I've been to BCD Tofu House so many times that I have never thought to recommend it. Growing up, I would climb into the back seat of the car for a solid two to three hour drive to LA. There would be groceries, and trips to the hair salon, and dinner. BCD is still one of our reliable go-to's. It's a chain with locations scattered across the country, but I recommend the one on Western and 9th in Los Angeles. Why? It's always busy, and I for some reason associate rapid turnover with fresh food. I've been to two others, including the one on Wilshire and the one in Irvine, but this is my favorite. Unfortunately, it takes me a while to get downtown, so maybe I will have to learn to make it myself, with my Korean cookbook and mother to guide me.
[photo by avlxyz via Creative Commons. This isn't BCD but fairly close.]
How to spot it: The Western Ave location is housed in a standalone building, along with other restaurants, on the edge of a parking lot. It's not glamorous, but it's bright, clean, and always packed with Koreans (don't worry, non-Koreans come, too, and have no trouble ordering from the bilingual menus). You will recognize the logo above the glass doors. Parking's free and not an issue. Snag a spot in front of the small building or in the big lot surrounding it.
What to order: You come here for the soondubu jjigae*, or tofu stew ("dubu" being Korean for tofu, "jjigae" for stew). Some call it simply "tofu pot." The menu is straightforward: Get a tofu pot by itself-it comes in a handful of varieties like kimchi, dumpling, seafood, and original. I like it all. If you're extra hungry or are eating with a group, order a combo: tofu pot plus a dish like galbi (marinated beef marshort ribs) or bulgogi (marinated beef). Oh, and be sure to tell the server how spicy you want your stew.
* What is soondubu jigae? This is a popular Korean stew consisting of fresh, silky soft tofu and various combinations of meat and vegetables. Everything is cooked in a very hot iron pot in a broth, along with lots of spicy Korean red pepper paste. You eat it with rice and banchan. It's pronounced SOON-doo-boo GEE(as in "gee whiz")-geh (as in "get").
What to expect: First, your server will bring out your banchan, or side dishes, which usually includes kimchi, potato salad, pickles, and other accompaniments. Each person also gets his or her own yellow covina. Note that you can start snacking on the banchan when they arrive, but that normally you eat them with the rest of your meal. In fact, Korean food isn't centered on a main entree like Western cuisine, so it is not uncommon for Koreans to eat meals consisting solely of rice and banchan (see me raising my hand). Once you and your friends have settled into some friendly chatter, your server will return with bubbling hot pots and meat sizzling on an iron plate. Each person gets rice scooped out of an iron bowl, which is then filled with water (for later). If you like, you can grab an egg and crack it into your pot. I've seen people eat tofu pot in different ways-some people spoon their rice into the tofu pot, but I prefer to add spoonfuls of tofu to my rice dish. I am always amazed at how a tiny bowl of rice can absorb so much tofu stew. You'll feel happy and full about 3/4 into your pot, at which point your server will return a final time to give each person a bowl. Inside these bowls you will find toasted (euphemism for burned) rice immersed in water, from the very pot your rice came from. It sounds peculiar, but I like the mild, calming flavor of burned rice (is it a broth? a soup?) at the end of a spicy meal.
Ambiance: Medium to loud in noise, casual
Cost: Expect to pay around $9 and up for a tofu pot, and $15 or more for a combo.
Service: While this isn't a hole in the wall, neither is it a fancy dining experience. You go for tofu!
Tip: This location is open 24-Hours, so now you know where to go if you find yourself stranded in downtown LA on a late night.
869 S Western Ave, #2
Los Angeles, CA 90005