Saturday, December 12, 2009

Korea In Bergen County: Volume 1

In Fort Lee, Palisades Park, and Leonia there exists a very large and vibrant Korean American community, and with that comes a plethora of truly excellent, guaranteed authentic, and always interesting Korean restaurants.  Being obsessed with Korean cuisine I have endeavored to try as many as I can, and from now on you folks will get a taste of my explorations of Korea in Bergen County.

So Kong Dong Tofu - ( 130 Main St, Fort Lee, NJ‎201) 242-0026). Soondooboo Chigae is the star here, in fact, aside from some delicious thinly sliced ribs, called Kalbi, it is the only thing on the menu.  Soondooboo is very soft tofu curds, and with it is made the main event at this restaurant. It is ofered in 5 levels of spiciness (from not spicy to very spicy) with 7 different options mixing seafood and beef.  As today was fracking frigid, hovering at about 30 degrees,  this seemed like the perfect lunch.

As in all Korean restaurants the meal starts with banchan being brought out. Banchan are small dishes of food that come with every meal, always including kimchi, a backbone of Korean cuisine. The basic recipe for kimchi is napa cabbage, or other vegetables, fermented with hot chilli peppers and various other ingredients, and it is served at every meal.  In fact, kimchi is so ingrained in Korean culture that when Koreans take photos they use the word kimchi much the way Americans say cheese.  One may always ask for more banchan, it is part of the meal, and it is gratis. Here, while the banchan was not extensive, it was excellent.  The regular kimchi, made with napa cabbage, was fresh, tasty, lightly fermented, and not too spicy.  The cucumber kimchi was a bit spicier, and also lightly fermented.  On the other hand, the radish kimchi also had a few green chili peppers, and was very fermented, slightly fizzy, and quite spicy.  The last of the banchan was a dish made of sautéed bean sprouts that was tossed wth sesame oil, a refreshing and mild counterpoint to the spicier kimchis.

Additionally it came with mul-kimchi  (water kimchi), napa cabbage and daikon in a light vinegary pickling liquid was also very refreshing.

The rice here was perfect.   It is brought to the table by the waiter in a hot stone bowl, dished out, and is fragrant, sticky, and sweet.  The bowl is then filled with a roasted rice tea and left to sit, to be enjoyed as a drink as the meal goes on.

The kalbi comes to the table heaped on a platter, and the only utensil that comes with it is a pair of kitchen shears.  I have never seen kitchen shears used as extensively in table service as I have in Korean restaurants, and it is an unusual experience to the unaccustomed, cutting your kalbi yourself with shears. Fatty and flavorful, marinated in a sweet soy mixture, the kalbi are perfectly cooked and very tender, a real wallop of umami.

But in here, as I said before, the star is really the soondooboo chigae.  I ordered the clam soondooboo, very spicy, and my friend ordered a mix of beef and mushroom soondooboo, not spicy.  The waiter brings this to the table in a metal bowl and it is still boiling.

The raw egg at the table is cracked into the still boiling soup and stirred up, thickening and enriching the broth. At this point I tasted my soup and it was a wonderful, fiery broth redolent with fermented soy and chilies, onion, and garlic. The flavor of the clam is basically lost in the heat of the broth, and I suggest the beef as it actually adds something to the dish. My friend's mushroom and beef soondooboo was too mild for my taste, but had good flavor. In my opinion, without at least a little spicy heat this dish is lackluster, but my dining companion enjoyed it, saying;
 "Without the, what was to me, overwhelming amount of spice, the well developed flavors of tofu, mushroom, and beef to sing on their own, with just a little hint of spice for those who don't enjoy spicy foods".
So Kong Dong Tofu is a busy, busy restaurant, and they hurry you in to your table take your order almost immediately.  There are often lines during the lunch and dinner rush, and they will take your order while waiting if there is a line, to make sure you get served right away.  We were quite fortunate to get a seat just before a line formed.  The service was brisk, but friendly, and when we were done we were brought the check and asked to vacate our seats.  I thought I had left my camera there ( I later found it in my sweatshirt pocket), and the staff was very helpfully looking for it with me.  One of the joys of Korean restaurants is that you are pretty much guaranteed that the flavors are not at all modified for the Western palate, and in this So Kong Dong is no exception.  This place is a gem, and in the way of my favorite restaurants does one thing well: the single-dish focus is its success.

I give So Kong Dong Tofu 4 noms on the nomscale.


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