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Kaju Sundubu

I'm a big fan of sundubu (spicy Korean tofu soup), and for a long time I've thought that someone could make a killing if they opened up a simple and reliable sundubu shop in Boston. It's not a complicated food, but it's one of those things that you really want to get from a place that specializes in it, since the broth can be really dull or "off" (flavors not well integrated) if it's made quickly or with insufficient attention. (Some of the renditions by otherwise respectable Korean restaurants in town have made me want to cry, or worse...) So, I was optimistic when I saw that Kaju Sundubu had opened, in the old Seoul Bakery spot on Harvard, north of Brighton. It turns out that they're from CA (Garden Grove)- I didn't get the full story of whether they're opening a new branch here, or just moved here, but whatever the reason, it's a tremendous coup for us! If the bowls we got tonight are any indication, we're in for a treat.

The main reason to go to Kaju is the sundubu, and that's what most of the menu consists of. They have more flavors than average, including the usual suspects (seafood, beef, mushroom, octopus/beef) and also some less common ones (kimchi/oyster, intestine). (I suspect all of them start with the same anchovy base, and maybe also fish sauce, so vegetarians might want to ask to be sure.) You order the flavor and the heat level (mild/regular/spicy/extra spicy). The sundubu comes with an egg to crack in the moment it arrives (it cooks in the heat), and a side of rice. They do also have some sort of grilled meat and bibimbap offerings, but we didn't investigate those, either. (I did overhear a nearby table commenting amongst themselves that the marinade for the grilled meat was on the sweet side)

The results:
- Banchan/sides: a very standard selection of kimchi, pickled radish, some anchovies, bean sprouts, simmered soy beans (kong jorim), broccoli. They were fresh and tasty- the kimchi was quite sweet, but this goes OK with ultra spicy soup, in my book...

- Sundubu: We got an order of extra spicy kimchi oyster, and an order of spicy seafood, along with a seafood pancake (haemul pajeon). The broth was really good: rich with the flavor of seafood and chili pepper cooked long enough to dissolve/integrate fully into the broth, with enough salt to bring out the richness of the soup base (usually anchovies, seaweed, etc.) but not overly salty. The extra spicy broth was perfect- enough to give you that slight euphoria of chili peppers, but not so spicy that you can't eat a whole bowl. (My perennial complaint with the CA sunduberias is that they hold back on the spice level for gringos -- Kaju's "extra spicy" was properly spicy, without being a one-note heat that overwhelmed the seafood). The seafood and the oyster flavors were both adequately generous with the seafood, too, which was pleasing, since a lot of chains have gotten progressively stingier with the seafood over the years. In fact, not only was this the best sundubu I've had in Boston (which is unfortunately not saying much), but it's some of the best I can remember having even at some of my favorite sundubu shops in LA.

- Pancake: the seafood pajeon took much longer to arrive than the sundubu, and it was a bit underdone/soggy and falling apart. Although I like a crispy crunchy pancake as much as the next guy, I also know that sometimes they can be soft and falling apart when they're thick and generously full of seafood and veggies, so it's not necessarily a bad sign if it's falling apart. :) And it was indeed very tasty, with a nice balance of green onion and seafood.

- Rice: like most good sundubu places, the rice comes in a small stone pot, and they ladle it into a bowl for you and leave the stone pot with the remaining rice residue, which keeps cooking on and forming a nice crispy crust (nurungji). When you're getting close to the end of your sundubu, you can ask for them to pour tea (hot barley tea) into the pot and let it sit a few minutes, then eat a soup of the toasty crispy rice in barley tea to finish your meal. (You can order extra rice, but it seems that they haven't adopted the recent trend of allowing you to get "special" rice-- mixed grains, barley, etc.--for a small a surcharge. The only option I saw was white rice, but maybe I missed the others.)

It seems that they're still kind of getting going, and it's a small space that they'll have to manage very efficiently, judging by the lines that were there when we arrived. (There are maybe about 10-12 tables, and there were about 4-5 groups of people waiting when we arrived-- they were pretty good about keeping things moving, but it was clear that if they were more coordinated about getting tables cleared immediately, it could have been faster) Two signs of an "authentic" sundubu experience are that (1) they took our order before we were seated, so that our soup was ready quite soon after we got a talbe, and (2) they have the Korean-style "doorbell" system, with little bells/buzzers built in to each table to call for service when you need it. I didn't see/hear anyone using it when we were there, but maybe it just lights up somewhere discretely, instead of the constant doorbell ringing of some restaurants. In any event, if there had still been a line out the door when we were ready to pay, using the bell might have helped speed up getting the check.

In any event, it seems like they're already doing a brisk business, and I hope they keep up the quality and start a sundubu trend in Boston! They're a bit pricier than the usual CA sundubu place, but judging by what we got tonight, the quality is also better.

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  1. Nice tip. That bakery was always an odd phenom, nut much for sale, not many customers.

    1. I had to re-read this post a few times to be sure I'd read it right ! It's exciting just to have a 'specialist' restaurant in town, but the fact that it's a sundubu specialist just made my year.

      I love that they bring the egg out to be cracked tableside - you just don't see that as often you should, but for me it makes a big difference - the silky swirls of egg co-mingling with the soft tofu gives it a bit of a richer slurp, and also helps balance the heat of a fiery bowl. And I love the crispy rice tea - it's makes sitting down to a bowl of sundubu a complete experience for me. It sounds like they're taking great care with it, and I agree, one of the saddest things in life is a rush-job sundubu.

      I also want to give Westborough Korean Restaurant's sundubu a whirl one of these days. It was a staff meal I spied on one occasion and it looked righteous.

      Thanks, Adam !!

      1. Rats! My parents were just in Boston yesterday but I am only seeing this post right now. Sundubu chigae would hit the spot on this chilly grey day. And that rice crust...gawd, my parents would cry tears of joy if it's as good as you report (and I'm sure it is). Thanks for the great post!

        12 Replies
        1. re: digga

          Yeah, we were immediately overjoyed when we walked in and saw them pouring water into rice bowls on a nearby table for scorched rice tea (sungnyung). We had to ask them for water, so I don't know if they'll do it by default-- but they left the rice crusts for us throughout the meal, so i assume that they expect that you might want it. In a way, I'm glad we had to ask specifically, because I like to wait and get the water close to when I want to drink it, so it's still hot and the rice crust (nurungji) is still crispy :) I don't know why so few (if any?) other places in Boston do this, but it was a clear sign when we walked in that they knew what they were doing!
          (Also, I just realized that I wrote above in my post that they're barley in the tea, but that might not be right-- usually it's just water, but for some reason, last night in my pepper-induced euphoria, it looked to me like the water they were pouring in had a little color to it. The crispy rice already has a similar toasty flavor, so I might have been imagining that...)

          And Nab- I think all the times I've gotten sundubu in Boston, they've brought out the egg (Including, annoyingly, rather dirty ones a couple times, which I'd never encountered in CA). I think because of refrigeration laws here, it's cold and you do have to be rather diligent about putting it in right away, or else it it's still rather raw by the time the soup has cooled down enough to eat...

          I'd be very willing to believe that Westborough Korean Restaurant goes a good rendition, too, though in general, my money is on the place that serves little, if anything, else :)

          1. re: another_adam

            How's the sundubu at Korea Garden and do they also have tableside egg service ? As you know, they do know their way around a soup or two.

            Digga - didn't you tell us once that Chung Ki Wa makes their own silken tofu a couple of times a year or am I just making that up ??

            1. re: Nab

              I've only had it once at Korea Garden, and hopefully my experience wasn't representative: weak/flat and generally untasty broth, stingy with the seafood and tofu, and the egg at the table was dirty. It may have been an all-around off night, though, since even their pajeon, which is normally pretty good, was bad that night... So I wouldn't write it off completely, but I'm not rushing to try it again...

              1. re: Nab

                what soups and stews have you had at korean garden? recently had their yukgaejang and was extremely disappointed

                1. re: galangatron

                  their gamjatang is one of my favourites in town.

                  1. re: Nab

                    Can you contrast with Hanmaru? If I'm in the mood for gamjatang it will be awfully hard to make it all the way down the block.

                    1. re: Luther

                      To me, they aren't even in the same universe. It's the Moroccan Hospitality of gamjatangs.

                      (j/k - i *still* haven't been to Moroccan Hospitality ... but still dying to)

                  2. re: galangatron

                    I think in general Korea Garden does pretty well with jeongol- anything heated at the table, as in Nab's photo of the gamjatang (which was a bit on the salty side once, but otherwise quite tasty, with lots of herbs and spice and perilla seeds). I've also always eyed their budae jeongol (army base stew) enviously when I've seen other tables get it, and it seems that many people order it. I also had some good al tang (cod roe soup) from them once, as a special- it's not an intrinsically super exciting dish, but they were generous with the cod roe, and it hit the spot. They were also recently advertising sundae guk (blood sausage soup) as a special, along with some other sundae dishes ("sundae appetizer", "sundae stir-fry"), but I did not try it, and did not happen to see anyone nearby get it while I was there.

                    This discussion also reminds me that although I've found the food down the street at Myeong Dong 1st Ave inconsistent at best lately, I once got a bowl of really good clam soup (jogae tang) there, much better than the version I had once at Korea Garden. Seems like it's time to dedicate myself to some soup-eating :)

                  3. re: Nab

                    Sorry, Nab....You are having delusions about me reporting about the tofu at Chung Ki Wa, although I have enjoyed their sundubu chigae in the past! I don't know if it's house-made or not. Haven't been there in ages. Definitely sundubu chigae weather this week!

                    1. re: digga

                      Ahh looks like I was thinking of their homemade duk at Thanksgiving ..... :)


                  4. re: another_adam

                    Thanks for this Adam. I grew up with crispy rice tea (faun jiu) as a delicious way to clean the rice pot in the days before rice cookers and use up the leftover tea. I'll definitely try this place. I hope they succeed as it is one of my hopes that Asian restaurants can begin to specialize and succeed. In Brookline, I was surprised at how tasty the sundobu was at Yasu, a restaurant that I wasn't so hopeful for. (no raw egg though).

                    1. re: another_adam

                      woojeon at the h-mart food court in burlington makes good soondubu but they add the egg for you

                  5. Thank you for this detailed report

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Luther

                      I agree, thanks another_adam for this great report. I particularly like the newly coined term "sunduberia"

                    2. This thread was featured on this week's Boston Digest. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

                      1. Went here last night (Friday), and well, it was an 'experience'. We put our name in at around 7:30, and was told the wait would be around 1 hour, so we went to a nearby bar to have a drink prior. Needless to say, they were busy. Three of us, and we ordered:
                        Oyster Kimchi soondubu, with kalbi
                        Veggie soondubu, with bibimbap
                        Clam soondubu

                        Oyster Kimchi was my favorite. All three were medium spicy, but the Oyster Kimchi was, for some reason the spiciest. Maybe it was from the kimchi.

                        The Kalbi was really good. Not overly sweet, and done very well.

                        Clam soondubu was one of my DC's favorites, and it was done quite well, but I would personally order it a notch spicier than the medium spice.

                        Banchan was very good, had about 6 different ones, all very tasty.

                        The veggie soondubu was burned. Upon tasting I thought it was perhaps supposed to be like that, but I later realized it probably shouldn't have.

                        We never got our bibimbap! We asked for it three times, and they looked perplexed as to why it hadn't yet come out, and then went into the kitchen. We finished the meal, and of course it was still in the bill. Since it was a combo order with the soondubu they did some funky prorated thing to take the bibimbap off the bill.

                        All in all, the food was definitely good, but I would definitely err towards visiting during a non-peak time, or wait a while for them to get all of their tweaks out...it being a new place and all.

                        1. Perfect drizzly day for a bubbling bowl of sundubu and, sure enough, it's a spectacular bowl as Adam has so accurately described.

                          Our order took a good ten minutes or so, but it was dead obvious how much care was being taken with every table's order. While it was packed beyond capacity the entire time, we never felt rushed, as one shouldn't when working their way through a bowl of sundubu.

                          Banchan is fresh, crisp and clean.

                          I went straight seafood, ordered medium, and it was plentiful with protein - shrimp, clams, oysters - all adding an element of the sea that was well-integrated throughout the broth. I held back on the spice level this first go-around for fear it might overwhelm, but there's really no need - next time time spicy or extra-spicy will play. A true testament to any bowl of soup worth its salt is its durability, and this bowl just got better and better as I slurped my way to the bottom.

                          Superb. Thanks, Adam !

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Nab

                            It was the perfect day for a bubbling bowl of soup! I had the beef and octopus, ordered spicy. Cracking in the raw egg was new to me, and the lovely creamy texture of the tofu with little bits of egg and meat hit the spot. I've enjoyed the panchan elsewhere a bit more, but that's a small nit. Definitely worth checking out the specialist bowls ant Kaju.

                            Btw, they did confirm they are related to the California Kaju clan.

                            Some pictures attached

                          2. Food epiphanies are rare, but I had one with the seafood tofu chigae at Kaju Tofu House. I came to his place after I read another_adam's post. I ordered the tofu stew with the fourth level, very spicy. The server first brought out the usual complementary cold plates of appetizers and pickles. Then came the rice. It was ceremoniously served from a searing hot stoneware bowl into a cooler serving bowl. The toasted crust of the rice in the stoneware bowl was then soaked in a tea to make a toasted rice tea for later consumption. The short grain rice by itself was delicious. The tofu chigae was then brought out in another searing hot stoneware bowl. The broth was bubbling furiously and the aroma was heady. I broke a raw egg into the broth to cook and took a sip of the tofu stew. The heat, both temperature and spice were incredible. It had the right amount of umami, garlic, and sweet seafood flavors to make the ideal tofu chigae. It was cool in the room, but I could not stop sweating. I was in nirvana. My wife and five year old son were sitting across the table enjoying the medium spicy (third level) pork tofu stew. My son was panting and rubbing his tongue with an ice cube, but he couldn't stop eating and kept asking for more.

                            The restaurant is small and unremarkable. We came early and were seated right away. By noon the restaurant was full and a line started to form. Most of the customers were Korean. We also ordered the seafood pancake (Korean frittata) and bulgogi (BBQ beef) for our sons. The seafood pancake had less starch than other Korean restaurants, but the seafood was tasty and fresh. The bulgogi was served sizzling on a metal hot plate and was very good. Service was excellent and attentive. The pricing of each serving of tofu chigae is higher than average, but the quality of ingredients were very good and you get what you pay for.

                            For the past 6 years, I have been looking for a good tofu chigae restaurant in New England ever since I last ate at the New York area tofu chigae mecca, So Kong Dong in Fort Lee, NJ. I believe that Kaju Tofu House in Allston has ended my search.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: gnium

                              BRAVO. BRAVO. One of the most satisfying posts I have ever read. I know the feeling exactly.

                            2. Had lunch there today... had the beef octopus soup. Quite a lot of food, rice, Banchan, the soup.

                              Really delicious. Have to rank it near the top of Korean options in Boston

                              Really like that they served the rice and the soup in separate blazing hot stone bowls. The raw egg to crack into the soup was a nice touch too.

                              1. I had a weeknight dinner at Kaju recently and I'd say it was decent, and at a decent price. I would characterize the banchan as fairly bland and overall average. I liked that the chigaes are balanced in flavor and not the salt/MSG bombs that you usually get. We got the highest spice level and I'd say it was just right, not super spicy, but satisfyingly so.
                                The beef and octopus has a fun texture, but the beef itself wasn't great quality- I had one large lump of beef that had the distinct flavor of old ground beef. I wouldn't be surprised if this was prepared by dropping a frozen lump of ground beef in to the chigae.
                                The clam chigae has a ton of little clams, which are nice but I'm not sure it's the greatest flavor combination as the clam flavor gets lost in the spicy.
                                A plate of bulgogi was brought to our table on a hot metal plate, but it either wasn't fully heated up or was no longer sizzling by the time it got to our table. The meat was overly tenderized to the point of being somewhat mushy and dry.
                                One of the pots of rice was nice and brown on the bottom, but another one didn't seem to have been sufficiently heated, so the final rice tea was much more bland in that one.
                                It's a very casual room with bright lighting and a TV. It's neither a "nice restaurant" nor drinking kind of vibe, and I wouldn't say it has that cozy/bustling atmosphere of Hanmaru. So you have another option for atmosphere among the many Allston Korean options.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: Luther

                                  I do agree that the banchan, while numerous, were not that interesting.

                                  1. re: StriperGuy

                                    Seriously? I've been looking extensively at Korean options around Boston, and I would say Kaju's banchan is the most flavorful, and plentiful too, at 7-8 varieties.

                                    1. re: Chris in MA

                                      To each his own. I really agree with the other poster that they were not that interesting, though plentiful.

                                      I am really not using Boston as a gauge as I feel the Korean here is not that strong.

                                2. For those familiar authentic Korean restaurant scenes elsewhere-- soondubu flavor is almost near the LA/NY/DC standard. As already been mentioned, Kaju didn't splurge on decor/has minimal number of tables in a small space/with a limited menu(soon du bu varieties, meats varieties, and bibimbop varieties)/no upgradeable options like japgokbop(multi-grain rice), but it's a long-awaited addition to the severely quality lacking Boston Korean restaurant scene.

                                  They are good about adjusting salt or MSG seasoning levels upon request. Their meats, esp, galb, however, I found it Americanized and sweet. And FYI- their meat dol sot bibimbops, e.g. galbi dolsot bibimbop($16/17) is actually a galbi dutbop-- galbi on top of white rice, containing no namul(veggies), with sweet teriyaki sauce drizzled on top)

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: Chris in MA

                                    Agree about the meat--we had some kalbi, and it was super-sweet with little else going on. Not worth bothering with, IMO.

                                    Sonndubu is tasty though. :-)

                                    1. re: Chris in MA

                                      I've been meaning to update and tone down my post above. This place is a step in the right direction. Since enough positives have been noted, I'll note some of my gripes with this place:
                                      -their grilled meats are still way too sweet.
                                      -unlike other Korean restaurants, Kaju no longer serve the side dishes (banchan) first, but waits until the entrees are ready, so you'd end up ordering more appetizers.
                                      -The wait is often way too long, with no wait time estimates, no restaurant pagers, and often not enough space inside to wait.
                                      -street parking is not easy in this neighborhood and most are "resident permit only"
                                      -not the cheapest of eats, most combos are about $20+ appetizers+tax tip, averages $30+ per person whenever we visit.

                                      1. re: Chris in MA

                                        I ate there a couple of weeks ago and got my banchan served well ahead of the kaju.


                                    2. Finally made it here on Saturday and it was amazingly good. I had the sundobu with beef and seafood (spicy) and the heat level was perfect. Great melding of flavors and fresh, good quality ingredients. I got the combo which included a bulgolgi hot pot. Meat, mushrooms and onions were great and mushrooms and sweet broth was a nice foil to the sundobu's heat. I tried a DC's seafood pancake and thought it was also quite good. What a great addition to the Boston food scene. It's so nice to have an ethnic restaurant not serve 3 pages of the usual suspects and clearly make a go of it. The place was packed.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: gourmaniac

                                        I'm glad you tried and enjoyed it. I liked the beef/seafood combo too and now you have me craving a seafood pancake. Best I've found so far might be at chun ki wah in meffa. But let's face it even a middling pancake can scratch that itch. Hmmmm. I have to look at photos of others I've had around town to compare.

                                        1. re: yumyum

                                          Thanks yumyum. I found this pancake nicely balanced without the uncooked liquid center that can sometimes occur. BTW, I agree with you on the panchan, OK but not up to the rest of the meal. I'll be in Korea in a week so hope to feast. I do think Kaju would not be out of place there, which is high praise.

                                          1. re: gourmaniac

                                            Stopped into chunki wa for a pancake yesterday and it was great as I had recalled. Nice and crispy finish with quite a lot of seafood and green onion. Truly great garlicky dipping saus too. The spicy beef soup on the appetizer menu is very good too. Very beefy flavored broth with bits of tofu and beef and those translucent glass noodles. Yum!

                                      2. What a great find! We tried this last night and were very pleased. We got there around 5:15 and by 6:00 it was full... on a Monday!

                                        I had the seafood sundubu jigae (spicy) and the spice level was perfect. The shrimp were the perfect size since they had heads and shells on, so you could eat them whole. I did make a mistake, however. I asked for tea to be poured into the rice pot too early. I should have waited until I was done with the jigae because it didn't have time to get brown.

                                        There was a banchan dish that I wasn't familiar with. It looked like a scoop of deli-style egg salad. It was served cold and had bits of what I think was fruit in it. I liked it, but I hadn't seen it before.

                                        Great rec!

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: croutonweb

                                          It might be potato (not egg) salad with cubed carrots? I've had this panchan in Korea even at breakfast.

                                          1. re: croutonweb

                                            My new favorite "recovery" lunch on Saturdays after long Friday nights, another Chowhound find that I reviewed for The Phoenix last September.

                                            If the banchan you're talking about is the rightmost in this photo below the raw egg, it is indeed a cold potato salad.


                                            1. re: MC Slim JB

                                              Yes, that's the one. Thanks, gourmaniac and Slim. I guess that negates one of my few categorical dislikes: cold potatoes.

                                              The banchan assortment we had differed a bit from that. I should have taken a picture. We didn't get the seaweed or the black items (fermented beans maybe?). We did get a whole 8-inch deep fried fish. That was very good in flavor and texture, but was a bit difficult to eat. I've been using chopsticks since I was a kid, but I had to assist myself with the spoon for that.

                                          2. Quick search seems to show this hasn't been mentioned - might be old news: the Harvard branch of Kaju is open. It's at 57 JFK St, above Wagamama in the same bldg as BonChon. There used to be a shabu shabu place there, and they seem to have merged the 2 menus. (The biz card says "KAJU TOFU HOUSE & shabu shabu".) I didn't eat there yet but did ask a waitress if they were indeed related to the Allston restaurant and she said yes. Hopefully it's the same quality.