CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Killer Tofu at Soju
Tofu has a strange place in American culture. Historically, it has long been mocked by people who are confused by the white block of soy. Many see it merely as that spongy thing vegetarians and vegans eat. In the past several years, it's become commonplace for conservatives to use "soy boy" as an insult. But tofu doesn’t deserve any of this. In many South and East Asian cuisines, tofu is the star of the dish, not an afterthought, and many Asian Americans are familiar with the plant-based protein source. For Americans less familiar with tofu, their fear lingers simply because they are not used to it.
Simon Chough, owner and chef of Korean restaurant Soju in Garfield, created his Killer Tofu dish to cater to customers who don't eat meat. The dish involves perfectly crispy tofu — frozen before breading to draw out more moisture and provide extra crunch — and a gooey, tangy, and sweet sauce. It stays crispy after the journey home in its takeout box, and even the next day while eating it out of the fridge. Anyone could love this dish, from more seasoned tofu lovers like me to big time meat lovers like my partner.
But the dish, Chough says, is one of the only items on the menu that doesn't have roots in Korean cooking. He says the inspiration came from his time living in Hawaii, where a sauce similar to the one used in the Killer Tofu is common. It involves a mix of garlic, ginger, soju, soy sauce, crushed pineapple, and gochugaru (a Korean chili). But the crispy coating on the tofu is not commonplace in Korean cooking; instead it is often used in soups and stews. Chough says he created the dish with a Western palate in mind, knowing that Americans are still unsteady around the bouncy and soft texture of tofu.
"I find that the flavors of Asian food in general are more accepted by a Western audience than texture," says Chough. "There are some prized textures in Asian food such as chewy and gummy, or soft and silky, things that we just don't experience in the American lexicon of food."
Chough says he's put other tofu dishes on Soju's menu before, like sundubu, a softer kind of tofu, but that it didn't sell well. The Killer Tofu, whose name originates in the ’90s cartoon Doug, has "the texture of a chicken nugget."
While it might not be a traditionally Korean dish, it's certainly a delicious one, and fits well with alterations Chough has made to Soju's menu since the pandemic hit. With an increase in takeout sales, Chough has rethought some of the menu to make dishes more friendly for travel, as well as adding more comfort food, like a spicy chicken sandwich and kimchi nachos, alongside the restaurant’s classics like bulgogi and bibimbap.
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Owner and chef, Simon Chough, prepares the Killer Tofu dish at Soju
"It definitely has made me think about things that will carry," says Chough. "It's changed my cooking style because I'm always concerned with, 'How's this gonna be 20 minutes after I cook it sitting in a box?'"
Soju currently has limited indoor dining and does most of its business through takeout, sales of which, Chough says, are up to about 80% of what they were pre-pandemic (though alcohol sales are down significantly). Sales of the Killer Tofu, he says, have also gone up, possibly due to how well it travels.
But if you've tried and love the crispy, saucey dish, it might be time to expand your palette to new ways of eating tofu. Chough's favorite is mapo tofu from Squirrel Hill restaurants Sichuan Gourmet or Chengdu Gourmet, a dish served with tofu, ground meat, and a spicy sauce. And if you're lucky, Chough says he might expand the tofu offerings on his own menu.
4923 Penn Ave., Garfield. instagram.com/sojupgh