There’s a new standout Korean restaurant in the strip of Telegraph Avenue in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood that’s an unofficial Koreatown, given that it’s home to the majority of tofu houses and barbecue joints in the East Bay.
Daol Tofu has opened in the former Casserole House space, with a large menu of traditional tofu dishes, bulgogi, and soups. And it may well become a destination for its banchan, the little side dishes, many of them pickled, served before a typical Korean meal.
At Daol Tofu there are 12 in all, and they come with free refills. Yelpers bemoan the fact that the complimentary scallion pancake of Casserole House days is gone, but I’ll take pickled baby anchovies, sweet fish cake, spicy yams and seaweed with daikon in infinite quantity any day of the week. There’s also pickled daikon, steamed broccoli and carrots, a fascinating potato salad with crisp apple, japchae, chili-marinated daikon, cucumber pickles, and kimchi, of course. Each item in the glorious display is delicious in its own right, but the kimchi, anchovy-laden and bathed in sweet-spicy chilis, was exceptional, as was the aforementioned potato salad. And even if you’re too full to ask for refills, if you get a to-go box for any part of your meal, the chef will top up your banchan as well.
The generosity of the kitchen extends to the gracious service, which is unhurried, though efficient. We were served by the owner of this three-week-old restaurant, who identified herself only as “Sunny” and answered our questions about the menu. While she gave us the specific information we asked for, she kept telling us that “everything is great” and, based on our lunch, she’s likely right. We ordered the soft tofu soup with pork and kimchi, into which Sunny cracked a raw egg, which cooked slowly, thickening and enriching the chili-infused broth. The star of the bowl, though, was the soft tofu, which held its shimmering form on the spoon and was creamy on the palate. Spice levels are adjustable even for soups, and our medium was what I would call a spot-on 5, with an addictive sweet burn than didn’t linger too long and was easily abated by the barley tea served alongside.
We also shared a lunch version of the beef bulgogi, which arrived sizzling and steaming. The based of rice was crisped throughout the bottom of the bowl (which is traditional but many places don’t get right), topped with little stations of tender grilled beef, seaweed with sesame seeds, a fried egg, shredded lettuce, and pickles of mushrooms, carrots and daikon. The spicing on the beef marinade was more sweet than piquant, and went nicely with the crisp pickles. The crunchy rice made the dish.
The dining room is spacious, clean-lined and fairly dimly lit, with oddly large photos of dishes hung on the otherwise spare walls.