A historic passing of a community and food-cultural institution beloved by generations of locals and visitors alike.
By Andy Wang
When Monica Lee opened Beverly Soon Tofu in 1986, it was the first Los Angeles restaurant specializing in soondubu jjigae, or soft tofu stew. Over the years, the Koreatown spot became a beloved local icon and go-to for many LA chefs, enjoying a reputation as the best soondubu restaurant the city has ever had. Even after Kogi chef Roy Choi brought Anthony Bourdain here to joyfully slurp soondubu for an episode of Parts Unknown, Beverly Soon Tofu remained a place with no pretense, a restaurant where most customers had no idea who owned the place or who was in the kitchen.
Unfortunately, like many restaurants, Beverly Soon Tofu has been unable to cope with pressures and losses from the pandemic, and will close for good on September 20. We asked chefs around LA for their thoughts on the closure.
Roy “Papi Chulo” Choi
Dear Monica and family,
You kept me in one piece in my early 20s through horrible hangovers while having “breakfast” at 3 p.m., through date nights where it felt fancy to eat there on a champagne-dreams but beer-budget type-of-life shit, and through breakups where your cauldrons soldered the cracks in my heart. You kept me in one piece so I could one day in the future bring Anthony Bourdain there to talk story and show the world your amazing place. Thank you for keeping me in one piece, but the news of your closure has finally broken our collective hearts into pieces. From the top of Ktown on Beverly to the bottom base on Olympic, you guys have been a foundation. I always tell anyone I know that your cold soft tofu starter that’s served to every diner is better than any amuse-bouche around the world. The quintessential way to start a meal that will live in infinite memory. Good night, Beverly Soon Tofu, you shaped generations here in Los Angeles. Peace and love to you. What a run!
Number one, this sucks. Number two, Beverly Soon Tofu was one of the first restaurants I ever ate at in LA. I was on a trip with my dad for a week in 1990 or 1991. That’s where his friends told him to go. I was like, “There’s a restaurant that only serves soondubu jjigae? That’s crazy.”
I never went religiously like some people. I didn’t visit all the time because it was just a mainstay and oftentimes it was too hard to get into the parking lot. That’s the main reason I didn’t eat there more often. Did I eat there a dozen-plus times over my life? Yes. Was it always delicious? Absolutely.
It’s the first of its kind. I ate there with Jonathan Gold a handful of times. It was just one of those things that was like a must. If you were going to eat through Ktown, you had to go to that restaurant. It’s eating your grandma’s food. That’s the vibe.
A lot of restaurants, like the bo ssam place Kobawoo, have that kind of vibe. That’s like home cooking. Most people think that Korean restaurants are just Korean barbecue, but there are restaurants that serve food that you eat at home or your aunt or grandma’s house. That’s what Beverly Soon Tofu is.
There are so many restaurants like that. That’s the scariest part. What sucks is what does that mean for that entire genre of restaurant? To me, this is going to be the new norm, unfortunately. I don’t know what other restaurants we’re going to lose. But it certainly seems that we’re going to continue to lose some iconic places, and specifically in Ktown.
Here’s another thing—if you’re going to choose one food that was going to be amazing for quarantine and delivery, it would be Korean food, particularly soondubu jjigae.
We’re going to lose restaurants. We’ve got to ask ourselves which restaurants are places we can’t take for granted. Basically, this shows you cannot take any restaurant for granted. It’s just fucking depressing. It’s the restaurants with the most cultural currency that you need to save, first and foremost.
Justin Pichetrungsi, chef and owner, Anajak Thai
I just went yesterday. Last time, man. I had everything ready to pre-order at 11. I was like, “Oh, the order’s not going through.” They made the announcement that you could only put it in at 11:15. I literally got it right then and there. My friend was like, “I logged in at 11:18 and couldn’t get it.”
I love that they have the cod-roe soon tofu. I forgot about that. I was like, “Man, I actually don’t see that elsewhere.” So I had to get that. All the food was as good as I remembered.
Back in school, when I was going to ArtCenter in my undergraduate days, 2004 to 2008ish, Beverly Soon Tofu is where we would go. I have so many Korean friends from ArtCenter. And I had not yet gone into Ktown in terms of exploring the food world there until I started school at ArtCenter.
This was one of the spots where it’s like, the term was ending or it has ended, and we did a bunch of all-nighters, and finally we can go out and eat. I bonded with so many friends there. The place is so small you can’t leave that spot without smelling like Beverly Soon Tofu, right? I say that in a loving way.
I was going there Thursday nights when I was teaching at ArtCenter too. We always found our way there. I feel bad because in the last couple years, we didn’t get to go as much.
Yesterday, I was eating the food in my car with Dan Rabilwongse, the chef from Tartine Sycamore. He was like, “Man, I can’t believe I haven’t been here.” I was also there with Eugenio Gasca, who’s one of my taqueros on the line for Anajak’s Thai taco Tuesdays, and his girlfriend Marissa Shepherd from La Colombe. So all food people. Eugenio, he hasn’t had LA Korean food at all. He’s been in the country for a year. He was cooking at Otium. He never got to have the real-deal LA Korean food scene. I’m like, “This is it. This is it. This is the one, dude!”
My car was the hot plate because the CRV was still warm from the engine. I just parked in the parking lot and put everything on the car. We got bibimbap. It’s weird to get it in a no-stone-pot way, but it’s still really comforting. We got short rib. Gotta have the short rib. Large, obviously. They even have the sauteed onions on the bottom. And then we got the combination soondubu and japchae. One of the things I love about their japchae is they use flat glass noodles. It’s still one of the best japchaes because of that. They just do everything well.
You look at that spot. This is what all restaurants are looking like these days. There’s storage everywhere. They’ve flipped up all their chairs and benches. They’re using empty cardboard boxes for their takeout.
All those women that are working there, they’re like all the aunties. You know that’s family. Obviously, I have a soft spot because Anajak is a family business. But even without that soft spot, I would love it.
You did take that place for granted. What else am I taking for granted? I’m thinking about it.
Ria Dolly Barbosa, executive chef, Petite Peso
I saw it on the Anthony Bourdain episode and knew I had to try it. I went and I never looked back. It was so much more flavorful than other soon tofu I had tried. The vibe was great. You know, you had the aunties in the corner doing the work.
I loved it because it felt comfortable. It felt like you were going to a friend’s house. I would take friends, and we would go for any reason, whether it was to celebrate or if someone broke up with somebody and “let’s go eat our feelings.” It was just solid and honest. My go-to order was the barbecue squid and the soondubu with fish roe. I haven’t had soondubu with fish roe that’s been comparable. I tasted that, and it was like, “Oh my God, this is it.”
You know, I never reached out to the owners. I don’t know why I didn’t. It was one of those places you kind of felt like would be around forever. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I kind of regret that now, not getting to know the owners. But I was always grateful for what they had on that little corner.
My best friend was leaving LA, and we had gone to that spot after seeing the Bourdain episode. It also became one of her favorite spots in town. Before she left, that was one of the places we hit before she moved. It was bittersweet. We had gone there for the first time together. And it was also the last meal we had together.
I kept going back because there was no pretense. It was no fuss. Here’s some really good food, eat and be on your way. It wasn’t a place you went to be seen or anything like that. It’s just a shock now. It’s like losing a family member. So many good memories.
Andrew Muñoz, pitmaster, and Michelle Muñoz, chef, Moo’s Craft Barbecue
MICHELLE: I had just been thinking about going to Beverly Soon right before the news came out. I was planning to go sometime this week. The news crushed me. I was pretty sad all day. It’s one of my favorite Korean spots in all of Los Angeles.
ANDREW: We first saw it when Bourdain did that episode with Roy Choi. That’s when I was working downtown. I had one of my really good friends who also worked nearby. When that episode came out, Michelle wanted to try a lot of those places in Koreatown. My friend’s wife also wanted to try them.
But me and my friend went to all of these places without them on our lunch break, and this is the one we would go to like every week. Sometimes, we could go two times in a week and just have their tofu stew with the squid on the side.
And then finally, Michelle was like, “I want to try that place.” I was like, “Oh yeah, it’s really good.” She’s like, “What do you mean?”
MICHELLE: Eventually, he took me, and I was blown away. I mean, from the beginning when you walk in, just the ambiance—it’s so nice, cozy and personal. And when you sit down, they come and bring you all this delicious banchan, which is my favorite in all of LA.
We tried the short rib, the squid, the bibimbap, the tofu stew with everything. It was all so special and so flavorful. It kind of made me feel like if I was Korean, this is what my Korean mother or grandmother would make for me.
It was so special to me that I took my grandmother there when she was visiting LA. My grandmother doesn’t really explore. She comes from a really small town in Mexico. She just eats her food, and that’s it.
I said, “Come on, Grandma, I’m going to take you to try something different.” I’ll never forget the expression on her face. She absolutely loved it. To this day, she still talks about Beverly Soon. Andrew and I have had many great memories there, lunch dates while the kids are at school.
ANDREW: We would sneak off and drive across town just to have it for lunch.
MICHELLE: I don’t know where else I’m going to go. I don’t know what else will come close to being as special as what Beverly Soon is. It’s LA. That’s what it represents. It is Los Angeles.
When I went there for the first time, I saw these ladies, they looked like they were family of some sort. It kind of felt like my tia or my abuelita was bringing me tofu soup. It felt very inviting and super comforting.
ANDREW: We’ve had similar-style tofu stew that’s closer to where we live, but they just were not the thing. We would drive the extra 10 miles just to get to Beverly Soon.
MICHELLE: We live in the San Gabriel Valley. We’re in East LA. So from here to Koreatown, in mad LA traffic, sometimes it would take us more than an hour. It was worth it every single time.
It breaks my heart. I really hope that when things do turn around, they’ll find another special spot somewhere in LA and reopen.
Top: From left, Roy Choi (photo Travis Jensen), David Chang (photo Andrew Bezek), Justin Pichetrungsi (photo Eric Ng), Ria Dolly Barbosa (photo AgesImagery), Andrew Muñoz and Michelle Muñoz (photo Ben Sassani).