May 22, 2010

Soy Lovers - La Palma, CA - Terrific Tofu Stop

In the halcyon days of the mid-eighties, I grew up in the ivy-clad streets of Cerritos, with its concrete walls shielding children like myself from the long boulevards that intersect the suburban bedroom community. Dining in this area wasn't spectacular, the few dingy strip malls leftover from lame attempts to develop the area providing the only respite from chain restaurants. Orange County is unfortunately the victim of many chain restaurants, but there are many bright spots, such as Artesia's Little India, Westminster's Little Saigon, Santa Ana's Latin-based dining scene, and even Garden Grove's "mini" Koreatown. Our family would more often get Korean food on the weekdays somewhere near Garden Grove or Cerritos, while weekends afforded trips to Koreatown (and generally better food) since Sunday church (and Saturday choir practices) beckoned.

My parents are often back in Orange County, teaching at local Korean seminaries and generally making their way through the Korean community. My grandmother still resides with my cousins in Cypress, near fields that used to be strawberry patches (much to my puerile delight) that are now corporate offices (blase, boring).

My father found a revelatory dining spot, something C. Thi Nyugen or Miles Clement or Linda Burum are more apt to discover, in nearby La Palma. La Palma's illustrious population of just over 15,000 was one dubbed Dairyland until the 60's when the two other dairy-laden cities of Cerritos and Cypress (familiar towns for me) were drained of their cows. Apparently Money Magazine named La Palma the 16th best place to live for towns under 50,000 in 2007. I wouldn't have agreed before my experience at Soy Lovers.

Soy Lovers is a cute translation of "Kong SaRang" or literally, "Soybean Love" or "Love for Soybean", a restaurant that pays deep homage to one of Korea's national ingredients. The legume's heritage stems from the heart of China, though archeological records show the earliest use of soybeans in Korea at 1000 BC.

Heckled and berated by many a carnivore, the humble soybean is now one of the primary sources of nutritive protein around the world, especially in war-town Afghanistan, where many women and children are finding much-needed sustenance from increased production of the crop. The soybean isn't the first place for the gourmet's palate because it's sometimes tough to pull out good flavor. But all great cuisine transforms the lowly and humble to supreme and delightful with the use of cooking technique.

Chung gook jang is that perfect iteration of soybean shown in all its glory. Much like Taiwan's stinky tofu and Japan's natto, this dish reeks like feet and nastiness from afar, much to the displeasure of many apartment neighbors of Korean grandmothers. Though stinky tofu has a more awful palatial experience (I still enjoy it) and natto has a horrible textural substance (I don't enjoy it), chung gook jang remains utterly approachable to the newbie soybean eater.

Soy Lover's version comes with either dried anchovies or pork. I prefer the former for its milder flavor and complementary savoriness. Chung gook jang here takes on an approachable tone, instead of the nasty (good) stuff "hal mun nee" (grandma) might make on Saturday afternoon. The soybean paste is sunbaked and fermented for over 6 months, mellowing into deep, earthy undertones instead of the sweetness one might perceive from younger soybean paste. This stew is gutteral and delicious, especially when poured over health "purple" rice. In Korean the key word is "goo-soo heh."

chung gook jang

Another incredible dish at Soy Lovers is the gah jae mi joorim. The flatfish or solefish is cooked whole with spicy miso sauce, a nearly awesome presentation of deep garnet hues and redolent aromas. Slightly braised Korean daikon radish come in flat sheets, evincing a firmer texture than I'd prefer. Still, the fish is wonderful - firm, clean, fresh, and flavorful, with the rich sauce perfecting the dish. While black cod and even mackerel are common partners in this increasingly popular delicacy, I find this version at Soy Lovers an absolute triumph, and definitely the reason for any return visit. Also expect to see large, tender chunks of dubu or tofu, which are specially made for Soy Lovers by a local producer.

solefish joorim

I hear the biji jigae, a mashed soybean stew and perennial favorite of mine, is also very good here. That means I'll be back sooner than later.

Soy Lovers (Kong SaRang)
8412 Moody St
La Palma, CA 90623
(714) 816-0999


Burp and Slurp~! said...

This is definitely...not my first choice place to eat in. I've never really liked tofu. But I feel that the tofu in Korea is different from the packaged ones in America.

p.s. Try stinky tofu. If you dare. ;-)

Diana said...

"Orange County is unfortunately the victim of many chain restaurants" -- and responsible for victimizing its residents with gastronomical tunnel vision (raises hand!).

I'm not sure my parents are ready for a restaurant called Soy Lovers, but I certainly am. Especially if I can get some flatfish there. ;)

mattatouille said...

Sophia - for a health nut like you I still don't know why you don't like tofu. It's funny because I ran into an old acquaintance of mine, John Park whose brother is Abraham Park. He said his brother and you have traded correspondence because of your similar Singaporean backgrounds. Cool! I've tried stinky tofu and I like it. I haven't had the ridiculously strong stuff though.

Diana - Yeah, it's sad to see Orange County go that way but I think the tide is slowly turning. You should definitely go to Soy Lovers if you're hungry and you're on the way down to OC (via the 5). I think it's off the carmenita exit if you plug it into GoogleMaps.

Lori Lynn said...

I'd go just for the name alone.

Haven't visited La Palma in years. I used to like to go to the Katella Deli in that neck of the woods.