[NY Times]Korean Fast Food, as Spicy as You Like It
A Review of So Gong Dong Tofu, in Hartsdale
Since opening three months ago, So Gong Dong Tofu has attracted an appreciative, mostly Korean-American clientele to a new breed of fast food, in boldly flavored, chili-sparked style.
S.G.D., as this attractive restaurant is familiarly known, is more than just a tofu house, although it is that, too. The place is one in a small chain, with other locations in Palisades Park, N.J., and on St. Marks Place in Manhattan. The small dining room is matched by a compact menu that spins variations on three basic entrees: soondubu jjigae, a soupy soft tofu stew; bibimbap, sautéed vegetables and meat over rice; and barbecue, which is grilled in the kitchen, not at the table.
Beef short ribs. Credit Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
These dishes are one-pot meals and all you need for a healthful, interesting and most satisfying lunch or dinner. Spice levels can be adjusted to suit all tastes — plain, regular or seriously hot. Service is quick; portions generous; and prices, wallet-friendly. The no-alcohol policy encourages rapid turnover.
The menus arrive almost simultaneously with banchan, the small plates of complimentary snacks and condiments that traditionally begin a Korean meal. We received saucers of fiery fermented cabbage (kimchi), gently dressed bean sprouts and slices of marvelously crisp, refreshing cucumber.
Korean dishes, like most Asian fare, are meant to be shared. That is easily done at S.G.D., starting with the side dishes. They make fine appetizers but will arrive almost at the same time as the entrees from the extremely efficient kitchen. We sampled all three of the sides offered. Weightless vegetable and beef dumplings came wrapped in an amazingly thin, delicate skin. A big floppy seafood pancake, cut in wedges like a pizza, had little recognizable seafood, but was luscious nonetheless. A kimchi pancake, with stringy cabbage and scallion, had less appeal.
Bibimbap, in which a thin bed of rice supports mounds of chopped, sliced or julienne vegetables, encircling steaming meat at the center. Credit Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
The headlining dish here is soondubu jjigae, the tofu stew. Diners choose the ingredients, spice level and either noodles or rice. We selected seafood, a medium spice level and — although ramen noodles were also on hand — opted for kalguksu, irresistible “knife noodles,” so called because they are hand-cut from folded sheets of dough. Only a couple of shrimp and clams bobbed in the broth, but no matter. That broth, brought to the table still actively boiling, was wonderfully, intensely flavor-rich, indeed good to the last drop.
Bibimbap, served with a bowl of soup, is another complete meal. The dish is a lovely contrivance in which a thin bed of rice supports discrete mounds of chopped, sliced or julienne vegetables, encircling steaming meat at the center. We preferred the meaty beef to the rather bland pork, which needed a good helping of chili pepper sauce. The artful presentation kept the vegetables fresh and crisp until everything was tossed madly together at the table. For two dollars more, and well worth it, the dish arrives on a searing hot stone plate, which toasts the rice to a nutty crunch.
In many other Korean restaurants, barbecue is a cook-it-yourself project on a grill built into or set on the table. This activity can be fun, and diners can cook everything to a doneness that suits their tastes. Here, the kitchen does the grilling, but our selections were fired quickly and perfectly. A savory marinade that combined soy and sesame sauces with garlic and scallion left thin slices of beef bulgogi juicy and delectable. A similar but sweeter marinade imbued beef short ribs, which were cut into thin slices across the bones, the long tongues of pleasingly chewy meat snipped expertly into manageable pieces by our scissors-wielding waitress.
No desserts were offered, but the portions were generous and the flavors so satisfying that sweets were not missed.
So Gong Dong Tofu
411 North Central Avenue
THE SPACE A small dining room tucked into a strip mall. The simple, elegant interior has handsome lantern lighting and other Asian touches. A barrier separates a long banquette from other tables. Wheelchair accessible.
THE CROWD Multigenerational. Service is gracious, helpful and quick.
THE BAR No alcohol served. You cannot bring your own beer or wine.
THE BILL Entrees, $12 to $16. Lunch menu, $10 to $16. Visa, MasterCard and Discover accepted.
WHAT WE LIKED Seafood pancake, pan-fried dumplings, soondubu jjigae with kalguksu (“knife noodles”), bibimbap (on hot stone plate), beef bulgogi, beef short ribs.
IF YOU GO Open every day, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Lunch menu served Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. except on holidays. Reservations not accepted.