Wherever you are in Korea, soup is served at every meal and it can play a starring or supporting role. Today, in my second installment of Korean dining in Lakewood, I’ll explore the vast terrain of Korean soup. Here, I’ll describe eight styles of soup, but many more varieties make up the Korean palate. The sampling here represents what’s served at the soup shops, cafes and restaurants along South Tacoma Way, which is home to the region’s finest concentration of Korean restaurants.
Just as American soups can stretch from zippy to mild – think bold gumbo to mild chicken noodle – so do the flavors of Korean soups. They can be defcon level tongue burn, leaving you feeling as if every toxin in your body may sweat through your pores, or they can taste mild and understated, so softly flavored, they merely whisper from the bowl. The colors, like the flavors, can range from brilliant orange to fiery red and milky, muted white.
The soups listed here showcase the ingredients of Korea, heavy on beef, seafood and tofu - with plenty of vegetables to create a filling and healthy meal.
Eight styles of soup
These represent a small sampling of Korean soups, all available at restaurants along South Tacoma Way:
1. Rice cake and dumpling soup (thuck mandu guk or dduk mandu guk): A mild broth laden with chewy, oval slices of rice cake and dumplings
2. Beef noodle soup (seolleong tang or sullong tahng): A milky broth soup with a mild beef flavor, made with sliced brisket
3. Knife noodle soup (kal gookso): A mild broth soup with hand-made, chewy noodles
4. Dough flake soup (sujebi or sujaebi): A mild soup made with roughly cut hand-made, chewy noodles (also can be made spicy)
5. Soft tofu soup (soon dubu or soon doobu): A scalding cauldron of mild-to-medium spiced, chili-spiked broth with custardy puffs of tofu
6. Spicy red beef stew (yuk gyae jahng or yook gae jang): Shredded beef stew with a kicky chili broth
7. Soybean paste stew (doenjang jigae or dwenjang jigae): Moderately spicy soybean soup made with a fermented soybean paste with a taste similar to miso (also can be made mild)
8. Seafood hot pot (haemul jungol): A very spicy seafood stew set over a burner and cooked at your table
1. Cho Dang Tofu
Where: 9601 South Tacoma Way
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
The scene: Stylish and bustling, Cho Dang often has a wait at lunch. It has an attractive dining room in earthy tones with blonde wood paneling and shelving displaying more than 100 lovely ceramic soup bowls. (I wouldn’t want to be below it when the big quake hits.) I love that the servers sometimes wear matching, frilly aprons that look straight out of Willy Wonka land.
The soup menu: Cho Dang is a niche soup shop offering 14 varieties of soft tofu soup, also called soon dubu or soon doobu. You also will find bulgogi and bibimbap, but not much else.
The soups: Cho Dang’s soft tofu soup (all $8.99) comes with a variety of proteins, but the broth always is the same: medium spicy and colored stunning orange from the chili, with flavoring from whichever protein you’ve chosen. I like the bacon for obvious reasons, but seafood probably is the most popular. The mushroom soup seems as if it should be vegetarian, but fish flavors the broth.
Soft tofu soup always is served bubbling hot, practically boiling over the stone pot in which it’s served, and loaded with custardy clouds of soft tofu. Soon dubu comes with a roasting hot stone bowl full of rice and seven banchan, including one you won’t find anywhere else on South Tacoma Way: a fried yellow corvina, a small, bony fish that is absolutely delicious.
Insider’s tip: To finish your soup, ask for a raw egg cracked into the boiling broth. Also, scrape down the rice from the walls of the accompanying hot rice bowl, dump it into an empty bowl, then deglaze the crunchy bits with roasted barley tea.
Where: 8501 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
The scene: On every visit to HoSoonYi, I’ve noticed the same thing: a group of middle-age Korean women laughing and chatting over soup, rice and banchan in the cute and homey dining room. HoSoonYi seems to be the gathering place for Korean ladies who lunch. I always try to spy on the dishes placed before the group of women because they get served the real deal – extra plates of banchan, endless cups of roasted barley tea, and little dishes of nutty, crunchy purple rice that is available upon request for the rest of us.
The soup menu: Several styles of soup, from soybean paste stew to beef bone soup, soft tofu soup and spicy red beef soup. It also includes a range of fish and noodle dishes, bibimbap and bulgogi.
The soups: Seafood tofu soup ($7.95) comes boiling in a stone pot, the orange, chili-flecked broth swimming with puffs of soft tofu interspersed with prawns, clams and oysters. Be warned: The longer it sits, the more it cooks. Hot, seasoned beef soup (yuk-gyae-jahng, $9.95) tasted just as it sounds – with a kick of heat and a first spoonful that promises the taste of beef in the broth, just dig down to find the shredded brisket. Slippery, shiny noodles also crowd the bottom of the bowl. Soybean paste stew ($7.95) will taste familiar to anyone who likes Japanese soup. Think of it as a spicier, more pungent version of miso, only loaded with seafood and crunchy vegetables at HoSoonYi.
Banchan comes in seven varieties, with two unusual banchan I’ve not seen elsewhere on South Tacoma Way: a watery radish dish and a fermented green similar to kimchi. Don’t forget to ask for the purple rice. It’s far tastier than white. Your meal ends with a nice touch: a little Dixie cup of chilled, sweetened barley tea.
3. Hwang-Do Seafood Noodle
Where: 3615 Steilacoom Blvd. S.W., Lakewood
Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
The scene: Think of this as the Korean equivalent of a casual Vietnamese pho cafe. The dining room is prettied up with stylish elements such as oversized photos of Korean food. The pretty metal chopsticks and spoons are a lovely touch.
The soup menu: Of all the soup restaurants on South Tacoma Way, Hwang Do has the most extensive selection: soybean stew, spicy red beef stew, fresh noodle soups, soft tofu soup and hot pot. But fresh noodles and seafood soups are the specialty. The menu also includes Korean specialties such as bibimbap, bulgogi and seafood pancakes.
The soups: If you get just one soup at Hwang Do, make it a noodle soup. The knife noodle soup (bagirock kalgooksu, $5.99) came with a broth that whispered softly and was laden with chewy house-made noodles, briny clams and a raft of veggies that pooled at the surface. Hand-cut noodles were prominent in the dough flake soup (sujebi, $6.99), a salty, mild broth laden with crunchy vegetables. Rice cake and dumpling (thuck mandu guk, $7.99), another mild soup, provided pleasant resistance with the one-two chewiness of sliced rice cakes and dumplings full of ground pork and ginger. We splurged for a seafood hot pot (haemul jungol, $29.99, feeds two or more) and were pleased with the experience of it. A server brought an oversized pot set over a propane burner, and the dish overflowed with cabbage, zucchini and mushrooms in a deeply spiced broth that tasted of clams, crab pieces and shrimp. However, the broth was so spicy, it was practically nuclear, and the seafood seemed as if it was the previous day’s catch. Your soup will be served with seven banchan plus rice.
Where: 8904 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood
Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sundays
The scene: Bare bones, clean and very cafeteria like. Hanbat is Korean fast food. You can be in and out in 20 minutes.
The soup menu: This restaurant is limited and specializes in slow-simmered beef soup called seullong tang. Think of it as mild like chicken soup, only made with beef. It’s served in five varieties: combination, brisket, flank, tongue and intestines. All are priced $8.27. There also is a vegetable and tendon soup on the menu.
The soups: A helpful man in the dining room explained the soup is healthful and good for you, and I can see why. A mild broth colored milky from a long boil with soup bones is the foundation of seolleong tang; you choose whether to add chewy white noodle threads or slippery, glossy noodles. Whatever variety you get, it will be light on meat and flavor. The condiments are sparse, pickled chunks of daikon radish, chopped green onions, salt and chili paste.
New soup restaurant coming to South Tacoma Way
You may notice that the South Tacoma Way restaurant Traditional Korean Beef Soup is missing from this report. That’s because it closed a few weeks ago.
The restaurant was known for its seolleong tang beef soup, but my favorite was the rice and dumpling soup. Seeing workers inside, I wandered into the restaurant anonymously recently to check on the progress and it looked much the same as it did before. It’s a small restaurant with dark wood accents warmed by peach and butter colored walls and focused lighting from pendant lamps and metal sconces. Bamboo mat screens and wood beams separate the dining areas. This restaurants was a pleasant find in a somewhat gritty strip mall located off street from South Tacoma Way.
A worker there told me the new restaurant would be open within the next month. The name will be Tacoma Cheong Guk Jang, apparently named after the pungent, fermented soybean paste. I’ll visit for a first bite shortly after it opens.