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Shared Secrets of Soft Tofu

31 Jan

So Kong Dong
130 Main Street
Ft. Lee, NJ

We learned after grilling Mike from Yonkers that his choice of So Kong Dong, a Korean “soft tofu” place in Fort Lee, New Jerseey was one he had frequented often. Not a risky discovery, but we had no restrictions that a choice had to be one that was virgin territory. But why would Mike from Yonkers be spending time in Fort Lee, New Jersey ?

“Taekwondo,” he blurted, as if that really meant anything to us. We knew he and Gerry are taekwondo students and masters of that Korean martial arts form. So that meant because of the taekwondo connection he obviously knew of the Korean restaurants in Fort Lee, New Jersey, of which there are many.

“My bank is here,” he admitted after being pressed further. Again, that could have led to many more questions such as why would Mike from Yonkers, New York be banking in Fort Lee, New Jersey? None of us, however, choose to continue our  inquisition; we were all too happy with the end result of his decision and that was really what mattered  most to us.

Anytime we have to go to New Jersey, usually at Gerry’s behest, we worry about traffic complications. But on this evening, Zio and I cruised effortlessly across the George Washington Bridge. We hit minor trouble when, thanks to the incoherent mumblings of the female  voice of my GPS, we headed in the opposite direction of Fort Lee on the Palisades Parkway. We quickly got back on track and again, what she was directing me to do and what the map was showing were not in sync.

“Make a U-turn ahead. Make a U-turn ahead,” she blabbered as if it were easy to make a U-turn on a winding, hilly road. Finally, we righted ourselves, shut the bitch up by turning off the useless device, and found So Kong Dong, the pillars of the George Washington Bridge visible from the restaurant’s small parking lot.

The view from the parking lot.

I pulled into a municipal parking lot across Main Street from the restaurant just as Gerry and Eugene arrived. Eugene muttered that Mike from Yonkers would have to deduct the bridge toll and the parking from his share of that night’s dinner. When we told Mike from Yonkers of his obligation, he responded that by filling up our gas tanks in New Jersey, which both Eugene and I did, that we would actually be saving money, or at worst, break even, on the cost of getting to the appointed restaurant.

So Kong Dong was spacious with rows of wooden tables and Korean artifacts on the walls that no one could identify. The menu also served as a place mat and was limited to just nine varieties of tofu soup along with Korean bbq ribs. None of the soups were over $9 while the platter of ribs was $15, all well within our $20 per person budget.

Eugene suggested a kangaroo court to decide Rick’s fate since he was late. But before we had to actually figure out what goes on in a kangaroo court, Rick appeared and all of us ordered.

“Seafood tofu,” Eugene blurted out to the hovering waiter.

“How spicy?” the waiter asked.

We weren’t sure how So Kong Dong’s heat meter rated in our own spice universe. We looked to Mike from Yonkers for guidance.

“I usually get it hot,” he said. As opposed to the other options offered: “not spicy, not too spicy, medium hot or very hot.”

One seafood tofu times four.

The waiter glanced at Gerry.

“Seafood tofu,” Gerry ordered.

And then to Rick

“Seafood tofu,” he said.

I was next.

“Seafood tofu,” I mumbled into my hand as the waiter scribbled.

Breaking the monotony, Zio went for the pork tofu and, with a knowing grin; Mike from Yonkers ordered the oyster tofu. “I always get the oyster tofu,” he said without any further explanation. We added two orders of the ribs and our waiter departed.

A few moments’ later bowls of Korean condiments began to assemble on our table; kim chee, bean sprouts, spicy pickles, cold cabbage soup, and six raw eggs. “You crack them into the soup,” said the soft tofu wizened, Mike from Yonkers.

Korean condiments

And then the ribs arrived. Layers of thinly sliced beef short ribs in a slightly sweet marinade complete with huge scissors, resembling garden shears, to cut them up and portion them out to the members of our now salivating party.

Before we could finish with the ribs, the bowls of soup began to crowd our table. Each was bubbling; still boiling hot from the kitchen. As our waiter placed our bowls in front of us, I watched as the soup continued to bubble. How could it continue to bubble so long after coming off the flame?  I tried to wait; to give it more time to cool, but I’m an impatient eater. I  scooped some into my spoon, blew on it and then tentatively sipped. It had cooled down enough, or so I thought, not to have seared the inside of my mouth and was able to swallow it. The soup was fiery and loaded with shrimp, oysters, and clams. I cracked the egg into it and, as Mike from Yonkers instructed, stirred it before it turned into one solid hard boiled egg yolk. I also added rice into the soup in hopes that would also bring the temperature down, and it did, but not by much.

Ribs with garden shears.

There wasn’t much conversation as we worked through the soup, intermittently draining our spice assaulted sinuses into the much too thin paper napkins we were administered, and, as usual, Mike from Yonkers trailed behind all of us, methodically spooning his soup into his bowl of rice instead of vice versa as I was doing. Some secrets of soft tofu, he obviously wasn’t willing to share.


Dessert was a stick of gum that held its flavor for less than five minutes. We all praised Mike from Yonkers for his choice but the next day, thinking I had escaped burn damage, realized there were blisters throughout the insides of my mouth, under my tongue, wherever the blistering soup touched.  The mutilation of my mouth notwithstanding, if I’m ever “banking” in Ft. Lee, I won’t hesitate to return for another chance at a bowl of soft tofu.

Morgan the Egyptian

17 Jan

Morgan Fish Restaurant
2801 John F. Kennedy Blvd
Jersey City.

The temperature was dropping as I left my apartment on the way to the number 2 train. At 72nd Street I switched to the number 1 train. Two stops later I got off at 59th and onto the B train downtown. At 34th, I walked through the tunnel to the PATH train where I found Zio fumbling with a Metrocard/PATH vending machine. He was not clear what it took to gain entry on the PATH. He didn’t know that all it took was his Metrocard. Our next stop was our destination: Jersey City.

One of the several trains it took to get to Jersey City.

This journey was orchestrated by Gerry who, predictably, had chosen a place that would not be easy to get to. We were headed to a seafood place called Morgan Fish Restaurant. I think Morgan being the generic Captain Morgan because it certainly isn’t an Egyptian name and Morgan’s was most certainly an Egyptian establishment and one of the excuses Gerry used to drag us to Jersey City as he said: “To show solidarity with our Egyptian brothers and sisters.”

Zio and I arrived first and besides a woman sweeping the floor and another in the kitchen, we were the only people in Morgan’s. There were fresh fish displayed under a glass counter along with a platter of potato salad and small, pickled eggplants. The woman sweeping offered many friendly smiles, but either didn’t have much to say, or was hesitant because of language difficulties.

The fish of Morgan Fish

A man appeared. He did speak English and also possessed a friendly smile. He pointed to the fish; tilapia, striped sea bass, and branzino. There were also large, full-bodied shrimp and a few flattened pieces of uncooked calamari minus the tentacles. He could prepare the fish, he said, either fried or grilled.

We were hungry and while Gerry and the rest of the Westchester contingent were circling John F. Kennedy Blvd trying to locate Morgan Fish with Mike from Yonkers’ faulty GPS device, Zio and I hoped to get started with the ordering. The menu promised shrimp and/or seafood soup but our male host shook his head sadly: “Soup run out,” he said.

As we were about to order hummus and baba ganoush, (spelled humos and papa ghanoosh on the menu) the rest of the group, Rick included, entered. We found a table suitable for six and our host followed us in to commence with the ordering. We figured hummus, baba ganoush, and some of those tiny eggplants would be a good start. He concurred.

Before he could even get his winter coat off, Eugene was expounding on his Punta Cana vacation where the food at the all-inclusive Bavaro Beach resort was “incredible.” None of us, all stuck in this miserable New York winter, could debate his claim. I shut him off to concentrate on the menu.

Morgan’s menu

It was all simple enough. The question was how much to order and whether the fish should be fried or grilled. We compromised on fried shrimp and calamari along with one fried fish and one grilled. I don’t think we specified which fish should be fried or grilled; the branzino or the sea bass,  and when they arrived, none of us could tell the difference.

Fried shrimp and calamari

Our host brought not one, but two platters each of fried shrimp and fried calamari. Both were lightly crisped; the batter containing a distinctive dusting of some unidentifiable, but clearly Middle Eastern, spice. We picked through the calamari rings and shrimp, but, knowing we had two whole fish to also contend with, went slow and restrained ourselves from devouring them all.

Fish before

The fish was served with a brown (not health food brown) rice and a sofrito-like sauce. We took turns excising the flesh from the bones until all that remained were their skeletons.

Fish after

Once we were finished,  Zio, just making small talk,  mentioned his admiration for the movie, The Black Swan.

“Did you like the dance scenes,” Gerry asked.

“Huh,” Zio seemed surprised by the question. “No, the sex scenes,” he said with noticeable longing.

Eugene was studying his phone and then began to read from its tiny screen. “Natalie Portman. Born June 9, 1981 in Israel. Attended the Solomon Schecter Day School of Glen Cove, New York. First movie, “The Professional…”

What’s a nice girl from Glen Cove doing making Zio’s heart race?

Thankfully the check came and the Natalie Portman biography, as read by Eugene, was cut short. All that seafood and we were still a few dollars under our allotted $20 per person budget. Morgan Fish was a worthy choice, but just not one where it took four trains to get to. There had to be another way to show solidarity with our Egyptian brothers and sisters.

Dosa Overdose

26 Apr

Gerry took us to Jersey City in the summer of 2006 where we discovered an Indian enclave not too far from the Journal Square Path station.

Sri Ganesh’s Dosa House
809 Newark Avenue
Jersey City.

No clogged tunnel, backed up bridge, construction-littered turnpike or potholed parkway ever deters Gerry from his choice of destination for our intrepid group. We now suspect that the tougher it is to get to, the more attractive the choice is to Gerry—the food is secondary. He has taken us on the Saw Mill Parkway for Southern barbecue in Valhalla, over the George Washington Bridge for Korean in Fort Lee, on the New England Thruway to Portchester for Guatemalan, and in a legendary schlep, through the Battery Tunnel, over the BQE, and onto the Belt Parkway for overpriced Turkish food in Sheepshead Bay. So when Gerry announced his choice; a vegetarian Indian restaurant in the heart of industrial darkness in downtown Jersey City, no one was really surprised.

  After too many fume-inhaling experiences sitting in Holland tunnel traffic, driving was not an option for me. I called Sri Ganesh’s Dosa House, our destination, and was told that the restaurant was a five-minute walk from the Journal Square PATH station. Zio wisely joined me and after circling Journal Square trying to find our bearings, waiting for Zio’s GPS navigation system to talk to him and get us to 809 Newark Avenue, Zio commented that there was something surreal about where we were. Could it be the monotonous din of skateboards hitting concrete? The sight of glorious movie houses silently shuttered? The glassy look in the eyes of those emerging from the PATH? We didn’t really know. Finally, instead of waiting for Zio’s toy to work in the circuit-congested air of Jersey City, we broke down and asked someone on the street for directions. On Newark Street we saw a sign for a Dosa Hut and walked toward it. Soon we were in the middle of Jersey City’s Little India with dosa huts everywhere, Indian grocery stores, sweet shops and video stores. Who knew?

 Waiting outside Sri Ganesh’s Dosa House was Eugene, a scowl on his already dour face. Before we could even greet him, he began a tirade against Gerry for his ill-advised choice. Making him sit in traffic for hours. No place to park. And no GPS navigation system to help him out. What was he thinking? The cafeteria-like restaurant was bustling with business; Indian families lining up to place orders. We found table # 11 and took a look at the menu that featured South Indian vegetarian dishes; the centerpiece being the dosa, a long, torpedo-like thinly fried bread stuffed with a variety of different vegetables. Gerry called; according to his GPS navigation system, he was .9 miles from the restaurant. But he wasn’t moving. He was stuck behind a motorcycle convoy. Mike from Yonkers called, he was on the New Jersey Turnpike, but he wasn’t moving either; stuck in traffic from an accident with “fatalities.” There was not much we three could do at Sri Ganesh’s but begin to eat.

The Dosa: Does size matter?

 Eugene ordered a channa onion-chili masala dosa. While we waited, we helped ourselves to complimentary yellow lentil soup that immediately brought on a chili-induced sweat. Our table number was called and Eugene retrieved the two-foot long dosa which came with coconut chutney and another condiment called sambhar. We took apart the dosa easily, pausing only to wipe the perspiration from our foreheads. Gerry called again; he was still .9 miles away. I went up and ordered a cheese and mixed vegetable “uttapam delight,” kind of an Indian foccaccia, a bread filled with chilis, cheese, and onions, accompanied as well by coconut chutney and sambhar. To try to quell the fire in our mouths, I also ordered a vegetable biryani, known at Sri Ganesh’s as a “rice-delight.”

Chili doughnuts, also known as “masala vada.”

Gerry arrived in time to scarf down a few of the remaining pieces of the uttapam delight while deftly ignoring Eugene’s incessant complaints. It wasn’t long before he caught up with the rest of us and with the addition of a masala vada, a fried savory donut stuffed, yes, with chilis and onions, and another dosa, this one a Banglore ghee masala dosa, Zio and I had our fill of starch. Dosas, we learned, are best enjoyed in small doses. As an afterthought, someone mentioned Mike from Yonkers. Gerry shrugged; there had been no further word. Gerry is to be complimented for introducing us to Jersey City and the world of dosas, but we are grateful that it will be a long time before he takes on his next journey.

The Seoul of Jersey

9 Nov

The following trip to New Jersey for Korean food was our first expedition outside of New York City. Gerry, who lives in the suburbs, has been the boldest of us all in finding places beyond New York, often to the major chagrin of the others, myself included. But after our trip to Masil House, no one was complaining. Here is what we experienced in the Korean enclave of Fort Lee.

Masil House
400 Main Street
Fort Lee, New Jersey


Gerry was bold and brave in his choice for our most recent food adventure. Not only did he gamble by summoning us across the Hudson River to the shores of Fort Lee, New Jersey, he also chose a place that we discovered upon our arrival, had velvet-covered menus. More used to grease-smeared paper menus, the velvet-covered menus immediately sent up warning signs.  But his was no brash act by someone irresponsibly leading the group astray. No, Gerry deliberated long on the subject taking his assignment extremely seriously. He even committed a first in our year-long gatherings. He, as Rick aptly put it, “called an audible,” switching the destination almost at the last moment from a tofu-laden, seemingly all-vegetarian Korean restaurant  to another Korean restaurant, this one with a barbecue grill in the middle of our table. The barbecue brought with it the promise of an abundance of meats and, though we have nothing against tofu and all the health-benefits it contains, Gerry’s audible was quietly endorsed by all.



While we waited for Rick’s arrival, we sipped barley tea and studied the thick menus. Gerry suggested we skip the appetizers and stay for the most part with the entrees; that as part of the Korean meal, many side dishes are included with the entrees. After making a few suggestions of our own, we turned over the ordering to Gerry. This was his show. The only exception came from Eugene who insisted we include an order of the stewed baby chicken with ginseng. Eugene’s insistence was based on the claim that we all needed some of the attributes that supposedly are contained in the fabled ancient Asian root.  “Speak for yourself,” Zio barked back to Eugene. And really, where was Eugene when he had the opportunity for “Johnny to get up and stand up” by trying some of the Jamaican Irish Moss drink and some of the other  “health” tonics that were available at Toyamadel, our last get together?

As soon as Gerry completed the order with the patient waiter, the side dishes he had told us about began arriving; aromatic and spicy kimchi, salted anchovies, sugared seaweed, pickled turnips, sesame-seeded soy sauce, vinegar peppers, and other items unidentifiable to me. We began picking at  the condiments as the waiter prepared the barbecue. It was a cold night in New Jersey and the extra warmth from the barbecue as well as from the spicy food was welcome.

Once the coals and grate were hot, pieces of marinated beef short ribs, Bul Gol Bi, removed from the rib were put on the grill. While the beef cooked, we tasted the ginseng chicken, a pancake filled with assorted seafood including shrimp and squid, and a very spicy stew of octopus and noodles. All were flavorful and immense in portion, but it was the barbecue that was the highlight. Like a taco, we wrapped the cooked meat in a lettuce leaf stuffed with condiments such as raw garlic, hot pepper, a garlicky bean paste, and whatever else you wanted to add and ate lustily. Along with the two orders of short ribs, there was one order of sliced marinated pork with peppers and onions.



As we have been trained to do, we devoured just about everything on the crowded table with only a few small overly-charred pieces of meat remaining on the grill.  It didn’t take long for all the fragrant accompaniments; garlic, cabbage, salted, cured fish, and spices to begin oozing from our pores.  And at the time, sated and satisfied, none of us really cared how truly “aromatic” our Korean feast had made us.

Dessert, apparently, was not an option. We were, however, brought complimentary slices of orange. The oranges had a cleansing effect—a clearing of the palette from the strong redolent assault we had just experienced. The bill came and adding in a very generous tip due to the fact that actual cooking was done by the waiters at our table, it came to $20 each–exactly our prescribed limit.  As it was coming over, crossing the river via the George Washington Bridge back to New York, the traffic was light. Gerry’s Jersey gamble was a success.

I haven’t been back to Fort Lee for Korean food or any other reason since that night in early 2003. Gerry’s success in getting us out of our comfortable New York City environs on this night apparently led him to take even more gambles, with, in many cases, much more mixed results. You will read of them as these adventures continue.

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