Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Greater Boston Area >
Mar 24, 2012 07:40 PM

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.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  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!