Midvale » Korean food has been the darling of the food magazine world of late. The publishing gods at Saveur, Gourmet (R.I.P.), et al, have all smiled upon Korean dishes and their bold flavorings of sesame, garlic, chili and yes, even the unfairly maligned kimchi.
I dare anyone to try a good batch of the stuff -- since it can be made with any sort of vegetable -- with some grilled meat and deny its righteous, crunchy, tangy, slightly funky, spicy balance. That's probably one reason why Korean tacos have entered the culinary lexicon with such force.
In Salt Lake City, Korean restaurants are few and far between. Many resort to blending themselves into more familiar cuisines -- with mixed results. For a culture that has tried to distinguish itself from its neighbors China and Japan in the past century, it hasn't done a good job promoting its cuisine. As my mother sometimes says, "What would the ancestors say?"
I like to think the ancestors would say good things about places like one of my latest encounters -- It's Tofu. Funny name. Even funnier concept in a town that covets meat as if Eleanor Roosevelt herself crafted it into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
How cool then is it to see a cross-section of a population lingering on a recent Saturday night? Admittedly, it was a little too quiet for my liking. Only three months into its life, the place is still relatively unknown and more glaringly -- there was no requisite flat screen TV displaying beautiful, crying Korean actresses.
There was a different soundtrack instead: the bellow of masculine laughter signaling the satisfaction after a meal of tender, not-too-sweet short ribs ($14.75), a couple whispering while feeding each other delicious, slippery, clear japchae noodles ($11.25) with lightweight metal chopsticks. At our table, it was the noise of vigorous chewing and slurping.
First, we tried crisply seared tofu mini cakes ($5.75). As a bona fide meat eater, I can honestly say I enjoyed them as well as the jun , Korean savory pancakes the size of the skillet it was cooked in. Ours was spiked with chopped kimchi and sliced shiitake mushrooms. Unlike most Western cultures, noise is a requisite to the whole ritual of eating in Korean culture. The louder your noises, the higher the compliments to the chef.
One dish though, literally spoke for itself. Bibbimbap ("mixed rice," $9.75-$11.25) is a composed dish. On a bed of white sticky rice, there's a slew of beautifully prepared vegetables, a few hot, a few cold, sometimes slivers of tender meat, all topped with a fried egg. It arrives in a modern, lighter facsimile of traditional stone pots used to serve food magma-hot. In this case, the rice sizzled. Your job is to attack it whenever you deem it safe for your tongue. Mix it all together (hence the name) with your spoon and marvel at the textures, the flavors and balanced seasonings.
It's Tofu is the most Korean set-up in town. The place is sleek, modern and super clean. It's a casual place: you are seated and served by a friendly waitress, your food is delivered on lacquered trays and you can summon your server with the easy push of doorbell-looking contraption located at each table.
But its signature dish involves -- you guessed it -- tofu. According to our server, the kitchen has the means to make their own tofu, which they eventually will when they expand in downtown Salt Lake City and other places in the west.
But for now, a company in L.A. is doing a fine job with the silky soybean curds. Soon dubu ($7.75-$8.75) is basically a kimchi and tofu stew. Tofu, being neutral in flavor, picks up whatever is alongside it; in this case, a tangy spice, and if you choose beef or pork as your option, a rich meaty flavor. It's served in the same sizzling bowl as the mixed rice, only instead of a gentle hiss, you hear the soft "blops" of boiling soup. Order it as a combo ($12.75-$13.75) and get your choice of the famed Korean barbecue meat along with an array of panchan -- Korean side dishes.
Bulgogi and kalbi (sesame marinated beef in either case) are good; if you want more spice, go for the spicy pork slathered in Korean chili paste. My vegetarian companion was more than happy with his selection, even though he was completely surrounded by meat. He, like us, took to his spoon, blowing gently into the electric red broth and bracing himself for the concentrated layers of fresh, made-from-scratch flavor. We slurped. We conversed. And we ate well.
The gods -- of the food publishing world and otherwise -- would be smiling indeed.
Fresh, fast food, Korean-style. Casual eatery with slick looks, the food is authentic, made-from-scratch and full of flavor. Try the "soon" hearty Korean stews. Kimchi and pork or beef are the best.
Location » 6949 S. 1300 East, Midvale; 801-566-9103
Hours » Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$
Liquor » None
Reservations » No
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » Visa, MC, AMEX