For months, my friend Joann had been saying to me, “When you come to New York, let’s get some tofu stew.” Generally, I’d make some sort of noncommittal response, but on this last trip I decided the time for stew (sundubu jjigae) had come. After spending the afternoon at Storm King, Keith and I picked Joann up for a ride into Fort Lee, the New Jersey town nestled against the on-ramp to the George Washington Bridge.
I don’t know how it came about, but Fort Lee (Bergen County in general) has a huge Asian population; in fact, a large percentage are of Korean descent, so it’s no surprise that the city and its neighboring towns are home to several Korean restaurants and Asian markets. Knowing this, I probably shouldn’t have been taken aback when Joann told me that there would be long line outside of So Kong Dong, her favorite tofu stew restaurant.
“FYI,” she typed in an email, “Saturday night at dinner time… there will be a wait, so earlier the better.”
She wasn’t kidding.
So Kong Dong is set slightly back off of Main Street in Fort Lee; when we arrived right after seven o’clock, the restaurant’s parking lot was full of people killing time before their table number was called. However, instead of just allowing their patrons to mill about aimlessly, the folks at So Kong Dong circulate menus and take orders; when a party finally does sit down, their food is brought to them mere minutes later.
Once we were seated, the servers unloaded a tray laden with snacks onto our table. There were several different types of kimchi; I was only able to eat the nabak kimchi, a cold kimchi soup of sorts, as the others were far to hot (not in temperature — the other kind of hot!) for me to handle. We also received a plate of sprouts called kongnamul, which were dressed in sesame oil and served with scallions and carrots. I was starving by the time we got to our table, so I inhaled almost everything placed in front of me.
When we had placed our order in the parking lot, I had requested the seafood beef tofu stew; it would be comprised of clams, some shrimp, oyster and dollops of ground beef, all floating in the broth with large chunks of silken tofu ($8.00). The menu — which is very small, with perhaps only seven or eight listed — lists the five different levels of heat available: not spicy, not too spicy, medium hot, hot and very hot. I requested “not too spicy,” which Joann said would be “barely pink.” Both she and Keith chose the “hot” option; their soups were a brilliant fiery red. Once we had our earthenware bowls in front of us, we each took a raw egg and cracked it into the soup; when it is stirred quickly into the broth it adds a nice, thick texture.
As you can see from the photo, tofu stew is served steaming hot — so hot, in fact, that Joann and I dumped what was left of our nabak kimchi into empty snack plates and transferred our stew bit by bit to the smaller, cooler bowls. Keith, on the other hand, bravely ate directly from his massive boiling bowl. Even after several minutes, the stew remained hot as ever. I ended up alternating bites of rice with slurps of soup and still found myself perspiring.
I really regret not taking Joann up on her offer of sundubu sooner. The stew was incredibly hearty, immensely flavorful and the portions ridiculously large. Afterward, we went to see Tropic Thunder and I could feel my dinner sitting square in the center of my stomach; it was so solid, it was as if a toastily full-bodied cat had curled up under my T-shirt to take a nap. I can’t think of another dish that could possibly be a better culinary equivalent of the warm and fuzzies than this.
So Kong Dong
130 Main Street
Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024