Goong - Irvine
It's that time of year again. A time for sweaters. A time for raincoats. A time for sundubu jjigae -- Korean tofu soup -- food expressly designed to melt away the cold-weather shivers. It's a meal so soothing, so satisfying, that I look forward to winters so that I can have it. And when Jack Frost starts nipping at noses, there's no better form of nourishment to provide ample dosages of warmth and comfort.
In the City of Irvine, there is no shortage of places to take refuge from the chill and tuck into such a meal. No matter where you go, it's brought out steaming and simmering in a cauldron, ready for a raw egg to be cracked into it. Then, rub your hands, and lick your lips. You're in for a treat.
One wet and blustery evening, with our cheeks raw from the icy wind, we hit up our default joint for the dish, Irvine Tofu House. But as soon as we drove up, we knew something had changed.
The flapping green banner draped over the entrance said it all. Irvine Tofu House was no more. A new place, called Goong, had taken over. We entered without trepidation, because at that point, any tofu soup was good tofu soup.
The layout of the restaurant remained the same, save for a few plasma screens, a cleanly lit wall, and some new upholstery. The menu, however, got an extreme makeover.
Present and accounted for were the tofu soups, but there were new dishes I'd never seen before, all of them strange and exotic to this non-Korean. There were pancakes that looked like pizzas, cut into wedges and served from a hot plate, and stir fried noodles with unpronounceable names.
But we weren't in the mood for exploration that evening. We knew what we wanted and we wanted it fast. The usual: Combination Tofu Soup, chock full of clams, shrimp, oysters, and beef ($7.99).
Almost as quickly as our order went in, the saucers of banchan started to arrive. I counted nine varieties of these complimentary side dishes.
There was fried yellow croaker, a small fish blessed with succulent flesh on every inch of its five-inched frame. On another saucer, squid meat, playfully chewy, diced into the size of Tic Tacs, steeped in gochujang. And then there were the candied soybeans, so sweet it could've been mistaken for Jelly Bellys.
Of course, there was the obligatory kimchi, Napa cabbage perfectly pickled with scorching red pepper, which bit back with sharp teeth. Constrastingly cool was the shredded seaweed, which crunched clean and fresh.
Then there were tiny blocks of fried tofu, in a perky marinade of chili and green onion, which blasted my palate with intense flavor. While cucumber, made tart by a brine of vinegar, soy, and sesame oil, had a potency all its own.
A soup bowl of cold vinegary broth pulsed with the color and vibrancy of red pepper. It stung my tongue as I sipped it, while floating pieces of radish refreshed.
There were less than stellar performers too. The bean sprouts were flat and unexciting, while the potato salad, waxy and flavorless. The shredded radish pickles were also inordinately dull.
But these minor disappointments disappeared when the main attraction made its entrance. And it was all that I hoped it could be and more.
The soup, gurgled and sputtered, heartily swallowing the albumen and yolk of the egg I dropped into it with an enveloping gulp. I ladled some hot broth and tofu curd over what was left peeking, to bury the egg deeper into the belly of the brew to cook.
Afterwards, I scooped up some tofu and blew on it. It quivered like jelly as I slurped it down. Shutting my eyes to revel in the silken warmth of it all, I felt the soft curds liquefying, leaving me in a state of happiness and bliss.
Gone were the salad days of summer. But here to stay the winter was sundubu jjigae.
14775 Jeffrey Rd.
Irvine, CA 92618