Beyond meeting chefs, farmers and food purveyors, one of the finest privileges I've had as an Independent food writer has been checking out loyal readers' favorite places. I'm particularly thankful to one Indyphile who recently recommended Tong Tong, which she described as "the beeesssstttt" Korean place in town. She's aaaabsoluuutely right.
Tong Tong's about as unassuming as a restaurant comes. Diners sit in booths along the east wall, at tables set through the middle, or in one of a series of private, screened-in areas on the other wall. Against this well-lit, open and clean-yet-humble background, Tong Tong offers a panoply of complex and flavorful dishes.
For openers, share a scrumptious kimchi pancake, which finds spicy morsels of Korea's iconic pickled cabbage suspended in fluffy batter and griddled in a cast-iron pie dish. The cookery doubles as serving dish, and scissors carve pizza-slice portions of this savory treat.
Kimchi also stars in kimchi jigae, a broth- and hot chile-based stew of kimchi and pork, with chunks of tofu, onion and other items mixed in. Served positively bubbling in a giant iron bowl, it's rich, spicy and soul-satisfying. Another Korean classic, daeji-bulgogi, the spicy pork variant of the more familiar sliced beef favorite, is served sizzling on an iron plate. Sliced scallion, minced garlic and grated ginger complement the sweet and spicy pork, as does a legion of side dishes.
Other standards could be better. The kalbi, or short ribs, are serviceable rather than spectacular, and the bibimbap, served here in a deep stone bowl, is good but doesn't always sizzle. It has, fortunately, improved considerably in recent visits, although vegetarians must be certain to clarify their preference for a completely meatless rendition.
Nevertheless, there's enough tastiness to make anyone into a regular. Jukkaejong, another inviting soup, offers bits of short rib and noodles in a rich, beefy broth. Delightfully toothsome, cold homemade soba noodles showcase a delicate saltiness. Snails in spicy sauce over noodles prove among Tong Tong's most interesting surprises. Removed from the shell and wok-sauted, they bear no resemblance to French escargot; their meat packages offer a sweet, dense and savory reward to the adventurous eater.
Sometimes, I'm drawn to Tong Tong solely by the irresistible magnetic force of its hauntingly delicious radish kimchi: dice-size chunks of moist and crunchy daikon lightly pickled in a zingy red chile brine. This and cabbage kimchi are the only standards in a rotating mix of six to eight small sides that come with every meal. On any given day, one might find some combination of silver-dollar scallion pancakes, spicy preserved squid tentacles, cucumber relish, acorn tofu, bean sprouts, apple salad and cold seaweed soup, all made on site.
Lunch specials check in under $10, hearty dinners under $15, and Tong Tong's friendly and efficient staff has answers for every question. But there's more to a meal here than excellent food and solid service. After lunch there recently, a good friend remarked on what a lovely turn his day had taken. That's the kind of happiness upon which you can't put a price. firstname.lastname@example.org
2036 S. Academy Blvd., 591-8585
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily. Closed first and second Sunday of each month.