Though it may chafe a little to consider going anywhere else than Koreatown for Korean food in Houston, consider the fact that good food in this city has always refused to be confined to a single geographic destination. There's great Indian food inside and outside of Little India; there's great Chinese food inside and outside of Chinatown; there's great West African food outside Little Nigeria; there's great classic continental food in strip malls (Charivari, Bistro Provence) and there's great Vietnamese food in beer bars (Nobi Pub, Hughie's).
That brings us to Jang Guem Tofu & BBQ House—not to be confused with Jang-geum, the first female royal physician in Korean history—where any spice-and-beef-loving Texan will find a feast fit for a king. As befitting its name, a visit to Jang Guem pratically begs an order of its two signature items: sundubu jjigae (tofu soup) and Korean barbecue, which is delivered to the table on a sizzling skillet topped with beef and quickly caramelizing onions, not unlike a platter of fajitas.
While the Korean barbecue—especially the juicy, marinated beef ribs called galbi—practically sells itself, you may need a little more coaxing to try the tofu soup if you've previously only been acquainted with the gnarly packaged stuff sold in health food stores. Much like the salted tofu served for breakfast at places like Golden Panda, the tofu at Jang Guem is more akin to savory panna cotta. In a bowl of sundubu, the tofu takes on the flavor of the fiery-hued broth it's served in: spicy, gently fermented, its fierce flavor only slightly subdued by the raw egg you crack into the hot stone bowl when it's first delivered to your table at a roiling boil. By the time the soup has cooled enough to eat, your egg will be cooked to a poached consistency and you're good to go.
The combination platters Jang Guem offers are the best way to try its two specialties at once, starting at $12.99 for a decent portion of both Korean barbecue and tofu soup that will feed two people—especially once the banchan, or complimentary appetizers such as deep-fried mackerel and kimchi, are factored in. But if you're really set on a feast, Jang Guem has a few other speciality items that recommend themselves for a crowd and for very little money (our recent feast for four came to $60, including drinks).
One is the pan-fried kimchi dumplings that come with an irresistable dipping sauce; last week I found myself repeatedly burning my tongue while popping the dumplings into my mouth, caught between the desire to let them cool off a bit and the desire to eat them all before my boyfriend could. The other is japchae, a Korean word meaning "mixed vegetables." The base of japchae is dangmyoen, noodles that look like rice vermicelli but are actually made from sweet potatoes. Mixed into the pile of glassy noodles are—you guessed it—vegetables, with a little bit of beef for good measure. What makes japchae more alluring than just a pile of noodles and veg is the seasoning: a little sweet, a little salty, and just a hint of heat.
I wish I could recommend the bibimbap as wholeheartedly as everything else I've tried at Jang Guem, but that's best saved for a restaurant that specializes in the stuff. Not to worry, though; I hear we have plenty of those in Koreatown.
Jang Guem Tofu & BBQ House, 9896 Bellaire Blvd., 713-773-2229