Let's start at My Tofu House, which shares the 4600 block of Geary with a Korean barbecue joint and the First Korea Market. Step inside and you'll find a clean, bright space -- spare booths adorned with pale wood latticework, ventilators left over from the previous tenant (another Korean barbecue joint) above each table. Tweety, happy flute music wafts from the sound system. Beverages consist of hot tea (free) or soda for a buck.
Unfamiliar with Korean-style tofu soup? Fear not; My Tofu House provides a four-step guide titled "How to Enjoy Your Meal." It works like this:
1) Pick your favorite meal (in all likelihood tofu soup);
2) How spicy? (an important question);
3) Put egg in soup if you like (you would);
With the house rules settled, we ordered a grand Korean feast. The first dish, tofu salad, was abominable. A mound of iceberg lettuce was tossed with corn and a musty, pungent dressing, then topped with spongy strips of firm tofu and julienned fish cake. Was I in for a long New Korean-Style Tofu Soup Restaurant Challenge? Better to skip this lone appetizer and snack on assorted kimchee (included with the price of dinner): fiery fermented cabbage; cleansing, lightly sweet vinegared cucumber; shredded peppers in a mild chile sauce; plump soybean sprouts kissed with a tantalizing hint of sesame oil; spicy chunks of radish; and tiny fishies dried to a plasticky hardness. (I dropped one against the table -- it bounced.)
Tofu soup makes for a grand entrance. Our waitress arrived with two sputtering, bubbling hot pots. It was like staring into the mouths of tiny volcanoes except that, instead of lava, we beheld a quivery blend of stock, green onion, and silken tofu, suffused with the bright red glow of hot chile sauce. We stirred in raw egg, which cooked immediately, and got to it. The seafood combination with clams, shrimp, and oysters was served medium-hot (mildly spicy if you ask me). The sharp flavor of clam juice overwhelmed the other ingredients. Kimchee tofu soup was simply awesome. We ordered it hot, which produced a shimmering burn as we spooned our way through luscious, custardy tofu braced with pungent cabbage, delicate shreds of egg, zesty onion, and -- a nice contrast of texture and taste -- chewy, flavorful nubbins of beef.
In addition to three other tofu soups (original, combination, assorted mushrooms) My Tofu House offers two entrees. Barbecue consists of a sizzling hot plate layered with onion and tasty shreds of beef marinated in ginger and garlic. Seafood rice makes for yet another dramatic entrance. Our waitress brought a hot stoneware bowl brimming with rice, squid, shrimp, bean sprouts, and spinach. The bottom of the bowl toasted a few grains, which provided a smoky, crunchy treat. Don't worry about saving room for dessert; to finish, you get sticks of fruity melon gum.
Tofu Land isn't as swank as My Tofu House. The dining room is smaller, there's no music, and the paper lanterns were flickering like strobe lights as we entered. Still, the place has attitude. The menu claims Tofu Land is the first Korean restaurant in North Beach; print ads, meanwhile, say it's the best Korean restaurant in North Beach.
Prices are slightly higher than at My Tofu House; each of five tofu soups costs 85 cents more. Beverages run from hot tea (free again) to beer, sake, and 375-milliliter bottles of soju, a vodkalike Korean sweet potato liquor. Perhaps the soju loosened me up, but I found the waitress here far more amenable to friendly banter than was the case at My Tofu House. We started with another selection of kimchee: more fiery fermented cabbage, chunks of radish, and cleansing, vinegared cucumber; crunchy broccoli; chewy strips of fish cake; soggy, subpar bean sprouts; green peppers tossed with sesame seeds; sesamed spinach; and, my favorite nibble, cool, clean-tasting shredded potato.
Once again, tofu soup arrived in a bubbling hot pot, but here, we got no egg. Still, the combination tofu gave My Tofu House's kimchee tofu a run for its money. It came with a single clam (for just the right amount of clamminess), shrimp, beef, squid, green mussels, and silken tofu -- a wonderful, one-pot symphony of tastes. We ordered it medium-hot, which roughly equaled hot at My Tofu House. Tempting the outer limits of the spice scale, we ordered the vegetarian tofu with mushrooms and zucchini hot. The stuff was so hellfire spicy my friend Jen nearly choked. Then came the bi-bim-bap.
"No bi-bim-bap?" asked our waitress when I mentioned that I'd just dined at another Korean-style tofu soup restaurant that didn't offer this traditional dish. I understood her surprise; seafood rice bowls are fine, but if you ask me, there's no better way to enjoy rice in hot stoneware than to have it with spinach, shredded carrot, bean sprouts, and beef, topped with a fried egg. The contrasts are amazing -- intense, gingery-garlicky beef, savory egg, cool vegetables, and toasty, crunchy rice.
Tofu Land offers nine other Korean specialties. Pork and potato stew consists of hunks of rib, potato, and spinach in a funky, overwhelmingly licorice-y broth. Our final choice was a tossup: barbecued short ribs, or a-gu jim? We opted for the latter. Our waitress told us we wouldn't like it. As I learned during my first and only foray into the world of Shanghai-style stinking tofu, such warnings should often be heeded. Here, chunks of cod were blanketed with a spaghetti-looking blend of watery chile sauce and soggy bean sprouts. For dessert, we had free slices of orange.
Then, I tallied the results. Décor and prices went to My Tofu House; Tofu Land won service and beverages. Food was a mixed bag: Though I missed the egg from My Tofu House, Tofu Land's combination tofu soup was the most haunting; kimchee went to My Tofu House by the barest of margins; I actually preferred the melon gum at My Tofu House to the orange slices at Tofu Land; however, potato stew and a-gu jim notwithstanding, bi-bim-bap edged the food category -- and the challenge as a whole -- toward Tofu Land. Still, the contest was close enough that the final criterion (my state of mind) would decide it. Though I'd recommend both places, I was feeling it (blame the soju) as I bi-bim-bopped my way out the door of our winner.
Congratulations, Tofu Land.