If it weren't for tofu and red-hot chiles, Bavarians would find themselves at home in Korea. Think about it: lots of red meat, thousands of pickles -- especially pickled cabbage -- big, solid portions, and equally big bottles of blond beer. The moment I walked into Temescal's Pyung Chang Tofu House, a three-year-old restaurant run by Jasmine Jong, I saw the resemblance. Whitewashed walls and chunky dark-wood tables with benches as if just dragged from the Black Forest by burly woodcutters add to the rustic feel. All that's missing is a large Gothic crucifix.
The food echoes the decor, both in flavor and presentation. Pyung Chang specializes in tofu stews (soon) served in red-hot earthenware bowls that set the contents inside aboil. (My roommate reached over to steady one of the bowls on its wooden tray and had his hand slapped away by a protective server.) Instead of the mosaic of little white bowls that covers the table at most Korean restaurants, Pyung Chang serves five or six larger black plates of panchan, or side dishes, with entrées. We picked over a tangle of bean sprouts coated in sesame oil; cabbage kimchi as tart as it was spicy; sweet, mild slices of fish cake dressed in chile sauce; crunchy dried myuchi, or inch-long whitebait; overly garlicky sautéed zucchini; and soy-sauce-braised potatoes.
But the tofu in the stews was elegance itself -- large slabs of fresh silken-style tofu separated into creamy curds at the slightest touch. For thousands of years, Koreans and their neighbors have added a coagulant to strained soymilk to form tofu -- tubu in Korean. While firmer, grainier Chinese tofu is then pressed to extract the "whey" from the curds, silken tofu is not strained. More like yogurt than cheese, silken tofu has a smooth, custardlike texture. The friend who recommended Pyung Chang thought that the restaurant made its own tofu, but the owner assured me she buys it from a producer.
In the tofu stews, mild, milky bean curd contrasted with spicy vermilion broths redolent with chile-bean paste and garlic. Despite the fact that Pyung Chang specializes in tofu, few of the eight or nine stews are vegetarian. Our lone non-meat-eater skipped over the seaweed and mushroom stew in favor of the mixed seafood stew. Oysters, one mussel, and a couple of unpeeled shrimp hid themselves under the thick layer of tofu curds, giving the broth briny undertones. Slightly richer was the beef and dumpling stew, which contained ground beef and onions, zucchini, creamy tofu, and large tortellini-like wontons filled with beef.
The other half of the small menu covers most of the other staples in Korean cuisine -- sautéed dishes, broiled meats, noodle dishes, bi bim bap. We started with the lone appetizer, a crispy, rustic mung-bean-and-rice-flour pancake studded with scallion, mushroom, and onion. As a safety, we ordered an old familiar: bulgogi, griddled or grilled beef that has been marinated in soy and a little sugar. It topped a mess of white onion slices that sweated down on the sizzling stone serving plate. The marinade, which usually makes bulgogi far more succulent than beef, was almost absent. We preferred the sautéed baby octopus -- though chewy from being slightly overcooked -- stir-fried with carrots, zucchini, scallions, and onions in a sweet-hot chile paste. It took up half of a large platter. The other half was occupied by cold, plain wheat noodles and shredded raw cabbage. We daintily sampled from each pile until the server came back over and mixed everything up.
Apart from the motherly slap that my roommate received -- which cracked him up -- we found the service amiable. Our waiter (the owner) got the essentials down pat: She brought our food on time, discreetly helped us tackle unfamiliar dishes, and then left us alone. If you go in a larger group, don't believe anyone who tells you to order one entrée per person. This is big food -- especially the big-ticket items -- and with rice and panchan, three entrées plus an appetizer for five people is enough. We ordered four and left a depressing amount of food on the table.
Another tip: When given a choice between "stone bowl rice" and regular steamed rice, pay the extra buck for the former. The server brings out a stone bowl of sticky medium-grained rice, scoops out the grains into stainless-steel rice bowls, and then takes the bowl with a lining of leftover rice back to the kitchen. Five minutes later, after you've forgotten about it, she returns. The bowl has gone back into the fire, and the remaining rice has become a crunchy, char-broiled crust that can be added to the stew or snacked on alone. Soaked in the tofu stew, the crust completes a gut-warming masterpiece of a dish: Crunchy meets silky, hot meets cool, spicy meets bland. Put on your lederhosen and give it a try.