On the hottest day this summer, when the heat index had hit 105, one restaurant in town was doing a booming business in soups delivered to the table in full roiling boil, a plume of steam leaving an odiferous trail behind the server. So Gong Dong Tofu House is not the first Korean restaurant in Nashville. In fact, it is one of five by my count: joining Korea House and Manna on Charlotte, Koreana in Madison and Hai Woon Dai, a little further out on Antioch Pike than SGD. It is, however, the first Korean restaurant here that specializes in sundubu jjigae, or tofu soup, and also serves its polar opposite, NangMyun.
As daunting as it may seem to first-timers, navigating through one of the Mexican restaurants that are as ubiquitous to some parts of Nashville as barbecue is not terribly difficult. There are familiar words and phrases, and the language barriers are manageable. Middle Eastern and Indian eateries are similarly accessible. Chinese restaurants here all seem to share the same menu and recipes.
Korean restaurants are more problematic because the owners and staff often speak very little English and few Nashvillians have any knowledge of the Korean language. Menus present similar barriers. Taco, burrito, kabob and gyro are at least vaguely familiar to Americans, but bibimbab? Bulgoki? It’s hard to say BibimNangMuyun, much less know what it is. (Cold noodle in spicy sauce.)
But anybody who has spent time in southern California—which has a sizeable Korean American population and, consequently, a plethora of Korean restaurants—will recognize the words So Gong Dong. It is a name frequently used by restaurants that specialize in soft tofu soup, some exclusively so. SGD Tofu House has seven versions, as well as other popular Korean specialties like bibimbab, galbi and bulgoki , but it is the sundubu jjigae and NangMyun that should compel a visit to 1310 Antioch Pike.
SGD Tofu House has been open a little over two years, and since I first dropped by on my way to Hai Woon Dai in February, the menu has doubled in size, though it remains printed on a sheet of paper that also serves as placemat. The restaurant interior has also gotten an upgrade, and on an aesthetic scale, is the prettiest and most formal of its siblings, featuring a color scheme of browns, tans and ivory, parchment-hued wallpaper imprinted with row upon row of Korean script and generously sized sturdy wooden tables polyurethaned to a high gloss, teamed with matching chairs.
Diners are greeted at the door and directed to a table in one of the two sides of the main dining room. A semi-private room in the rear accommodates large parties. A server delivers the menu-placemat to each diner and takes drink orders from a selection of soft drinks, juice, domestic beer, Tsing Tao, Sapporo or Kirin Ichiban, hot or cold sake, plum wine, and Jinro Soju, a Korean vodka made from sweet potato.
Three appetizers are listed, but unfortunately, two unique to SGD—spicy snail and spicy chicken gizzards—were unavailable on our visit. The seafood pancake was our only remaining option; though common to Korean and Vietnamese restaurants in Nashville, this was nicely crisped and lacked the greasiness of some versions. The platter-sized portion was enough for six to share.
A parade of banchan (small complimentary side dishes) came after the appetizer and before the entrées. We were slightly disappointed in the offerings’ lack of variety—cabbage kimchi, daikon kimchi, mung bean sprouts, boiled peanuts in a sticky-sweet sauce and potato—but experience proves that banchan change from visit to visit, depending on what or who is in the kitchen (though kimchi is a given).
The tofu used in the tofu soup is soft-silken, which has the highest moisture content of the several varieties of tofu—and the texture of custard or flan. The soup can be ordered alone, or for about $5 more, in combination with an entrée such as spicy chicken or beef bulgoki, shrimp and scallops, stir fried fish or fried mackerel. Choose from seafood, oyster, kimchi, beef, mushroom, fish roe or combo (clam, oyster, shrimp and beef). Your server will ask if you want it spicy or not. We tried one spicy, one not. The spicy has a back-of-the-throat kick, but no after-burn and does not bludgeon the taste buds. The soup is served in a stone bowl and brought still bubbling. The broth of the two we sampled—kimchi and mushroom—was beef-based and piled high with chunks of tofu, which react to the high temperature by softening even further. Thicken the broth to a divine creaminess by stirring frequently. In Korea—and perhaps in restaurants in Los Angeles’ Little Korea—a raw egg is broken into the boiling broth at the table, cooking upon contact. This was not the case on our visit, though a co-worker received an egg on a subsequent visit. Use the long spoon—called a sujeo—for the liquid (allow to cool first to avoid tongue and mouth burn) and the chopsticks to snag the kimchi, mushrooms, seafood, beef and quivering blobs of tofu that travel in a sensuous slide down the throat.
NangMyun is unlike anything I’ve experienced in any ethnic dining adventure. (It is also available at Korea House.) A nearly clear light broth is so chilled that the stainless steel bowl is cold to the touch and slivers of ice skim the surface. In the center is a mass of skinny buckwheat noodles tangled like the innards of a golf ball; your server solves the penetration problem with a pair of scissors, making four neat snips that quarter the ball. Encircling the noodles are thin slices of unpeeled cucumber, beef and daikon radish, and atop is half an egg boiled midway between soft and hard. A ramekin of creamy wasabi mustard sauce comes with the NangMyun and can be spooned into the broth to personal taste.
Another unique dish to try (though we unfortunately did not have sufficient manpower on hand to do so) is the samgetang, which Internet research describes as a “whole little chicken stuffed with rice and cooked with herbs, in a chicken broth with ginseng.”
SGD’s galbi—short ribs in a subtly sweet marinade, then grilled, cut into 14 separate ribs and fanned across a bed of stir-fried onions—was superb, as was the octopus bibimbab, the one bowl meal of vegetables, meat or fish, and fried egg, all of which usually sit on a bed of white rice, and are then tossed together with a spicy chili paste. In this case, the steamed white rice was served on the side. (Maybe someone in the kitchen is carb-conscious.) Other entrées include chicken and beef bulgoki, pre-cut slices of marinated meat sometimes cooked by the diner on a table-top grill known as a bware, but more often brought already grilled from the kitchen and served with a plate of lettuce leaves rolled around the meat and eaten like a wrap. On the combo list, additional choices include a fried mackerel, which I would bypass the next time.
If none of your dishes come with stone pot rice, order one or two on the side. Cooked in a smaller stone pot than the tofu soup, the rice in the center is scooped out by your server onto a plate. A crust of rice remains in the pot, which is left on the table for diners to scrape out of the bowl in crispy shards that we dipped into the tofu soup broth.
We arrived early enough for dinner (just before 5:30) on a Thursday night that we were among the first three tables seated in the main dining room, and service was attentive. By the time we left, the room was filling, and there were a couple of large family parties in the back dining room, putting a strain on the two servers, a teenage boy and a middle-aged woman, the latter of whom haltingly explained that the restaurant is family-owned and run. She referred to an older Korean woman overseeing the cooks in the meticulously clean kitchen behind the register as “mama,” a ringing endorsement in any language.
So Gong Dong is open for lunch Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. It’s open for dinner Sunday through Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Wednesday.