On a 2014 trip to Korea, Steve Joo tasted dooboo, or tofu, unlike any he’d eaten in the U.S. Joo went on to take up a short apprenticeship in the village where the man was making it. He discovered that the production techniques were instrumental to the difference in taste and texture. To explain that difference, Joo compared the process of making tofu to cheesemaking. “Soybeans are ground into soy milk. You then boil the milk, add a coagulant to form curds and press them into molds,” he said. But in that particular Korean kitchen, Joo found that the soy milk was cooked at a lower temperature, which allowed for the formation of softer curds.
Joo says it’s unlike silken tofu that folks are used to having from the grocery store—the density is on the softer side—but there’s an additional creaminess that doesn’t come through in many store-bought tofus. The Korean approach that informed his own tofu-making technique also included a coagulant that reconstituted sea water. “Oftentimes, soy milk is coagulated with just magnesium chloride, without any of the salt,” Joo said. “That’s why people have the impression of dooboo as being very bland.” While the dooboo Joo produces isn’t salty per se, it does have some salt component to it, which highlights the sweetness and “inherent, nutty savoriness” of the soybean itself.
Joodooboo is a dooboo and banchan deli, with a cheerful tagline that reads, “Fresh Tofu & Nice Banchan.” He and chef Julya Shin used to operate Nokni, a Korean pop-up featuring noodle dishes and other small bites. But Joodooboo is his first brick-and-mortar restaurant. It’s located in the space where Allison Hopelain and Russell Moore used to run the Kebabery.
Nokni, though, was supposed to be Joo and Shin’s transition from pop-up land. The two chefs had all but confirmed an address on Piedmont Avenue—until the pandemic changed that plan. Under normal circumstances, Joo agreed that pop-ups are a viable means to an end. But for chefs considering that path, pop-ups present their own set of challenges. “Julya and I did pop-ups in any number of spaces where kitchens sometimes didn’t exist,” he said. “There’s certainly a creative and fun element to lugging around what amounts to a mobile kitchen—setting up, hauling in and out.” But after two or three years, it can get tiring. “The pop-up was never something that was necessarily very lucrative. We were very much doing it with the intent of having a brick-and-mortar.”
“After Nokni kind of drowned with the pandemic, I was taking a little bit of time, concerned about what the next step was,” Joo said. His first thought was to start a dooboo production company. He looked into industrial spaces that could accommodate a smaller, artisanal approach. In the search process, he started a conversation with his friends Hopelain and Moore. They mentioned that they were looking for someone to take over the Market Street location.
“At first, it didn’t make any sense for me in terms of what I was thinking of doing then,” he said. “But the conversation continued, and the idea evolved to include banchan and to have something that is more customer-facing and interactive.” In terms of what Joo finds fulfilling on a day-to-day basis, the deli idea spoke to him more than an industrial food-production business.
If customers haven’t previously eaten banchan, Joo suggests that they think of these side dishes as an accompaniment to a meal. “The perfect thing to do with our banchan is to roast a chicken, steam a pot of rice or have a loaf of bread and then serve a nice assortment of vegetables that were carefully and lovingly prepared,” he tells them. Last week Joo made banchan dishes, such as broccolini, with hot date sauce and golden raisins, soy-pickled carrots, napa cabbage, onion and jalapeño. “It’s really a complement to what folks are already doing at home with their families,” he said. “To lessen the burden of having dinner at home.”