Boston's dining scene has its gaps (looking at you, Jewish deli), but as a rule, it's diverse enough to offer fresh surprises to intrepid diners, especially at the budget-priced end. Allston is especially vital on this score, hosting a UN of delicious bargains within a square mile or two. Yet despite some respectable neighborhood Korean options, we've never had a restaurant specializing in sundubu jigae, spicy soft-tofu soup. Consider that another gap bridged with the arrival of Kaju Tofu House, a plain, spotless 40-seat storefront with table service.
The smart play at any Asian specialty restaurant is to get the specialty, and that's what nearly all the customers do here. To order sundubu jigae ($10.99 at lunch, $11.99 at dinner), you specify one of five levels of chili heat for your broth (from the fireless "white" to the molten "extra spicy") and one of 15 combinations of vegetables, meat, and/or seafood. First to arrive is an assortment of seven banchan (tiny side dishes) to whet your appetite. The assortment varies daily and typically includes kimchi of cabbage, cucumbers, or daikon, little dressed salads, and mounds of chewy dried shredded squid, sliced fish cake, or marinated mushrooms, all of rather above-average quality. Next comes rice in a very hot clay pot; your server will scrape it into a separate bowl, leaving a layer behind to form a caramelized crust to be loosened with a pour of barley tea (also served as a complimentary hot beverage on request). Last comes the soup, still boiling in another hot clay pot, into which you crack the accompanying raw egg.
And what a spectacular soup it is: an umami-bomb broth flavored with dried anchovies and fish sauce, plus chili flakes, garlic, onions, shiitake, and loads of irregular soft-tofu chunks, topped with scallions. The textural mix is marvelous, the tofu like scrambled eggs, the actual egg adding creamy body to the broth, with chewy bits of quick-cooked seafood (like clams, oysters, and purple-edged diced octopus) and more tender beef, pork, or chicken. It's an incredibly satisfying bowlful, hearty yet somehow light, and alongside rice and banchan, a substantial meal even before you get to that rice crust, which offers the crunch and charry sweetness of barely burnt popcorn. Trenchermen — or two diners with more modest appetites — can opt for a combo ($13.99-$17.99 at lunch, $16.99 to $19.99 at dinner), which adds an entrée, like a plate of Korean barbecue: marinated and grilled slices of beef short ribs, ribeye steak, or chicken. However else you explore the short remainder of Kaju's menu, don't pass on that soup. It's just the thing to soothe a hangover, or warm you from the inside on a chilly New England autumn night.
Kaju Tofu House, located at 58 Harvard Avenue in Allston, is open 10 am to 10 pm Monday to Friday and 10 am to 10:30 pm Saturday and Sunday. Call 617.208.8540 or visit kajutofuhouse.com.