Spicy Korean Tofu Soup (Soondubu Jigae) with a Side of Mackerel

Categories: On the Menu

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Photos by Mai Pham
Spicy Mushroom Korean Tofu Soup "Soondubu jigae"
You'd think that a restaurant with the name "Tofu House" would be vegetarian, but this only applies outside of Chinatown. Inside Chinatown, where the Asians are, people can tell that a name like Jang Guem Tofu House means that it's a Korean restaurant serving a spicy Korean hot tofu soup, known as soondubu jigae.

Lesser known than the larger and more popular Tofu Village across the street, Jang Guem is good for a number of reasons. First there's the decor. When you walk in, it's like visiting a small tavern in a faraway Asian city: everything is brown woods, from the wooden table and chairs to the flooring, which is made of cut up tree trunks placed in the ground unevenly for a cobblestone effect, to the walls, where tree branches are embedded in the wall as art.

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Love the interior design, with the round wood flooring
There's also the fact that the place is small. The service is quick and efficient, and I enjoy the almost communal nature of the seating arrangement, where tables are situated very close to one other.

And then there's the mackerel. Yes, we are talking about a fried fish, about six to eight inches in length, that is brought out as a complimentary side dish along with several other side dishes like kim chi, pickled seaweed, cold bean sprouts, and salad.

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Whole fried mackerel and side dishes
The mackerel may be a bit odoriferous for some, and like sardines, has a stronger fish taste. But people love getting that little fish, one per person with the order of an entree. The bones are small and thin, and you have to pick at it with your chopstick, but I overheard a small boy coming in and the first thing he asked his mom was "am I going to get the fish?"

Now to the tofu. The traditional spicy Korean tofu soup is usually made with seafood, which has clams, mussels and fish, giving the tofu the aroma of a fish stew. At Jang Guem, you can get it with pork, beef, and a myriad of other ingredients, but personally I always order the mushroom tofu soup, mild, and kalbi (Korean short rib) combo, which is value priced at about $15.

The tofu will come bubbling hot and steaming to your table in a cast-iron pot, along with a raw egg on the side, which you can crack directly into the soup and mash up to create an egg flower-type consistency, or you can leave it on the bottom of the boiling mini cauldron until it poaches the egg. The mushroom version comes with a combination of enoki and other specialty mushrooms that adds a chewy texture to the soup that I love.

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Kalbi Korean shortribs on sizzling plate
When you get the combo, you will also get steamed rice served in a stone pot, which if you leave long enough will crisp the rice that adheres to the sides of the pot, giving the rice a nice smokiness and crunchiness. In addition to that, you'll get a sizzling plate of kalbi short ribs on a bed of white onions.

It's a lot of food, and it's quite impressive. I like to go by myself when I'm famished so my eyes can feast at the same time I do, because with all the little dishes, it's like a mini-buffet for one.



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7 comments
matt
matt

I live in Clear Lake and drive to Jang Guem to get my Korean BBQ and tofu soup fix. I have eaten at Korean BBQ on El Dorado several times, but I like Jang Guem better.

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

We've tried just about everywhere and have yet to be impressed much by any of the Korean joints off of Bellaire, Tofu House included (although the free side of mackeral is nice). Seoul House gets points for (relatively) cheap bites that are surprisingly decent, though.

We found the Korean BBQ on El Dorado to be mediocre at best (sorry Bruce R); we checked it out after a positive review in the Chronicle back in the day... we're excited to try out Myung Dong in Sharpstown next, based on the glowing Yelp reviews.

But so far, the best is still found on the other side of I-10 (in my perhaps-not-humble-enough opinion).

trisch
trisch

This looks wonderful, especially the kalbi! We weren't terribly impressed with Tofu Village, so we'll definitely be giving Tofu House a shot.

Bruce R
Bruce R

Those of you in the Clear Lake area can get tofu soup and mackerel at Korean BBQ on El Dorado.  KBBQ is a gem of the Clear Lake area. 

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Truth - I asked Chef Ryan Pera (co-owner of Revival Market) where he goes for Korean, and one of the places he named was Jang Guem! He says he and his wife like to go there for their tofu soup. He loves the little fried mackerel too. 

Guest
Guest

Agreed 100%.  Bellaire Korean restaurants (Jang Guem included) are generally Chinese or Vietnamese owned, and while nothing is inherently wrong with that, the quality and attention to detail in preparing Korean dishes just isn't there.  I eat Chinese food at Bellaire quite often, but have had enough bland, watery, or just plain underwhelming Korean food in the neighborhood (at twice the price of the Chinese food) to learn to avoid it.

Besides, Houston has an actual Korea town in Longpoint, so that's where you should be going if you want Korean.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Thanks for your opinions, I love them!  While I agree that the Long Point area offers authentic Korean made by Koreans, and that there are many more options out there, I didn't necessarily find the food there significantly better enough to warrant a long trek. We visited Seoul Garden for Kalbi, kimchi soup and a myriad of other dishes for a friend's birthday; I probably tried more than half the menu. While it was very very good, the difference wasn't appreciable enough for me to drive an extra 30 minutes when there are options in close to me on Bellaire Blvd.

Jang Guem soondubu jigae and kalbi, for me, is better than Tofu Village, which I found to be blander in taste. Compared with other tofu houses I've tried in California, however, like the popular BCD Tofu House, Jang Guem holds its own.  Seoul Garden has all-you-can-eat side dishes and a great hot bibimbap, as well as a very good kalbi tang soup.  Arirang has good kalbi and good spicy pork and kimchi pancake, and their sister dumpling house offers good noodles. The restaurants are not strong across the board, but if you pick the right dishes, the food is good, solid authentic Korean. I also know for a fact that the owners of all three restaurants are Korean. Even if their waitstaff is Vietnamese or Chinese, their kitchen is Korean.

So when you say bland, do you just mean less spicy? Because I am not a really spicy eater...maybe that's the key to our difference of opinion.  But I respect yours, and thank you for commenting. Tell me where to go in Long Point and what to eat and I'm happy to try it and tell you if you've proven me wrong.

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