Finding your way into unfamiliar culinary traditions can be daunting. Overseas travel, immigrant food-geek friends and a nerdy commitment to blind experimentation can help, but not everyone has those luxuries. So it matters when a restaurant reaches out to curious newcomers, as does Kenmore Square’s new Kaju Tofu House, with a menu packed with photographs of its dishes and mostly English food words. The most timid newbie can wander in here with zero knowledge of Korean language or cuisine and easily order a mild feast of dumplings, noodles and stir-fries: Hey, not so strange! But for the adventurous and those with more experienced guides, Kaju also serves plenty of the fierce, vivid flavors that Koreans also love: aromatic, savory and sweet, occasionally funkily fermented and fiery hot. This starts with the house specialty, sundubu jigae, here listed as tofu soup ($14).
Boston got its first sundubu specialist a few years ago in Kaju’s elder sibling in Allston. As at the original, it’s always a smart bet to get the specialty, which you’ll notice on nearly every table here. Start by specifying one of five levels of chili heat (from the fireless “white” to the molten “extra spicy”) and any of 16 combinations of vegetables, meat, and/or seafood add-ins. (Nod when your server offers to add an egg.) First to arrive is a bowl of excellent short-grain white rice and four banchan (tiny side dishes) to whet your appetite (refills, $1 each). The assortment varies daily, typically cabbage kimchi (lightly fiery and pickled), sesame-dressed mung bean sprouts, sweet/savory fried shredded squid (the stuff that looks like pale Easter-basket grass), marinated mushrooms, seaweed with BBQ sauce, a creamily-pureed potato salad and intensely fishy, chili-dusted fried tiny anchovies, all of above-average quality. The soup arrives bubbling-hot in a clay pot; break up the egg that was just cracked into it while it’s still soft-boiled, then swirl in the yolk. This bowl of savory goodness has a wondrously tender texture, the soft tofu shredded into scrambled-egg-like curds, and a rich broth flavored with copious aromatics and subtle umami-enhancers like mushrooms and fermented anchovy fish sauce. Add-ins such as beef and seafood (slices of eye round plus shrimp, mussels and cockles) are tender and quick-cooked. The result is eminently satisfying, leaving one feeling full but not leaden, and a perfect restorative on a rough weekend morning-after or a cold winter evening.
Bibimbop ($12, choice of rib-eye, chicken or tofu) is another brilliant and very substantial one-pot meal, a layer of rice topped with mushrooms, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, sprouts, nori, scallions and a sunny side fried egg, with a squeeze bottle of gochujang (the ketchup-thick, gorgeously sweet/hot Korean chili condiment), all for you to toss like a salad. (If you opt for the more substantial hot-stone-pot version, wait a bit to let the rice develop a crunchy, caramelized crust.)
It’s also easy to graze with a group here, starting with plates of dumplings like shrimp shumai ($7), delicately lovely in steamed wrappers, and the larger, turnover-shaped mandu ($8) with veggie or beef fillings and a fine, golden crispness when ordered fried. The fusion-like, food-truck-inspired Kaju taco ($4 each, $14 for four) is overstuffed with proteins like bulgogi (rib-eye) or spicy pork, topped with chopped tomatoes and a slaw-like cabbage preparation, and drizzled with gochujang aioli: messy but crushable. There’s a few crunchy, savory bites in each crispy rice egg ($4), a Korean take on the Scotch egg with a boiled egg wrapped in ground pork and kimchi, and a brittle wrapper of fried rice subbing for a deep-fried batter coating.
The bright-orange kimchi pancake ($13) is a big, savory, barely-spicy crepe loaded with vegetables and flanked by a good dipping sauce of soy, chilies, scallions and sesame. Crab avocado salad ($8) topped with vivid-orange, bubbly salmon roe is mayo-heavy and mild, with nice chunks of real crab. Larger shareable plates include grilled spicy pork ($19), loin and onions cut into thin strips, its bright-red color betokening a searing chili heat; clay-pot galbi ($19), sweetly-marinated and grilled slices of bone-in beef short rib, served over rice that you again want to let brown and crackle in the pot like socarrat in a paella pan; and a generous plate of skinny pan-fried noodles with copious diced chicken thigh ($15) in a mild, soy-based sauce with onions, cabbage, broccoli and sprouts. Beverages are limited to canned soft drinks and juices ($2-$3); be sure to request the complimentary nutty-tasting barley tea.
Beyond the helpful menus, the front-of-house staff has excellent English and is friendly and patient with neophytes. The space is cheery but modest: The 34-seat room does its best to brighten a basement setting with sand-colored tiled walls and butter-toned Naugahyde banquettes, plus granite tabletops and battered wooden chairs. I prefer to think the humble ambiance means the owners’ money went into the kitchen, a notion upheld by the consistent quality and gentle prices across the menu. Whatever your level of expertise with the cuisine—from the everyday ease shown by the many Korean ex-pat customers here to the What-me-kimchi? bewilderment shown by friends I brought along, ordered for, and sent home stuffed and elated—Kaju Kenmore delivers the often-hearty, only occasionally ferocious, mostly not-so-strange, and reliably delicious goods. ◆
Grilled spicy pork
Pan-fried noodle with chicken
Kaju Tofu House, 636 Beacon St., Boston (617-208-8540); Hours: Daily, 10 am-10 pm; Reservations: No; Liquor: None; Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private lots and garages