Oyster Soondubu & Galbi at BCD Tofu House – NYC
For the longest time I resisted cooked oysters. Why cook something when it tastes perfectly good raw? Then a few years ago I started to appreciate cooked oysters. Gently cooked so the meat is set like a soft boiled egg, oysters take on a creamy quality raw oysters don’t possess. Sure, I still prefer raw oysters, but I understand why people like oysters cooked too. Done right, they’re delicious. Overcooked, you might as chew the piece of gum you spit out hours ago. It’ll be just as tasteless and chewy.
One place where they do oysters right is BCD Tofu House (북창동 순두부) on 32nd Street in K-Town. The specialty at BCD is soondubu jigae (순두부 찌개), soft/silken tofu soup which can be ordered in varying degrees of spiciness: plain/not spicy, mild, spicy, or very spicy. My regular order is the Oyster Tofu Soup (굴순두부), spicy.
At most Korean restaurants, if you order a lot, are a regular there, or for some reason they like you, your table will normally get a free dish (Korean people call this “service”). Usually this service is a grilled or fried fish. At BCD, regardless if you fill any of the above criteria, you get a small fried croaker with your banchan. Yes, SCORE! And just because it’s free don’t think the fish is going to taste like crap. The croaker is well-salted, battered, and fried crisp. If you can handle the bones, it’s a great little appetizer.
At BCD, as they should, the rice and soondubu come in individual-sized hot pots: the rice in a stone pot and the soup in an earthenware pot. If the rice arrives first, leave it alone. A waitress will come by and scoop out the rice for you into a metal bowl.
As for the soondubu jigae, it will be at a roiling boil. You should be able to hear it boiling. Nothing whets the appetite of a Korean person more than the sound of jigae bubbling away. At that moment, it’s best to crack open the raw egg accompanying the jigae into the soup. It’s up to you whether you want to pop the yolk or not. I usually pop the egg; it thickens the soup and mellows out the spice. The soup will still be spicy, but it just won’t be as sharp.
What makes the oyster soondubu at BCD really good though is that oysters are lucious and tender and the amount of oysters is generous. Moreover, the oysters go well with the silky custard-like tofu; together they imbue a lovely richness to the soup. Quite often I eat the soup without any rice. I like to savor the flavors of the soup without any distractions. Most of the time, the soup is seasoned perfectly so it’s not too salty when I do this. The very last time, however, the soup tasted saltier and spicier than usual. I think this may have been due to the fact that I went during dinner service on a weekend. Business isn’t as brisk then so the stock may have reduced down a little too much. If you’ve never been to BCD, I would recommend going on a weekday for lunch. I’ve never had any issues at lunch, and also on the weekdays, all the tofu soups cost $9.95 as opposed to the regular $11.95. Additionally, if you want a side of galbi, it’s definitely worth going for a weekday lunch.
During lunch on the weekdays, L.A. Gal Bi (grilled beef ribs cut on a lateral axis) is $15.95 with a small soondubu jigae. Any other time, it’s $18.95 for just the galbi, no soup. It’s a significant difference. Of course outside of the lunch special you may get a few more ribs, but really, the quantity isn’t drastically different. In addition, quality-wise it’s always pretty consistent: lip-smackingly salty, sweet, and fatty.
After the meal, you’ll want to revisit the stone bowl that previously held the rice. During the meal, the waitress comes by and pours hot tea into the stone pot which in turn softens and unsticks the layer of nooroongji (browned rice; 누룽지) at the bottom. No, she doesn’t do this to help out the dishwasher out back. This is done to create something akin to watery nooroongji porridge (누룽밥, nooroongbab). You eat this at the end of the meal. Supposedly it aids in digestions. Not sure if that’s true or not, but I eat it because I like it. The tea becomes nutty from the rice in the way tea with browned rice tastes. A white coworker once told me the tea/nooroongji combination tastes worse than the water she washes her underwear in. But don’t let that scare you. Try it, you may like it. You never know. Look at me, I’m now a cooked oyster lover.