October 8, 2009
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on October 2009
Always on the prowl for new dining options in Shibuya, my wife and I recently unearthed Tokyo Sundub, an upmarket chain that specializes in the eponymous Korean tofu dish. On a weekday lunch break, we joined a crowd of mostly hurried OLs lined up outside Sundub’s narrow but trendy confines in the gritty backstreets behind the Shibuya police station on Meiji Dori.
Like Japanese nabeyaki, sundubu arrives bubbling hot in a cast iron pot, to be eaten with a bowl of rice and traditional Korean side dish of namul, consisting of spinach, carrots and sprouts, boiled and seasoned with sesame oil and soy sauce.
The menu at Tokyo Sundub (sun means “pure,” dubu means “tofu” in Korean) lists no less than 18 different kinds of hotpots, all available for around ¥1,100, and the menu is refreshed every few months. This Japanese-challenged but hungry patron was still in line trying to parse the kanji when a friendly young waitress stepped in with an English menu.
My wife settled on the basic clam sundubu (¥1,000)—clam seems to be part of every sundubu no matter the flavor—while I went for the chicken (¥1,100). Other options include pork, beef and root vegetable, extending all the way to such exotic concoctions as cheese, duck dumpling and “adductor muscle” sundubu. We might skip that last one.
There were other choices to be made. Whether to opt for the standard salt stock base, for instance, or the miso base. Or what level of spiciness to choose from four options ranging from “mild” to “extremely hot.”
Opting conservatively for the mild, we were finally ushered at the end of the lunch rush to our tiny table in the back of the Spartan, contemporary space. The kitchen is positioned at the front of the restaurant, with a large expanse of glass allowing passersby a peek into the mysteries of sundubu preparation.
Tokyo Sundub’s flyer claims that the health benefits of the dish have spurred a boom in America that the Japanese are only just now getting in on. In any event, the shop has proven a smash, with 17 outlets nationwide, including one each in Aoyama, Shinjuku, Azabudai, Ikebukuro, Yokohama, Tabata and Shibuya.
My sundubu turns out to be a piping hot stew of silky-fresh tofu, raw egg, chicken chunks and vegetables steeped in a volcanic-hot chili tomato broth. Taming it with an underlayer of rice on the spoon makes for a wonderful balance of spiciness and mildness, creaminess and chewiness.
No one would ever mistake sundubu for haute cuisine, and the namul and annin-dofu dessert that came with the lunch set were anemic in both portion size and flavor. But Tokyo Sundub nevertheless offers up a hearty, healthy hotpot that hits the spot in the middle of Shibuya.