It definitely wasn't Hell freezing over—more like Heaven. As the calendar turned, San Diegans had to contend with the unfamiliar: winter coats, warm boots and, in some far-flung reaches, snow. It brought me back to my East Coast college days and the comforts of a warming stew.
But instead of the chowder I enjoyed during Massachusetts winters or the beef-and-barley stew in Wisconsin, what I found myself craving was Korean soft-tofu stew: sundubu jjigae. There's a surprising number of options for that in San Diego. I chose Convoy Tofu House in Kearny Mesa (4229 Convoy St.).
More of a class of dish than any one in particular, Korean soft-tofu stew features a fiery broth—spiked with gochugaru (Korean red chile flakes), gochujang (chili paste) and/or fermented kimchi—infusing a soft, custardy tofu (quite different from the more familiar "firm" tofu) with deep and spicy flavors. Accompanied by rice and the usual banchan—a selection of little "salads" like traditional kimchi (no Korean meal is complete without rice and kimchi), pickled daikon radishes, cucumbers, scallions, seaweeds and the like, which are refilled at will—it is a substantial and warming meal.
My favorite of Convoy Tofu House's tofu-stew offerings is the dumpling version, featuring meat-filled dumplings alongside squash, mushrooms and strips of beef. At Convoy Tofu House—and traditionally—the dish is served roiling and boiling in its cooking vessel along with a raw egg. It's your job to crack the egg into the middle of the bowl and spoon some of the stew's liquid over the top of the egg. The dumpling gives the stew a warming meatiness that, when combined with the egg yolk, lends the entire thing a wonderful richness.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Convoy Tofu House's stews is the curry soft-tofu stew. While curry may not exactly be a flavor one immediately associates with Far East Asian cuisines, the version here is distinctly different from the familiar Indian or Thai versions, perhaps a bit softer. It's a flavor that stands alone but also complements the flavors of the Korean chiles. When the curry and spice combine with the egg yolk, an otherwise angular dish rounds out beautifully.
While the tripe soft-tofu stew is probably not the place's best seller, perhaps it should be. The tripe is extremely tender, its mineral qualities working well with the beef and gochugaru flavors of the stew. The genius of the dish lay in the way Convoy Tofu House manages to take the most assertive flavors of offal and make them into a definite strong point of the stew.
There are non-stew dishes on the menu, too. Lunch specials come with sushi rolls, for example, and they similarly offer a deal combining any stew with bibimbap (rice topped with a variety of sautéed and seasoned vegetables). But the real reason to go to Convoy Tofu House is the Korean soft-tofu stews. For me, it's the perfect antidote to winter in San Diego.