So Gong Dong Tofu
411 N Central Ave, Hartsdale
(914) 397-1790 (no site)
Across from a Dunkin’ Donuts and next to a McDonald’s lies a fast-food alternative that’s so cheap and good that you’ll never stand at another plastic counter. So Gong Dong Tofu is the third in a small, regional chain of restaurants whose focus is three homey Korean dishes: bibimbap, Korean barbecue (including kalbi and bulgogi), and soondubu jjigae. The last is a salty, chili-hued stew laden with silken cubes of tofu and fragrant, chewy mushrooms; it is served roiling hot in a volcanically heated stone bowl, and is available in an almost endless variety of permutations. Not only can diners choose which protein is added to the basic tofu stew (pork, chicken, seafood, etc.), but they can also choose its starchy accompaniment: rice, ramen, or hand-sliced kalguksu noodles. As if that weren’t enough to consider, diners can also dial the dish’s chili to mild, moderate, or hot. For the full, face-reddening, mouthwatering effect, opt for the hot, as it comes with a single fresh egg that you crack into a small bowl, and then slide into the bubbling red potion to poach. The lunch portion of soondubu jjigae is $9.95 while dinner is $11.95.
If there is a serious gap in the Westchester dining scene, then it is food like this. I know that, among my Westchester friends, I am not alone in forays to Flushing and Koreatown for the sort of salty, mouthwateringly spicy, and soul-satisfying dishes served at SGD. In fact, if it were located in my neighborhood (and open at 10 pm), I might have a serious problem. It’s a good thing that SGD tabs are low; while mains run from $11 to $15, this is an all-inclusive price. This restaurant offers no appetizers or desserts, serves no alcohol, and meals are served with complimentary plastic cups of fragrant barley tea. Each order is preceded by a generous banchan, or a collection of complimentary small plates that generally accompany Korean meals. When last we visited, this included a deliciously fiery daikon and jalapeño pickle, cabbage kimchi, pickled bean sprouts, and a bowl of crisp, lightly pickled cucumber slices gently speckled with chili. One $12 tab at SGD will buy you a huge spectrum of flavors, textures, and even temperatures.
Pancakes ($11.95), filled with shreds of scallion and kimchi or shreds of scallion and seafood (represented by sparsely placed and rubbery little shrimp), are as golden, crisp, and deliciously oily as any addictive junk food. The plate-sized discs arrive with sesame-gilded soy sauce. Dip your pancake wedges through either or both and be seriously happy. Our only real disappointment came with pan-fried dumplings ($9.95) whose fluffy ginger- and scallion-scented beef filling was mild and delicious. Sadly, their skins were all dry, overcooked, and brittle.
While SGD’s menu is compact and its tabs are low, this is a stylish little restaurant whose walls are creatively papered with narrow strips of graphic Korean lettering. The effect creates an allover pattern like a wall of Egyptian hieroglyphs. On one side of the room, you’ll see the same smooth, biomorphic stone bowls used to serve the soondubu jjigae, embedded in the plaster, repurposed as art. Though pretty, SGD is not a place for lingering. Absent starters, wine, and dessert, this restaurant’s service is brisk, which makes SGD ideal for solitary or time-pressed diners. It’s also conveniently located near Trader Joe’s and H Mart, so it is an excellent stop on errand day.
In cold weather, hot stone plates of bibimbap (lunch $9.95/dinner $11.95 plus $2 extra for the hot stone plate) offer the novelty of healthy nutrition paired with a handy heat source. It’s a warm and sensual thrill to hang your head over the plate and inhale the comforting scent of rice, carrots, squash, sautéed mushrooms, pork, and spicy/sweet kochujang as they crackle on the stone. Smart money waits to stir. The sweetly crusted short-grain rice that caramelizes on the stone is ample reward for patience. In warm weather, skip the $2 surcharge and have the same composition served on a cool plate.
Don’t be alarmed when an incredibly fast, scissor-wielding waiter shears the flesh of your garlicky, tangy beef bulgogi off the short ribs at the table. The chewy shreds that remain are sparkling with sweet/salty soy and nutty sesame oil. They’re served with bowls of sticky, translucent, Korean short-grain rice (similar to sushi rice) that is perfect to tweeze, bite for bite, with chopsticks full of beef. Even if it’s a quick meal, it is a delicious one.