It's not polite to stare. But when you find yourself before such a spectacularly unfamiliar bowl of food, as I did recently at Jong Ka Jib, it can't hurt to take some cues from an expert.
So, as I leaned over my scorchingly hot stone bowl and inhaled the nose-singeing spice of the tofu stew that bubbled inside the mini-cauldron, I could not resist glancing for some cues over to the booth on my left. A young Korean family there had mastered the ritual of eating soon dubu, cracking a raw egg into the roiling bean-curd brew, which the mother swirled with chopsticks into a silky orange egg drop then spooned like fire-colored pudding over rice.
"They're very famous here," the husband told us, "for soft tofu."
I'm sure it comes as news to many non-Koreans that it is possible - even desirable - to be famous for soft tofu.
But it's moments like this, when I step through an innocuous North Fifth Street storefront into a room that unfolds like a house transported from the Korean countryside, where dozens of patrons hunker down over steaming tofu bowls and myriad plates of pickled kim chi, that I'm reminded that Philadelphia has so many worlds left to discover.
Sectioned off with rice-paper screens, its dining-room walls papered with pages from Korean books, Jong Ka Jib (which means "first son's house") has a soothingly elegant but rustic temple feel, with sturdy carved-back wooden benches that speak to the aesthetic qualities of tofu.
Like most Americans, Koreans tend to associate tofu with "healthy." But Koreans know it doesn't have to be dull. Korean bean-curd may begin as a neutral ingredient, a canvas for whatever touches it. By the time it emerges from Jong Ka Jib's kitchen, it resembles a supernova in a bowl, bubbling in broth beneath kim chi and beef or a seafood medley with head-on shrimp, and radiating the glow of pungent koch'u karu chile powder.
If you order it "medium spicy," it won't completely incinerate your palate. But you'll get the peculiar sensation of soon dubu, nonetheless, as those silky soft curds mingle like clouds with a scoop of chewy rice, then light the back of your throat like a lantern.
Ordering "no spicy" is also an option, and it's recommended for the more delicate casserole with mushrooms, in which dried shiitakes infuse the curds with woodsy flavor and threadlike strands of enokis add a subtle crunch.
The small but fervent soft tofu niche, no doubt, is the reason Jong Ka Jib's large parking lot is perpetually crammed - especially given the number of other good restaurants in Olney's Koreatown that focus on more familiar specialties, like tabletop barbecue.
But the relatively small menu at Jong Ka Jib, the third restaurant from Kumsuk Kim and her husband, Young Il Kim, who also own So Kong Dong in Fort Lee, N.J., covers a surprisingly broad selection of Korean standards. And many of them are excellent.
The pae jong pancake is a great sharing nibble to start, a superbly fresh hot round of dough laced with scallion threads and tender nuggets of shrimp and calamari that sparkle when you drag a wedge through the dip of vinegared soy.
The half-dozen little banchan side dishes of complimentary pickled vegetables that are offered before every entree were also addictive. They included a particularly fresh rendition of napa kim chi, its cabbage ribs still crunchy inside the fermented spice of their marinade. But there were also wonderful pickled rounds of cucumber, chewy adzuki beans shined in a sweet dark glaze, and brown strips of burdock root that were first sweet, then spicy.
Jong Ka Jib does not generally offer cook-your-own barbecue as an option, though I spotted a few unused grilling tables in the back. It does, however, cook excellent barbecue short ribs in the kitchen - the thin sheets of meat sublimely tender and permeated by a complex sweet soy marinade that tasted vaguely of cinnamon. The pork version was fattier, and less impressive.
For non-tofu-eaters with stone-bowl envy, there are a number of other items that come roasting inside those hot black pots. There is a chicken and root vegetable stew cloaked in a crimson pomade of chile gravy that arrives bubbling at the table. It's full of flavor and, mixed with a side of rice, it's kind of like Korean arroz con pollo.
Jong Ka Jib also makes one of the best gopdol bibimbaps I've had, a pinwheel of assorted vegetables and shredded beef over a bed of rice that you can hear sizzling to a brown crisp inside the hot stone bowl. When it's sufficiently toasty, I stir it all together with a raw egg that cooks from the heat of the bowl and spoonfuls of maroon dark gochujang chile paste for flavor. Jong Ka Jib's gochujang is particularly fine, with the ever-present punch of chiles softened by a roasty sweetness and malty soy flavor.
This menu, however, isn't entirely about spice. The kal kook soo, for example, is one of the most satisfyingly austere soups I've had in a while, a bowl of light broth flavored ever-so-gently with dried cod and filled with a nest of long, chewy ropes of udon-like noodles. A few batons of potato lend just enough misty starch to cloud and thicken the brew. A pot of chile paste comes on the side - of course - but it isn't necessary.
This is one dish, at least, with which even a neophyte can't go wrong.