At a conference in Las Vegas, Nev., a few weeks ago, I snuck off to the city’s fabulous Chinatown at every opportunity. Intrigued by all the “tofu houses” I saw, I assumed there were a lot of vegetarians in town. But no, the presence of tofu does not mean the absence of meat. Soon tofu (also spelled soon dubu) is a spicy Korean soup loaded with curdles of extra-silky tofu and meat—and often a raw egg that quickly cooks in the steaming bowl.
Albuquerque does not support as big a Korean population as Vegas, and the outlets for Korean food are spread out. One of my favorites is Arirang, a 10-year-old grocery store on Eubank with a two-table café in the back. Among the many soups on the menu is a single flavor of soon tofu. The menu describes it as beef with egg, but the waitress will tell you that information is out of date and it’s actually seafood-based.
The steaming bowl, seasoned with red chile and black pepper, is packed with mussels, squid and octopus, along with vegetables and thick slabs of tofu so soft they fragment in the ambient turbulence of normal soup eating. The bowl is flanked with four little plates of namul, or Korean vegetable side dishes, like pickled daikon, seasoned soy bean sprouts, and kimchi made from cabbage and dried radish.
The idea is to scoop the stew onto a little bowl of sticky rice, along with pieces of namul, and much it down. But remember to wait for the boiling to stop. If you like what you slurp, the Arirang employees will happily steer you through the grocery section to find all you need to make it at home. The seafood and tofu soba noodle bowl is excellent, too.
Albuquerque’s only African restaurant opened about a month ago in a space on San Pedro near Gibson that has previously housed Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. Perhaps jumping continents is what the space needs in order to nail down some long-term tenants.
Talking Drums’ menu might be too authentic for its own good at times, as ordering certain dishes (ogbono soup and amala fufu, I’m looking at you) can expose hapless diners to flavors they might associate with other ... uh ... nonedible items. Such land mines are the exception and not the rule, but the place could stand to have a “secret” menu, like the Chinese restaurant Budai, to ensure that newbies don’t get in over their heads.
One dish that doesn’t push any of my ick buttons is the pepper soup with goat meat. It’s a simple affair: a medium-sized bowl filled with goat meat in a black-peppery broth and garnished with a few slices of baguette. The goat is flown in from Australia, which is odd considering how many there are in New Mexico. But Alex the server explains that it’s difficult to get halal goat with the skin on. Halal is a clue that the meat was well-raised and killed. The thick skin attached to the meat adds a nice amount of chewiness.
Goat isn’t for everyone, but if you identify as a lover of goat meat, then you’ll love this soup. At $16 it’s a bit spendy, so I recommend splitting a bowl with a friend along with an order of stewed red beans and fried plantains. These magical African beans (also called brown beans) are cooked in a tomato sauce and mashed into a mild but flavorful paste that goes perfectly with the fried plantains, fragrant with palm oil.
If you want more pepper soup for the money, the catfish pepper soup is reputed to be so humongous that multiple bowls are required to serve it all.
I recommend washing down the stew with a bottle of Nigerian palm juice. It’s lightly fermented, supposedly almost to the point of being alcoholic. My bottle seemed to have just crossed over into buzzville. It’s a good thing Talking Drums has a beer and wine license.