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DINING OUT:

It took a long time for me to finally get to Tofu Village since the place was packed with a line out the door every Friday and Saturday night. Finally I decided to try lunch and took with two friends. One had lived in Japan for five years and became my guide.

The interior is lovely. The dark wood floor, tables and chairs under cream-colored walls and muted colors of a leafy mural draw your eyes upward. The glass covering the murals and the glass dividers between the tables at the window add sparkle and light. It was very uplifting.

We were handed gorgeous menus with a velvety hardcover. Our places were set with a long spoon and wrapped chopsticks rolled into a napkin. The paper place mat tells about the soybean and explains tofu.

Basically, tofu is bean cheese. Soybean milk, made of the only vegetable that contains almost a “complete protein equal in quality” to that in meat and dairy, is curdled and pressed into a mold. Tofu is mild in flavor and very soft in texture so it can be found in all sorts of foods. Its health claims are numerous, including being high in iron and magnesium but having no cholesterol.

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And, in spite of the name, you don’t even have to eat any if you really don’t want to, though a beautiful brick of tofu was placed on our table first thing like chips at a Mexican restaurant. We broke into it with our chopsticks to bust off pieces and dip them in sesame sauce.

Lunch specials (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) include Korean BBQ Beef Rib ($8.99), Bulgoki, Spicy BBQ Pork and Chicken Teriyaki ($7.99). All come with hot pot rice and a can of soda. And they mean hot pot! A sizzling stone pot of browning rice comes to the table on a dark wood tray.

As much as I love Bulgoki, a thin strip of beef, tender and marinated in savory seasonings, I thought I’d try something unique. It was fun to say “Bibimbob,” so I went with it. I was brought a big pot of sizzling rice with mushrooms, shredded carrots, a little beef, bean sprouts, fried tofu and sansai — a mountain root vegetable. It is served with sesame oil and chili sauce to mix up and season just the way you like it. I will admit, though, it really came alive to me when the owner brought this gringo some soy sauce to add to it.

All those dishes also come as entrees ($9.99 to $15.50) or combinations with a sizzling soup called Soon Tofu ($13.99 to $14.99). The Soon Tofu also comes in varieties of its own ($8.99).

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My guests tried the seafood combination with clam, shrimp, oyster and mushroom and used their long spoons. They were kind of spicy, had vibrant flavors, with the broth bubbling in the dark pots! And the advantage of not ordering off the special lunch menu is that all sorts of treats come to your table in little dark wood bowls!

The waitresses are very friendly and eager to please but didn’t seem to speak English too well. Fortunately we had Kathleen to help guide us, fresh from a half-decade stint in Japan where her family discovered they love Korean food. She pointed to every little bowl to indicate the kimchi, pumpkin, onion, spicy pickled cucumber, glass noodle salad, bean curd and potatoes. The bowl of pumpkin was a slice of the deep orange vegetable and tasted like sweet potato. These items were picked up with chopsticks and eaten as a side dish. The glass noodle salad had a mild vinegar taste that wasn’t too sour and crunchy shredded carrots and long glass noodles that are a challenge to eat with chopsticks.

There was also a relish dish that the owner, who did speak English well, told us had seafood in it. We pondered too long the last little bowl with two eggs in it. They were supposed to be broken into the hot Soon Tofu. A quick stir and they are cooked immediately.

Finally the ladies were brought a bubbling cauldron of rice soup to be slurped down after the meal was finished. Then a small dish of frozen yogurt was served. A cool and delightful end to the meal.

It was far too much food for us to finish, but it was a lot of fun. We had quite an adventure exploring the foods in Tofu Village.


 JOANNA LINKCHORST is a lifelong resident of La Crescenta. She can be reached at Joanna@vveagles.com.


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