Sundubu stew is about as close as you can get to ordering your own private volcano.
Request this Korean dish at ChoCho's in Cambridge, and it arrives like it should. You get a black stone pot of furiously boiling, lava-red soup that looks like a mini Vesuvius about to blow. Jiggling in the ferment are clouds of silky soft tofu (sundubu), a true delicacy, and your choice of seafood, beef, pork, veggies, lobster, or kimchee ($7.95-$9.95). Dare to order the broth extra spicy and the taste is volcanic, too.
But the bells and whistles don't stop here. Flanking the gurgling pot are enough extras to make you feel like the queen at tea. Besides a big steamy bowl of rice, several little white dishes hold various sides called panchan -- usually a decent, moderately hot kimchee (spicy pickled napa cabbage), a sweet pepper-and-fish-cake salad, potato salad, white kimchee (rice-vinegared cabbage), or simply crudites with a squirt of spicy red bean sauce.
You also get an egg in a soft-boiled eggcup, but don't tap it open like you're about to eat it on toast. It's raw and meant to be sacrificed into the stew. You crack it in, let it sit for a moment, then break the yolk with your spoon and stir a little (not a lot). This creates egg-drop-stew-like bits that make the already gentle textures of the stew even creamier.
Sang Cho, a former head manager for Jae's Cafe, opened ChoCho's in April in Cambridge's Porter Square Exchange. His goal was to open a sundubu specialty house like those popular in Korea and in LA. So when a spot opened in the Exchange's food court, he nabbed it and renovated it into a cheery, colorful space with mod lighting and interesting accents like decorative martini glasses crowned with fresh green apples.
His restaurant is unique not just among the stalls in the food court, which otherwise serve Japanese fare. ChoCho's is also the first sundubu restaurant to open in the Boston area. Most Korean restaurants serve one or two varieties of sundubu stew, but Cho, who is now the chef at his own place, makes seven.
Each comes with the same chili-laced seafood broth, which comes mild, regular, or extra spicy. You'll find more delicate broth and more inspired panchan elsewhere, but generally for a higher price as well. So ChoCho's is still worth a stop to try this unique soup.
We particularly enjoyed the veggie sundubu (called soon tofu here) with summer squash ($7.95) for its clear, fresh taste. (Vegetarians can request this with a purely vegetable-based broth.) The seafood soon tofu ($8.95), with a modest mix of clams, shrimp, squid, and scallops (all a little tough), had a nice briny kick to it. New England soon tofu ($9.95) took the same and added tender lobster tail and claw meat. Kimchee soon tofu ($7.95) needed more kimchee. Curry soon tofu ($8.95) trades the chili-based broth for a tasty yellow curry, but we preferred the reds.
Since opening, Cho has gradually expanded the menu. Appetizers draw from both Japanese and Korean cuisines. Steamed shrimp shumai ($3.95) are the same tender little mild dumplings you get at most Japanese restaurants, though Cho serves them with a Dijon-mayo that would be better replaced with the usual vinegar-soy sauce. Pajon ($4.95) was a lovely, thin, crisp-edged scallion pancake with an unusual twist; shredded summer squash subbed for some of the scallion, making for a more delicate taste.
The chicken satay ($4.95) disappointed with blandly marinated meat and a lackluster peanut sauce, but ddock bokki ($4.95) was a real treat. Tubular, super-chewy rice noodles the width of a thin cigar came in a spicy gochujang (red bean paste) sauce tossed with scallion, savory squares of marinated fish cake, and fresh zucchini.
Both the miso soup ($1.95) and seaweed salad ($3.95) were competent versions of these Japanese standards. Aside from the sundubu stews, Cho offers bibimbap (rice topped with a pinwheel of marinated meat and vegetables) and a dozen bento-style "combo" meals with Korean or Japanese entrees served on pretty black-lacquered trays. All are $8.95 and come with soup, salad, fried shumai (this time with a nice vinegar-soy sauce), and pork dumplings on the side.
Best among the few appetizers we tried was the tidbit combo, which came with a skewer of tender grilled shrimp and summer squash that more than made up for the so-so chicken satay included. The bulgoki combo ($8.95) was not the most tender or virtuosic version of this barbecued beef dish, but at $8.95 for a full meal, we'll take it. Bibimbap ($8.95) seems to be popular here, but could use more rice and more oomph in the toppings.
For now there are no desserts, but the meals are so generous that you're more likely to be thinking about a take-home bag more than the next course, anyway.
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