and a few other iconic dishes, and I've pulled off David Chang's recipe for bo ssam (a roasted pork shoulder dish that's excellent for dinner parties) from his Momofuku cookbook. But when it comes to the ins and outs of which dishes go together, in what order all those tiny banchan plates should be eaten, and even which ones are condiments and which are appetizers, I'm mostly clueless. But Tofu House, the Korean soup specialist that opened last summer at the intersection of Havana Street and Iliff Avenue, seemed like a fairly straightforward way to enjoy lunch without much confusion or consternation over my lack of expertise.
After all, other Asian soups present little difficulty: ramen can be slurped and savored with no doctoring whatsoever, and pho needs only a few handfuls of fresh herbs and other recognizable accompaniments (and is perfectly enjoyable without). So a few variations on proteins and vegetables served in searingly hot stone pots shouldn't be a problem. Except that there were just enough options on the menu that paralysis nearly set in and questions bubbled to the surface like unfamiliar, lurking vegetables. How would kimchi soup with pork differ from tofu soup with pork? Why did the meat-based soups even have tofu in them? Would one order be enough for one person — and should I get an appetizer? The answers to all of these questions became unimportant once I realized that my understanding of the ingredients and resulting flavors in each soup couldn't be clarified by the menu descriptions, so I should just order a combination that looked good to me. And that's how I ended up with a lava-orange bowl of broth bobbing with dumplings, oysters, clams and tofu so tender that they defied most attempts to pick them up with chopsticks.
For good measure, I threw in an order of deep-fried tofu, reasoning that leftovers are seldom a bad option. After a few minutes, my beer arrived (sake and other, cloudier riced-based fermented beverages are also available), along with those beguiling banchan plates and a half-dozen breaded tofu squares. I tasted each of the banchan surreptitiously, nervous that I was performing the equivalent of drinking the ketchup before the arrival of the French fries. By then, there were enough other customers in the dining room (a well-spaced arrangement with very few tables for the square footage) that I could observe their preparations, hoping to glean some tips and proper etiquette (although I already knew that watching other people eat is probably not an acceptable action).
Our server wheeled over the service cart — an excellent feature that should be adopted by more restaurants — and unloaded a stone bowl with a heavy wooden lid and another with no lid, which held my soup and was so hot that the contents maintained a rolling boil for several minutes. The server whisked away the wooden lid of the other bowl to reveal a crackling mound of rice dotted with purple-black beans. I looked around the room again to see how other tables were handling their meals, wondering if I should scoop the rice into the soup or vice versa — or keep them in their separate bowls and only combine them on my spoon. Oddly, no two people were eating their meals in the same fashion. One gentleman sat by himself reading a newspaper and dabbling into his banchan. The server had doffed the wooden lid on his rice, too, but had then poured steaming liquid (water? tea?) from a teapot into the bowl and replaced the lid. The man let the soup cool for some time before finally digging in — I never saw what he did with his rice.
A woman at another table combined small amounts of rice and soup into a small steel bowl (why didn't I have one?) and ate from that bowl with chopsticks and the familiar flattened spoon common in Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants. Others dropped kimchi from their banchan into their soups, while a few dug into the little white plates as soon as they arrived. Some of the banchan were clearly meant to be enjoyed solo: cold cellophane noodles doused in sesame oil, and bouncy strips of an indistinguishable protein that turned out to be marinated fish cake (my curiosity finally got the better of me and I asked our server). Others tasted fine alone but seemed intended as an enhancement to the other food: julienned and pickled white radish, and salty cabbage kimchi.
Eventually I just relaxed and enjoyed my soup with its custard-soft tofu, tender dumplings filled with a ground-pork mixture and a few plump oysters and clams. The broth was powerful and pungent, with an orange slick of chile oil and a flurry of spices too complex to discern, although the jarring, perfumey slap of kaffir lime leaf was certainly among them. My decision to keep my rice isolated in its own bowl paid off as I dug to the bottom after finishing my soup and discovered a crusty, caramelized layer of rice that peeled away from the stone to provide crunchy bits at the end of the meal.
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I may not have improved my table manners or experienced any cultural revelations at Tofu House, but I enjoyed an excellent bowl of soup with new (to me, at least) combinations of flavors and textures and a splashy presentation. If the few tables around me were any indication, those more familiar with Korean restaurant cuisine seem pretty relaxed about how they go about customizing meals to their own preferences — and that's a lead I'll gladly follow.