Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dish on Dining: Pyung Chang Soft Tofu House

Its Soon, Delightful
4701 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Temescal neighborhood
PH: 510.658.9040
Cash only

I’m amazed at the number of Korean restaurants in Oakland, more so than in San Francisco. Many of them are clustered on Telegraph Avenue and they even reach the far north corner of my humble abode. So recently when the weather started to turn autumnal, I went hunting for the hot, spicy Korean comfort food known as soon—or soft tofu soup.

I walked down to the nearby Temescal neighborhood, past all the tempting foodie hotspots such as Bakesale Betty, Pizzaiolo and Dona Tomas, and found myself at the doorsteps of Pyung Chang Soft Tofu House. This small, corner restaurant in an old Victorian blends with the somewhat rough neighborhood. With its door closed, it was hard to tell past the dingy windows whether it was open for business.

But sure enough, it was. I entered and was seated at one of the rustic wooden benches that looked like they came from a summer lodge in Taiwan. Off to the side, the cashier counter looked like the front desk of an Asian youth hostel with its stark black and white Korean letterings (which I’m assuming is the menu) and a closed-circuit television of the restaurant (which I’m assuming is for the times when the place gets so packed the waitress can check to see if a table in the back is done).

The ambiance was definitely mom-and-pop. The kind of place that you can ensure you’ll get cheap, ethnic food—and if you’re lucky, cheap, tasty ethnic food.

After flipping through the pictured menu, I ordered the Original Soon Tofu Soup with Pork ($8.99). There were maybe six other versions of this tofu soup, but I decided to stick with the classic. Now typically, I’d recommend ordering a side bowl of rice in a stone pot, which is always fun to see rice come in this rustic-style stoneware. The hot stone continues to cook the rice, creating a nice bottom layer of crispy rice that’s fun to stir into your soon.

But instead of just a side dish of rice, I decided to order the Bi Bim Bap in stoneware ($10.99), mostly because I like saying Bi Bim Bap. (A few years ago, I went to Vancouver, B.C., with my sister and brother-in-law for the New Year and I got so drunk at a Korean bar on New Year’s Eve that I spent the night hunting for Bi Bim Bap. See how a food’s name can haunt you sometimes?) The Bi Bim Bap is a traditional Korean dish of mixed vegetables and some meat all blending with eggs and hot sauce over a bed of rice. It reminds me of a rice version of the Japanese sukiyaki. And of course, I ordered the Bi Bim Bap on stoneware to get that crispy bottom layer.

After I placed my order, then the parade of panchan dishes arrived at my table. Panchan (or side dishes) is a unique part of the Korean dining experience. No matter what type of Korean restaurant you go to, you’ll get some kind of free side dishes brought out to you at the start of your meal, almost like an amuse bouche, but times 10. Once I ate in a Korean restaurant in Manhattan that brought out probably a dozen panchan dishes. Even traveling alone in Vietnam earlier this year, I ducked into a Korean restaurant for dinner one night and was treated to a nice array of panchan dishes.

For this evening, the waitress brought six panchan plates to my table. I guessed five of the six: 1) there was the ubiquitous kim chi, or fermented cabbage, 2) spicy Shanghai cabbage, 3) pickled celery, 4) tiny dried fish and 5) bean sprouts in a light oil sauce. The mystery dish was thin strips of a white vegetable. I thought maybe it was pickled daikon, but it didn’t have that crunch to it. It was soft and mushy and my least favorite of the panchan selection.

Overall, I wasn’t impressed by Pyung Chang’s panchan, even though it was free. They didn’t have my favorite—pickled cucumber—and some of them didn’t seem very fresh. (The pickled celery had brown edges.)

Then my dinner arrived. And you can always tell when your dinner is coming from the bubbling sound of the soon and the popping sound of my Bi Bim Bap in the hot stone plate (maybe that’s where they get the name? LOL). And after a quick demonstration by the waitress on how to pour the hot sauce over the Bi Bim Bap (really, lady, I know how to pour sauce and that circular motion you’re doing really doesn’t add anything), I dug into my food.

First the soon, which is what Pyung Chang is known for. I mean, it’s in the name of the restaurant. The tofu was soft and creamy and probably one of the best soft tofu I’ve had in a long time. It blended nicely with the soup base with the bits of pork chunks. I have to say, though, that I would have preferred the soup a bit more spicy. I have a feeling the waitress ordered me a mild soon even though she never asked me whether I wanted it spicy or mild. (Spicy, always spicy.) So I ended up dipping a few of my kim chi from the panchan into my soup, and it was nice.

The Bi Bim Bap was a feast for the eye, as usual, but it lacked any flavor. If I didn’t generously pour on the special hot sauce (yes, lady, I did it in a circular motion), it would have tasted like watery vegetables. My Bi Bim Bap was supposed to have thin slices of beef, but I only saw a few slices of beef mixed in with all the vegetables and egg. But the rice—continuously cooking on the stone plate—was perfectly crisp and I dipped some of it into my soon.

Side note: Like any small ethnic dives, Pyung Chang has no real air-conditioning. This probably isn’t a big issue with fall coming soon, but it makes me wonder who comes here for hot tofu soup during the spring and summer? With its wooden benches, lack of air conditioning and hot, spicy food, this really is a sweat lodge.

The 7-year-old Pyung Chang Soft Tofu House has gotten a lot of attention from non-Asian eaters with the proliferation of Yelp reviews. Is the soup that good? Yes. Is the restaurant overall worth all the stars being lavished on it? I don’t think so. I recommend Pyung Chang for the tofu soon, but its lack of quality ingredients in the other dishes and the somewhat dingy interiors of the place make this more a neighborhood joint than a destination spot for people looking for superior Korean cuisine.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (would be more if I rated only the soup)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Pyung Chang Tofu House in Oakland

1 comment:

Unknown said...

sigh, this makes me hungry and it's not even 8 am... where can I possibly get a fix ovahere in SF fidi in the morning - argh! The soondubu looks delicious...