- Enrique Limón
Even when I venture out to get food that isn't traditionally American, it's hard to encounter a restaurant experience that I haven't had before. For the most part, I can generally figure out how to eat my food in a culturally appropriate way. During my first trip to It's Tofu (6949 S. 1300 East, Midvale, 801-566-9103), however, I was met with the pleasantly unexpected task of figuring out the Korean cultural nuances surrounding each dish.
Some might argue that it's the server's job to instruct first-time diners about how to navigate the food, but I happened to enjoy the distinct lack of a "Have you dined with us before?"
There's a satisfying challenge that comes from examining a tray of food and making an executive decision about how you'll proceed. For me in this case, the trick was trying to determine what is and is not culturally acceptable at a Korean restaurant. As it turns out, the only norm I needed to embrace was to have fun.When I ordered the spicy pork barbeque combo with veggie tofu stew ($13.95), I was unprepared to fully take in the sumptuous serving brought to the table. The appetizing hiss of still-cooking meat and boiling stew accompanied the arrangement, creating a culinary tableau that had me completely captivated. In addition to a bowl of rice, the dish is served with four small bowls filled with condiments called banchan, which exist for the sole purpose of letting you customize each bite. Their go-to offerings are shreds of pickled daikon, disarmingly delicious soy-sauce-marinated potatoes called gamja jorim, and two types of fresh-tasting kimchi—one made with traditional napa cabbage and the other made with thinly sliced cucumber. Arming myself with their metal—not wood!—chopsticks, I began my adventure.
At first, having so many options can be a tad daunting. Do I eat the daikon with the meat or just with the rice? Can I eat a slice of marinated pork and some kimchi? Is that guy over there a cop? These neuroses are nothing more than contrivances of a brain that is used to eating food in a particular order. Ditching these hang-ups is what makes eating here fun. The most important thing I learned from my experience with Korean food is that you're expected to try combinations of everything—including whatever your dinner guests have ordered.
If you're lucky, they've ordered a beef hot stone pot ($12.75 or $10.75 as a lunch special). It's an artfully arranged mix of veggies—shiitake mushrooms, carrots, bean sprouts and spinach—cooked on top of a bed of rice that gets nice and crispy at the bottom of the bowl. Their hot stone pots are also served with banchan, making this a great entry point for those making their maiden voyage. For the full experience, order this dish with a fried egg—stirring the crisp, nearly burnt rice into a mixture of rich egg yolk, marinated beef and cooked veggies creates a flavor and texture sensation that you can feel down to your toes.
Through the pleasant challenge of participating in a restaurant culture I've never experienced, I left It's Tofu with a new concept of what eating out could be. Not only can experimenting with an unfamiliar food culture present new perspectives, but it can taste damned good in the process.