The first time I dined at Tosokchon in Annandale, I dined alone, which is my usual practice when scouting places to eat. It’s the best way I know to contain the financial damage should I determine, by taste and by intuition, that the restaurant will never translate into a review. But eating solo, without mentors, without someone familiar with the restaurant’s strengths, can be a fool’s errand, too. It can leave you where it left me: staring blankly at my bowl of soondubu jjigae, an opaque stew splotchy with chile flake, in which soft lobes of tofu quaked in the hard boil of the broth.
Even after all of these years of ducking in and out of restaurants, I still encounter a dish foreign enough to my experience that I’m struck dumb in its presence. Such was the case with soondubu jjigae, one of the house specialties at Tosokchon. My server provided no instructions on how to approach the bowl, assuming that I either knew the drill or would make for some nice, comic theater.
Little did I know at the time that this silence would become a recurring theme at Tosokchon, a 24/7 operation in the back of the Great World Plaza shopping center. No one — managers, employees, the presumptive owner — would talk to me about this minimalist storefront despite multiple phone calls, some from Joyce Lee, a Washington Post foreign video editor who speaks fluent Korean. Maybe Tosokchon likes business exactly as it is? Maybe the proprietors don’t want a rush of curiosity seekers, who would dilute the concentrated Korean vibe of the place? Maybe they don’t think most Washingtonians are ready for their unadultered blast of Korean culture, no matter how many Oscars “Parasite” won on Sunday?
Later, as I researched the history of soondubu jjigae in the United States, I found a story from the Los Angeles Times, written more than a decade ago. It explained how Hee-sook Lee took a chance on a common Korean lunch dish and turned it into a small soft-tofu-stew empire, with restaurants in Southern California, New York, Texas and even back in South Korea, where Lee has become something of a celebrity. Lee’s work ethic clearly played a role in her success, but so did another thing: her desire to spread Korean flavors to all corners of America. “For first-time diners who look a little lost,” the Times reporter wrote about Lee, “she will even demonstrate how her food is to be eaten.”
So, back to my first bowl of soondubu jjigae. Left to my own devices, without the guidance of a kindly counselor like Lee, I relied on a critic’s standard device: I stole glances at other diners to see how they ate their tofu stew. That’s when I realized, much to may dismay, that I had already bungled things. There, among my complimentary banchan appetizers, was a single, room-temperature egg, lying in its own tiny bowl. It wasn’t there to eat raw, like I was some muscleman trying to build mass. It wasn’t there to toss at servers to get their attention. It was there to crack into the soondubu jjigae while the stew was still hot and gurgling.
My stew was no longer hot and gurgling. Regardless, I cracked the egg and released its stream of yolk and translucent albumin into the broth and gave it a vigorous stir. Then I followed the lead of an older man across the room and spooned the egg-enhanced stew over rice, which was packed tight in a covered silver bowl. I added a little kimchi and braced for the fireworks.
This was when I understood the parallel pleasures of soondubu jjigae: Straight from the earthenware bowl, the dish is a fuel-injected rush of chile flake and gochujang, anchovy broth and whatever proteins you add to the stew, including fresh seafood. But over rice, the stew assumes a more reserved persona (at least when you don’t add kimchi or some other fiery condiment available at the table). The grains effectively sand the edges off everything, allowing you to savor the custardy luxury of the silken tofu. Soondubu translates into “pure bean curd,” but the word that comes to mind as the tofu glides across my palate, without a trace of friction, is grace, as ephemeral as always.
Tosokchon is not for rookies, at least compared with its neighbor Iron Age, the Korean “steak house” with the ’90s-era players lounge ambiance. As its name suggests (Tosokchon means “native villages” in English), the restaurant lives close to the bone. The menu proudly displays Korean script above English translations and, just as important, doubles down on offal dishes, digging deep into the Korean tradition of whole-animal cooking.
I’ve grazed widely across the menu at Tosokchon and have come away with favorites other than the soondubu jjigae. Among them: the family-size soondae bokkeum hot pot, with the finest, lightest Korean blood sausage I’ve ever tasted; the dak kalguksu chicken soup with chewy, housemade flour noodles; the dense, crispy seafood pancake threaded generously with bright-green lengths of scallion; the jaeyuk bokkeum with marinated pork loin that’s at once sweet and spicy; the galbi tang stew with large, bone-in pieces of succulent, if underseasoned, short rib; and the jokbal, a traditional dish described on the menu merely as a “Korean-style pig’s trotter.”
Had I not dined with chef Danny Lee (Anju, Chiko) during one trip to Tosokchon, I probably would have never ordered jokbal based on the description alone. He practically insisted on it. He even explained how the dish is prepared (a multiday process that involves soaking, boiling, chilling and simmering) and eaten. It’s important to note that jokbal is not just a trotter; the dish includes the adjacent hock joint, whose meat gets rolled and pressed into rich, semi-gelatinous sections of skin. You take each slice of hock meat and wrap it around a raw glove of garlic, a little gochujang and maybe even a ringlet of jalapeño. The combination of the raw and the cooked, the heat and the sweet, the low expectations and the high rewards. … I felt somehow blessed, maybe even forgiven, for walking into this restaurant unprepared for the gifts it holds.
7031 Little River Tpk., Annandale, 703-333-3400; tosokchonva.com.
Hours: 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Nearest Metro: N/A
Prices: $7 to $14 for appetizers; $9 to $39 for entrees, specialties and hot pots.