The stereotype of Korean food in America often involves BBQ, the concept of unlimited quantities of beef cooked at a tabletop grill. It’s a tradition that maps easily to our big appetites for red meat, but it’s far from the totality of Korean cuisine. Korea’s food traditions involve soybeans as much as they do animal protein, and in the Mesa Asian District, the Stone Korean Tofu House devotes itself specifically to a tradition of tofu, not so much as a meat substitute, but instead as an ingredient to be used side-by-side with meats and seafood in complex dishes.
The Stone is located diagonally across the street from the Sycamore/Main light rail station in the heart of the Asian District. A bike rack is found right outside the entrance to the Stone. Unlike most restaurants in this neighborhood, it’s in a standalone building at the edge of the Tri-City Pavilions shopping center rather than in a food court or a mall building with other tenants. The structure originally housed an IHOP restaurant, and while the architectural clues are still evident in the stucco exterior, the inside of the restaurant has been completely transformed.
The entrance involves a sliding door that is motorized and operated via a button. That’s the first sign that the Stone has a high-tech feel, an impression reinforced by looking at the array of individual rice cookers lit up behind the host station. The interior is clean, modern, and minimalistic with an emphasis on light natural wood and tile. A huge ceiling fan is overhead, and a few screens on the walls showcase the process of making tofu. In addition to the main dining room, there is a small side room used for special events, overflow capacity, and staff meals.
Menus are accessible via QR codes at each table, and unlike many restaurants relying on clumsy PDFs of menus designed to be printed, the Stone has formatted its offerings to be readable even on small phone screens. With tofu being the main attraction here, it’s an easy choice to start with the sesame tofu appetizer. It’s made with bean curd fashioned in house each morning from soybeans that have been soaked overnight. The slabs of tofu in this dish are slightly crisp on the outside and tender on the inside with a gentle smoky flavor throughout.
Although tofu is not involved in the mung bean pancakes, they also have a bit of smoke in their flavor and a slight grit in their texture reminiscent of cornmeal. The tofu does find its way into a green salad for anyone wanting a lighter touch in a starter. The next section of the menu is devoted to soft tofu soup, known in Korean as sundubu, the restaurant’s signature dish. The sundubu is served volcanically hot in a stone vessel, explaining the restaurant’s name, and features tofu in a bubbling broth with various combinations of meat, seafood, and vegetables.
Sundubu is served with white rice and an egg that is meant to be cracked open and cooked within the broth as it is mixed with the other ingredients. The beef, dumpling, or mushroom soft tofu soups are good starting points for sundubu exploration with kimchi adding spice to some of the bowls and oysters and intestine offering more adventurous options. A vegetarian section of the menu adds even more choices with emphasis on vegetables and appropriate adjustments in terms of broth. A vegetarian hot pot for two is a big bowl atop a burner with plenty to share.
Other hot pots, distinct from the tofu soups, feature bulgogi, dumplings, organ meats, brisket, and fish cakes. Some come with tofu and some without. Although all the sundubu soups are sized for one person, most of the larger hot pots are meant for sharing. The exception is a hot pot for one with bulgogi and mushrooms. Noodle dishes vary seasonally with some cold entrees in the hot summer months and a seafood bowl full of mussels, shrimp, clams, and crab legs mixed with thick wheat noodles, soft tofu, and a hearty gochujang broth available most often.
A section of the menu labeled “Special Traditional” dispenses with tofu for the most part in favor of dishes like spicy grilled chicken, marinated short ribs, and pork belly with kimchi. Many of these entrees reappear on a “Combo” zone further down the menu where they are offered in tandem with the customer’s choice of soft tofu soup, allowing a mix-and-match scenario involving different aspects of what the kitchen can produce. Several bibimbap dishes provide multiple ingredients over rice in a big bowl ready for the diner to blend together at the table.
All entrees come with a tray full of banchan, the traditional side dishes that accompany most Korean meals. The six selections are mostly vegetables, always cold and often pickled. Kimchi is always present, and it’s not uncommon to have cabbage served in another format. Cucumbers, broccoli, mushrooms, and rice cakes are other possibilities in the ever-changing selection. Occasionally, hard boiled eggs or even entire small fish will also make an appearance. The color and variety add a welcome dimension to any meal at the Stone.
Although there is no dessert menu, most meals are followed by a bowl of “porridge,” which is really just the grains left in the rice cooker dissolved in a bit of water. Staff explain that it is a tradition established during the tough times following the Korean War in order to minimize food waste. Beverages include rice wine and big bottles of Korean beer. Tea, hot or iced, is complimentary with every meal. Even without gas grills at every table and a seemingly endless parade of meat, the Stone offers another view of the complexity and variety of Korean food.
1870 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85202