Faine Opines

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Category: Restaurant Reviews

Korean Food at Myung Dong Tofu Cabin – San Mateo, California

Myung Dong Tofu Cabin
2968 S Norfolk St, San Mateo, CA 94403
(650) 525-1484
Website

tofu cabin pork stew

Pork and kimchi stew.

I love California strip malls. Well, allow me modify that: strip malls of a particular variety and tone. The sort I’m talking about aren’t populated with dollar stores and sporting goods marts. The sort of strip mall I like functions as a small oasis of excellent Asian food, where multiple Asian restaurants cluster together, seemingly for protection — the equivalent of small natural bastions of biodiversity.

The excellent Myung Dong Tofu Cabin sits in one of these Asian food gallerias, next to a Chinese bakery and a pho shop. Owned and operated by a small crew of middle-aged women, the delightfully named Tofu Cabin specializes in Korean home-cooking, with a couple of DIY BBQ tables for those feeling fancy.

At this home-cooking — the heart and soul of Korean cuisine, if you ask me – this place absolutely excels. With lower prices by a buck or two than the other Korean restaurants I’ve found in the Peninsula, I believe I’ve found my new standby.

pork bbq myung dong

Spicy BBQ pork.

I’m usually a bit ambivalent to SoonDooBoo, perhaps because it’s often rather uninspired. The soondooboo here was a molten, flavorful, slightly creamy brew, with bits of beef. They took us seriously when we said “spicy.” My sinuses were rendered as open as the Panama Canal.  Pork BBQ was the right kind of greasy and exceedingly prolific in the full portion, with a potent dose of red pepper and sliced jalapeno. It was particularly good in a fresh lettuce wrap with some kimchi and a bit of hot sauce.

Seafood dolsot bibimbap was also excellent, served in a very large black stone cauldron, and filled with shrimp and squid. I was less impressed with the kimchi ji gae (pork and kimchi stew), which definitely featured far more kimchi than it did slices of pork belly.

banchan tofu cabin

The banchan selection is fresh, if slightly austere, and by austere I think I actually mean “healthy.” (Where’s my mayonnaise drenched noodle salad?) Sweet black beans are a rare site on these spreads in recent years. Still, where’s the tiny fish with equally tiny eyeballs? They defined my childhood. The kimchi is excellent. A Korean restaurant rises and falls upon the virtue of its kimchi.

Service is friendly and homey, and the food comes out pleasingly quickly. Free green tea and the correct kind of purple rice. I’ll be back, probably over and over and over. Korean food has a peculiar addictive quality for me, a Proustian madeline.

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Huong Lan Sandwich – San Jose, California

Huong Lan Sandwich
1655 Tully Road
San Jose, California

huong lan sandwiches

It’s hard not to love banh mi, as any Californian with sense will inform you. I tend to subsist almost exclusively on these sandwiches when actually in Vietnam, enjoying both the comically low price point and the delightfully variable flavor — every small stand manned by elderly women, turning out ever-so-slightly different variants on the theme.

BBQ pork, chicken, pate, mysterious but tasty headcheeses, served with mayonnaise and pickled vegetables and even, at times, some of that curiously unperishable Laughing Cow cheese. Chili sauce and fried shallots and jalapeno, and (if lucky), a bit of hot left-over juice from sauteed pork. I’ll eat it all. Happily.

You can get good banh mi in America, of course. Anywhere with a large Vietnamese population will inevitably have a clutch of banh mi shops, which fill the ecological niche of Subway with both style and considerable thrift.

huong lan interior

Huong Lan, in San Jose’s Little Saigon, is one of those sandwich-and-deli shops that I grew up with, and of which you know the type if you grew up in an area with a Vietnamese population. There’s a wide selection of prepared Vietnamese food, including Hue style rice cakes (banh cuon, et al), a profusion of spring roll varieties, and noodle bowls. There’s a hot fast food bar that offers rice plates on the go, with freshly fried spring rolls and catfish claypots covered with shrink wrap. There’s also a counter offering fresh BBQ meats. I was able to pick up some MSG saturated and delightfully nostalgic fried seaweed snacks, which made me happy. Curiously — I couldn’t find any fish sauce, although they did have shrimp paste.

huong lan banh mi

The sandwich was only OK, I’m a bit sad to report. It was lacking some sort of special oomph. The bread wasn’t warmed up and was not quite shatter-y enough, and that, in my mind, makes all the difference. Further, the fillings were a bit inadequate in volume. I like a good banh mi to make an intolerable mess of any surface I’m eating it over. What was there, however, was good: BBQ pork was given a garnish of peanuts and fried shallots, which added some earthy, oily crunch. For $3, I can accept an unremarkable sandwich.

huong lan meat

The real appeal at Huong Lan, then, is the counter serving up BBQ pork, duck, and chicken. Crispy slabs of pork with crackling still on. BBQ ducks, noisily chopped up on a big wooden block. I chose soy-sauce chicken, which cost me a little less than $5 for a pound, and was delightfully tender and flavorful. Why bother with those morose rotisserie chickens from Safeway? Here, they’ll even throw in the feet.

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