If you were a suburban 13-year old and ever wanted to rebel against your Korean parents, then one of the most shocking things you could do is declare yourself a vegetarian.
Because let’s face it, some of the world’s best bbq is korean bbq. And they grill it all: beef, pork, chicken, squid, shrimp, and even octopus.
Now when the Los Angeles winter nights get chilly (and they do, in that desert-dry way…okay, 58 F degrees feels pretty chilly when your blood is thin), HB and the UN and I like to go to BCD Tofu House on Wilshire Blvd for their spicy lava tofu soup and bbq meat combination dinner. (For some reason this restaurant in the international chain tastes better than the Vermont Ave one.)
We usually order the bulgogi pork, a slightly spicy umber-colored dish of thin-sliced meat on a bed of grilled onions, and the petite, palm-sized bbq beef ribs, which are always a delicious caramelly-brown from a perfect amount of time on the grill.
iI you’ve never had Korean bbq and/or lava (or bubbling) tofu soup before, what happens is that right after you place your order, they bring out panchan, or little plates. It’s often pickles (with ice cubes on top to keep them crisp), kimchi in cold soup, kimchi on a platter, whole fried fish, a mysterious blend of oysters (?) and raw garlic in chili sauce, and maybe a scoop of what looks like potato salad. There will be two eggs on a ridged plate and the Unreliable Narrator will often insist on trying the pickles or at least the pickle-flavored ice from atop the pickles and pick up an egg thinking it’s hard boiled. It’s not. It’s raw.
The server will bring steaming stone pots of sticky short grain Korean rice dotted with steamed peas and separate hot pots of bubbling tofu soup (hence the ‘lava’ appellation). The soup will be the temperature of the sun, with accompanying giant bubbles roiling the soup’s whole prawns and tofu like numbered ping pong balls in a lottery hopper, indicating a high boil. It’ll be too hot to eat (in more ways than one) but it’s the right temperature for cracking your raw egg into, for that egg drop soup effect.
Most importantly, the meats and most of the vegetables will be bright red from a chili-garlic sauce.
The server will scoop out the rice for you, leaving behind a layer of rice scorched and stuck to the stone pot’s walls. She or he will then instantly fill the stone rice pots with boiling water, so you can have scorched-rice soup afterwards.
Now, BCD Tofu House and soon dofu is nothing if it’s not exciting. There’s a high degree of danger involved throughout: you could mistakenly order your soup “Korean hot,” a level of spiciness which would probably make every orifice of your head emit steam. You could burn the palate of your mouth or your esophagus drinking the boiling soup. You could accidentally touch the stone pots, getting a nice contact burn. Or you could choke on the tiny bones of the whole fried fish.
Dramatic, big flavors, and risky. Plus grilled meats. The thin-sliced bulgogi pork will be inexplicably bland some times (one look and the server can see, “ha, not-Korean”) and other times be so hot as to sneak up on you, unleashing a spiciness that whaps your sinuses when you least suspect it/when you’ve eaten a sizeable amount that suddenly has the critical mass to make your eyes water. Thing is, you just don’t know which you’ve been given til you take a big bite of pork.
Which is why we love it, and bring the Unreliable Narrator there. He eats the rice, the fish, and the beef ribs–the least spicy dishes. And everyone walks away sweaty and satisfied, smelling slightly smoky.