One of my all-time favorite comfort dishes is the Korean stew known as soondubu: those burbling little cast-iron cauldrons of quivering tofu goodness. And I’m also on record saying that, in my humble opinion, there may not be a people on God’s green earth who fry a chicken as well as the most skilled practitioners of Korean fried chicken.
At least here in the Bay Area, these two subgenres of the cuisine rarely meet — not on even ground, anyway. The Korean restaurants with the most soul-warming tofu stews often don’t serve fried chicken. And the best Korean fried chicken tends to be found not at the more traditional sit-down restaurants but rather at the soju bangs, or Korean pubs, where bold-flavored bar snacks reign supreme and the soondubu tends to be an afterthought.
Thankfully, at Gangnam Tofu, Korean food lovers can have the best of both worlds. The restaurant opened three months ago in the former location of Anna’s Place, which owners John and Katie Kang had operated for several years as an American brunch eatery that, in the manner of many Korean-run spots, also served bibimbap and a smattering of other Korean dishes. Now that the restaurant is full-on Korean, it serves a version of soondubu that’s as satisfying as any I’ve had in months. Even more impressively, the Korean fried chicken might be the best in the entire East Bay.
To head off any potential confusion: The El Cerrito restaurant doesn’t have any affiliation with the near-identically named Gangnam Tofu House in Fremont. That said, co-owner John Kang was one of the owners of Gangnam Chicken, a fried chicken specialist in San Mateo that’s currently operated by one of his business partners. (One wonders just how many Korean bars and restaurants opened with “Gangnam” in their name in the wake of “Gangnam Style,” the Korean pop star Psy’s 2012 megahit. Quite a few, if a cursory Google search is to be believed!)
Gangnam is, of course, the wealthy Seoul district that Psy so famously satirized. But Kang, a Seoul native, seems to embrace the name unironically. When reached by phone, he said the restaurant was inspired by the “gentle,” “nice,” and “clean” aspects of the district, as portrayed in the song.
What you may want to note is that, contrary to what you might expect from a Korean fried chicken shop whose name makes reference to “Gangnam Style,” Gangnam Tofu isn’t one of those hip pubs that blast K-pop and are populated by large gaggles of boisterous, Korean-speaking twentysomethings. At least during the daytime and early evening hours when I visited, Gangnam Tofu seemed more serene-and-staid family restaurant than soju bang.
But about that chicken: I was first introduced to the pleasures of Korean fried chicken years ago at the BonChon Chicken outlet in Fort Lee, New Jersey (which, for what it’s worth, is about as Korean a municipality as you’ll find in the United States). And Gangnam Tofu’s version is the first I’ve found in the East Bay that rises to the standard set by the South Korean chain.
The defining characteristic of the Korean style is its thin, shatteringly crisp crust, which many restaurants achieve by “double-frying” the chicken — first slowly until the chicken is cooked through, then very quickly at a higher temperature in order to maximize exterior crunch.
Kang, on the other hand, said he only fries each batch of chicken once, but the results speak for themselves: In terms of the thinness and crunchiness of the batter, as well as the juiciness of the meat underneath, Gangnam Tofu’s fried chicken is unrivaled among East Bay “KFC” spots. (As a point of reference, OB Town, my previous favorite, features a thicker, less consistently crunchy batter.)
The restaurant offers eight or nine kinds of fried chicken, varying from popcorn chicken to wings, with a variety of sauce options to accommodate many different levels of spice tolerance. The signature “Gangnam Chicken” features a mildly spicy red-pepper sauce topped with squiggles of mayonnaise. The sauce was slathered on thickly enough that I feared the batter would wind up soggy. But, no: The crunch held up even a half-hour into our meal. For an even purer distillation of crunch, order the sauceless “original” flavor, whose only flaw was that the crust was too mild for my tastes and could have used a heavier hand with salt and spice.
Each order of fried chicken comes with a side of cabbage slaw that’s flecked with corn kernels and dressed with a Thousand Island-style sauce, making it a complete meal in its own right. All it begs for is a cold beer, of which you can choose between the three most ubiquitous Korean brands: OB, Cass, and Hite.
At $19.95 for an entire bird’s worth of deep-fried goodness, Gangnam Tofu’s fried chicken also provides a much better value than, say, Oakland’s handful of Korean fried chicken outlets — especially since a half-order will only run you about $11. The (still very substantial) half-order is probably the way to go if you’re in a smaller group of diners — especially since you’ll want to save stomach room for some of the restaurant’s other, more homestyle dishes.
For instance, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you dined at a Korean restaurant that has “tofu” in its name without trying at least one of the tofu stews. What’s great about the soondubu here was how it stays true to all the homey, traditional flavors I look for in a dish like this. The quivering soft tofu was as tender and silky as it ought to be; the broth had the requisite depth of flavor (though next time I’ll order it “spicy” or “extra spicy” instead of the “medium” option, which didn’t have much kick); and the shrimp in the “combination” soondubu I ordered were whole, head-on shrimp that were studded with roe — no compromises for shy Westernized palates here. Best of all, each order of tofu stew comes with a raw egg that the server cracks open and mixes in at the table — an extra bit of luxurious richness that many of the Bay Area’s Korean restaurants omit or only provide by request.
Meanwhile, the selection of complimentary banchan that came with all of the traditional entrées was very good, even if it wasn’t the vastest or most sumptuous. Highlights included funky napa cabbage kimchi, little strips of chewy fishcake, and a very good, and not overly greasy, version of japchae (stir-fried sweet-potato noodles). Each little side dish had an appealing simplicity that seemed closer to home-cooked food than restaurant food.
If you want a heartier appetizer, the haemul pajeon, or seafood pancake, is one of the best around. Much lighter on the batter than most versions of the dish, the pancake instead functioned as a showcase for sweet charred scallions and an uncommonly generous portion of seafood (mainly octopus).
Gangnam Tofu doesn’t have as vast a menu as some of Oakland’s popular Korean restaurants, but there’s still plenty to explore once you go beyond the obvious crowd-pleasers. During one meal, my dining companions and I shared a bowl of yukgaejang, a spicy beef soup that was notable for its long, seaweed-like strands of gosari, or fernbrake, a kind of wild green not often used in Western cooking. On a particularly hot evening, we cooled down with a solid rendition of mul naengmyun: a coil of very long, exceedingly chewy noodles served in a bracingly vinegary cold soup.
El Cerrito doesn’t have a huge Korean population (Kang estimates that Koreans make up maybe 15 percent of his customers), so local residents should feel fortunate to have such a place open in their midst: a Korean restaurant good enough for fans of the cuisine who live as far away as Oakland or San Francisco to think about scheduling a special trip.