Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: Jong Ka Jib, Olney, Philadelphia

Tofu frequently gets a bad rap. Offered as a "meat alternative" it can be served up in dull and tasteless fashion, perhaps filling a need to "eat healthy" but not satisfying any desire for interesting flavors.

If I can draw any broad conclusions about differences of western and eastern cuisines, it would be that in the West, each food needs to stand on its own in terms of flavor. Not many of us would eat porridge, grits, cream of wheat, or oatmeal without some flavoring agent. For me, grits are simply a vehicle for butter and salt. Oatmeal needs sugar and fruit.

Chinese cuisine, by my observation, will deliberately include a bland food for one of several reasons. It might be chosen to add balance when the meal has a fiery main dish. Congee (rice or multi-grain porridge), for example, is perhaps the most flavorless food I've ever eaten. Yet it is a staple in Chinese and other Asian cuisines. When it's not eaten alone (it is frequently served unseasoned to infants, the sick, and the elderly), it can be used like a blank canvas to which stronger flavors, such as salted duck egg, are added.

In my experience, this is also the best way to use tofu, which on its own has negligible flavor. Use it to provide texture and protein, then count on other ingredients for flavoring. That is the magic that happens in Soft Tofu Soup. "Soup" may not be the most accurate term - it's more like tofu stew. Based on personal testimonials from two different sources (both Korean-born), we found an opportunity to journey to Olney to try the soft tofu soup at Jong Ka Jib.

Upon arrival at this busy and unassuming restaurant, we were greeted warmly and escorted to a booth featuring bench seating (after a short wait on this busy night). Each booth is made semi-private by the use of rice-paper screens. The feel is warm, rustic, welcoming. The ambiance transports you from a city neighborhood to another place and time. The fact that most of the other patrons are speaking Korean only lends to the other-worldliness of Jong Ka Jib. Tables of mostly families are hunkered down over bubbling and steaming mini-cauldrons of tofu soup, adding raw egg and sticky rice.
Seafood Soft Tofu Soup (click to enlarge)

The simple menu has two sides - one featuring a short list of Korean BBQ meats (beef or pork) and some appetizers. The other side focuses on soups, each for $10, and most of them are soft-tofu based. Varieties of soft tofu soup include pork, mushroom, shrimp, clam, oyster, seafood (shrimp, clam, oyster)  kimchee with beef, and soybean paste. We ordered $17 beef ribs to share; I chose the seafood soft tofu soup, and FEEST (fellow enthusiast for eating soft tofu) selected the soybean paste soft tofu.

As is common in Korean restaurants, we were brought a large assortment of spicy and salty appetizers in small bowls. Some superb kimchee (according to FEEST, who was raised on Korean food), some kimchee flavored cucumber slices that I eagerly inhaled, funky little adzuki beans that tasted like dense and chewy mini-peanuts, and other pickled vegetables. Much of it was spicy, but none was so hot that it would scorch your taste buds.

Also included with the meal was hot tea. I'm not sure what kind it was, but it was a pale yellow and almost surely an herbal (no caffeine) tea. It was tasty, but lukewarm. After we finished the cups initially served, they brought us a mini carafe with more tea that carried us through the meal.
BBQ Beef Ribs

The ribs were very good. Having said that, I've had Korean BBQ several times now and I am a little underwhelmed. I'm always going to enjoy grilled meats, and I like the sweet and salty marinade, but I think I have American tastes when it comes to beef. That is, I want it BIG, juicy, smoky, and salty. Not much is better than a fat ribeye or t-bone coming off the grill on my deck. So when I next go for Korean food, I am going to concentrate on the foods that I don't or can't prepare.

The soup arrived still boiling in its cast iron cauldron. A companion cauldron held a generous serving of lovely sticky rice. A big part of me wanted to eat the soup alone so that I could add lots of butter and salt to the rice and eat it as an Americanized side dish; however, I resisted and resolved to follow the "When in Rome" (or, "When in Seoul") rule. Not to mention, there was no salt or any seasonings on the table, and I doubt that there was butter even in the kitchen.

Thus, I first cracked a raw egg into my bubbling soup. FEEST let her egg sit that way, so the egg cooked more or less together. I stirred mine around for more of an egg drop effect. Then, as we ate, we spooned in the sticky rice to add more bulk and substance to the soup. It was, in a word, sublime. The savory orange broth was a heady mix of flavors and aromas from the seafood and the spices. The head-still-on shrimp in the shell likely added a lot of flavor, but became seriously overcooked in the boiling broth. There were 2 shrimp and perhaps one clam and one oyster; the non-tofu ingredients are there mostly as seasoning.

It was easy to finish the slim slabs of beef ribs, but we did have some sticky rice and soup left to take home. FEEST showed me how to scrape the browned part of the sticky rice from the pot, then roll it into a tasty and crunchy treat. Overall, we had a filling gourmet meal in a cozy, quasi-exotic setting. And we spent only $37 before tax and tip.

Let's rate Jong Ka Jib an 8 for ambiance, 8 for service, 10 for the value, 6 for the ribs, and 9 for the soup. Overall, an 8.75 experience. Absolutely destination dining. We will be back, often I hope.

Jong Ka Jib on Urbanspoon

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