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September 13-19, 2006

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Tofu House

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Snack in Black: Arrowroot noodles at Santa Clara's Tofu House.

Seoul Searching

Silicon Valley has the best Korean food north of L.A. Here's where to find it.

By Stett Holbrook

KOREAN food is a tough nut to crack. Of all of Silicon Valley's many ethnic foods, I think it's the least accessible. Try to name one Korean dish. (Kim chi doesn't count. The spicy pickled cabbage is more of a side dish.) If you're like most people, you'll draw a blank.

There are only a handful of Korean cookbooks out there to help to decode the food. There aren't any Korean celebrity chefs talking up the cuisine on TV. Nor are there any Korean crossover restaurants to introduce the food to masses. If you want to discover what Korean food has to offer, you're on your own. But it's well worth the effort.

Outside of L.A.'s Koreatown, Silicon Valley, particularly the El Camino Real between Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, is the best source for Korean food in the state. Korean food is big on grilled meat and seafood. Sometimes it's spicy, but it's always hearty and satisfying. And you've got to love a cuisine that starts each restaurant meal with panchan, a half-dozen or more free little dishes of pickled, steamed and stewed vegetables.

To the extent that people are familiar with Korean food, it's usually Korean barbecue. These restaurants serve thin cuts of beef and pork marinated in chile pepper and garlic paste. You either grill the meat yourself at a table-mounted grill or the kitchen cooks it for you. You roll the meat into leaves of lettuce and dab with a chile sauce. It's good food and especially fun in groups. But I wanted to dig deeper into what Silicon Valley's Korean town has to offer, so I went out looking for more.

Dumpling And Noodle

One of my new favorite restaurants is Dumpling and Noodle. I love the straightforward name and the eponymous specialties even more. The small, bustling restaurant is hidden in a minimall off El Camino, but once you find it you'll feel like you're someplace special, especially when you hear the chorus of contented noodle slurping coming from the other customers.

There are a half-dozen noodle soups. My favorite was chicken noodle ($5.95), the first one on the menu. The big bowl arrives loaded with fat, square-edged noodles and tender, mostly white-meat chicken in a thick, opaque, almost gravylike broth. I also liked the "well being" spinach noodle with shrimp and squid ($7.95). The bright, light green noodles are fresh and light. The broth is subtle but rich and the whole shrimp and slivers of tender squid make this a nourishing bowl of noodles. Fried shrimp dumplings ($5) are another standout, light, crispy, almost oil-free and packed with a big wad of sweet shrimp and green onion.

Dumpling and Noodle makes excellent kimchi, too. It's at once cool and spicy and coated in a thick chile paste.

Tofu House

Nearby Tofu House is another winner. The restaurant is hidden behind frosted glass, but is friendly and warm inside. One wall is covered with sketches drawn by children and adults. The menu is short and simple: tofu hot pot stews, barbecue and noodles. Tofu stew, or soontofu, is one of Korea's great dishes. I ordered the beef and tofu ($8.78) and it arrived bubbling in a stoneware cauldron. The bits of silky tofu and beef simmered in a rich, moderately spicy red broth that would be just the thing on a cold January day.

What drew me in wasn't the soontofu, but the banner outside advertising cold arrowroot noodles, known as naeng myun in Korean. Korea is a noodle country, but when the weather gets warm, a steaming bowl of hot noodles doesn't always hit the spot; chilled noodles do. Arrowroot noodles are made from the rhizomes of a leafy herb. It's easy to digest and reportedly has health benefits. It definitely has stomach benefits. At Tofu House, the thin, black, elastic noodles ($8.78) are served in a cold metal bowl with slices of watermelon and daikon radish in a slightly sweet and tart dressing. It sounds like an unlikely combination of flavors and ingredients, but it's fantastic with wonderfully clean and refreshing flavors.

Corner Place

Intrigued by the idea of a seasonal summer noodle, I wandered into Corner Place a few blocks away. As good as Tofu House's cold arrowroot noodles were, Corner Place's iced buckwheat noodles ($9.95) blew me away. Taking the idea of a hot weather noodle one step further, the tangle of gray-black noodles rise above a moat of spiced beef broth that floats shards of shaved ice. The broth tastes like a refined beef broth but with tangy, complex flavors that lit up my tongue like licking a battery. Each spoonful is crunchy, cold and fascinatingly delicious. Slices of pickled cucumber, half a hardboiled egg and pine nuts bob in the frigid soup as well. It was one of the most unexpected and wonderful dishes I've had all year.

The noodles are only served May-November so don't miss out.

Dumpling and Noodle

Address: 3212 El Camino Real, Santa Clara

Phone: 408.615.7705

Hours: 11am-10pm daily

Cuisine: Korean

Price Range: $5-$8.

Tofu House

Address: 3450 El Camino Real, Santa Clara

Phone: 408.261.3030

Hours: 11am-9:30pm Mon-Sat

Cuisine: Korean

Price Range: $6-$9.

Corner Place

Address: 2783 El Camino Real, Santa Clara

Phone: 408.249.8990

Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Thu, 11am-midnight Fri-Sat and 12:30-9pm Sun

Cuisine: Korean

Price Range: $6-$14.

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