If you're an eater open to being humbled and challenged, there's no better local destination than a Korean restaurant. Having only eaten at half a dozen of them, I still appreciate staff direction: which sauces to pour into the soup; which soup ingredients to pull out and dip into other sauces; what to dip into the fish powder; etc.
Thanks in part to some such advice, I ate and enjoyed the following at Seoul Tofu Grill: raw skate, squid, pork belly, pork innards, beef tendon, blood sausage, bone-broth soup and, of course, that squishy, most malleable of hippie helpers — tofu.
Despite its name, Mike Moon's new restaurant is obviously no vegan mecca. More than a decade after he and his family closed their long-running Korean eatery on South Nevada Avenue, Moon took over what had been E Ado and overhauled it for the brighter and better with tile, dark wood, tasteful mirrors and sparse décor on clean white walls. The improvements, he hopes, will benefit some of his family's other holdings; they own 11 spaces in the surrounding South Academy Boulevard shopping center.
Mike's mom and sister add "contemporary" menu touches from Korean cooking shows as well as from the "competitive" Korean scene in California, where Mike lived for seven years. These are subtleties that many locals won't get, he says, like marinating and cooking methods that incorporate flavors from other Asian countries, but that the Korean community should.
And then there are selections uncommon even on Korean menus, items like the steamed Korean blood sausage and innards platter (menu item #10, $15). Moon says this California-sourced specialty item (which includes potato noodles and ground vegetables soaked in blood and beef stock) is too labor-intensive to be made at home or the restaurant, but is occasionally found in Korean markets.
The sausage and innards tasted much like turkey to us, neither entirely off-putting nor outwardly delicious, though they were enlivened by a super-salty shrimp-and-fish-powder dip. The raw skate (#54, $11) also challenged, with meat having to be crunched through a cartilaginous casing that we weren't sure we were supposed to swallow. (We were, assured our waitress.) But it delivered a fine flavor with a spicy chili sauce, along with egg and veggies in a buckwheat noodle bowl.
A note on that chili sauce, ubiquitous on the menu: The kitchen uses one or a combo of two different chili pastes and a powder, made from both California Anaheims and Pueblo red chilies. Dishes like the house specialty tofu soup (#34, lunch $7.50/dinner $9) can be customized for heat preference; from 11 versions, we opted for a pleasant enough kimchi, served bubbling at the table.
The bone broth soup (#61, $9) recalls Vietnamese pho, and the Bibimbab (#55, $9) rice bowl with egg, beef and veggies could be Japanese, just subbing chili paste for soy. Both are fine, but stand out less than a truly awesome plate of sesame-garnished sautéed pork belly, squid and onions in chili sauce (#24, $15). The pork is the highlight, as it is in the orange- and lime-marinated spicy pork bulgogi lunch bento (#C, $7.50), loaded with tempura veggies, kimchi, salad, rice and soup.
As always, the bounty of banchan (the 10 or so small sides, like varied kimchi and seaweed) adds even more value and delight to dining Korean. But here, we were also treated to corn tea at lunch and a sweet cinnamon-ginger-date drink at dinner. It's those small touches that make Seoul Tofu Grill much more than a vehicle for boxy bean curd.