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The silken tofu stew called soondubu is the ultimate Korean comfort food. Think chicken soup but more restorative, shepherd’s pie but more soothing, pasta and gravy with zing.
It’s a classic dish, but if you’ve never had it, no surprise. Until this spring, just about all the Philly spots that serve solid, real-deal renditions of the soup — it must be brought to the table piping hot, bubbling over the top of a sizzling earthenware bowl — were clustered in Olney. And while traveling to the North Philly neighborhood for dinner isn’t actually that hard, it’s just not something many people do, especially if they don’t speak Korean.
Dae Bak to the rescue.
The table-service restaurant, ensconced in the windowed front room on the second level of new Race Street food hall Chinatown Square, offers a full complement of traditional Korean food. And, as a Philly Mag story noted earlier this month, it’s exactly what Chinatown was missing.
Proof? Though Dae Bak (translation: “awesome”) is only really soft-open — no marketing or ad campaigns yet, or official launch announcements — it’s already extremely popular.
So popular that on some weekend nights, per general manager Soo Young Kim, the kitchen has actually run out of some of the banchan, the various kimchi and vegetable side dishes that come gratis with entrees. “We weren’t ready for it!” Kim said, noting that there’s hardly any space allocated to kitchen storage in the restaurant’s tight footprint.
Sure enough, a glance around the 1,500-square-foot space reveals a makeshift station for storing to-go containers sitting out in the open, a water-jug station next to it and a fridge holding a small assortment of drinks (soju, soda, Korean beer) squeezed close by. But somehow — despite relatively bright lighting and two large-screen TVs at each end playing closed-captioned Korean soap operas and game shows, as is traditional in restaurants of this type — the 70-seat dining room feels hospitable and welcoming.
Chalk that up to the design direction of Kenny Poon and David Taing, the restaurateur/developers behind Chinatown Square, but also to Dae Bak co-owner Hung Nguyen, who is also a partner in nearby Bar-ly.
Nguyen is not from Korea (he’s Vietnamese), but Taing and Poon knew he had the chops to put a place together, and he recognized that there was a niche waiting to be filled.
“They wanted a Korean restaurant here, I guess,” Nguyen said. “So I did it.”
He hired a professional front-of-house staff, who seem highly proficient and attentive, plus a well-traveled Korean chef, who impressively executes a menu of time-honored standards in the petite kitchen tucked at the back of the space.
His soondubu jjigae (stew) comes in a dozen varieties — for the ultimate in slurpable umami, get the mushroom — but all go for just $13 and all start with the same excellent base, assembled in the stone serving pot: fresh soft tofu slipping through a gochujang chile broth with a few slivers of cucumber kimchi tossed in for tang and crunch.
The raw egg that comes on the side? Crack it in and stir with your metal chopsticks — it cooks right into the soup, thickening and enriching it. Ladle onto a mound of sticky rice or just spoon directly into your mouth.
Also notable: The LA galbi, aka thin-sliced marinated short rib cooked on an open-flame grill.
Don’t worry too much about trying to wield the thin metal chopsticks for this dish — just use the provided scissors to snip pieces onto your plate, then pick it up with your fingers to get every bit of flavor off the bones. Best interspersed with refreshing bites of banchan — soy-chile potatoes, marinated burdock root, pickled scallions, etc. At $24, it’s not cheap, but is sharable.
Sharing is required to get through one of the various jungol (hot pots), which come in huge metal pans complete with their own tabletop burner to keep everything sizzling.
An ostensibly personal but optionally splittable entree is the hefty dolsot bibim bap, the stone pots overflowing with noodles, pickles, vegetables, meat, rice that crisps on the bottom and a fried egg on top. Mix it all together before taking a bite.
Drinks available on-site are limited to two kinds of soju (distilled rice liquor), soda and cheap Korean beer. However, in a bonus you won’t get at the Olney restaurants, you can duck over to Chinatown Square’s wine boutique, Cork & Bottle, and choose from a wide selection to bring next door.
Other bonus? If you get one of the windowside seats, you can amuse yourself during dinner by watching people trying to get in at Hop Sing Laundromat, right across the street.