Koreatown is all about juxtapositions these days - with K-pop - attuned, 24-hour nightlife colliding with old-school barbecue joints and mom-and-pop storefronts. If you want to get a sense of how this can work in microcosm, take a seat (or try to) at Monica Lee's Beverly Soon Tofu.
Lee has been serving bubbling cauldrons of spicy soon (which means both soft and pure in Korean) tofu stew since 1986, when she opened on Beverly Boulevard. That first incarnation of Beverly Soon Tofu (she later moved to Olympic Boulevard) was Koreatown's first tofu restaurant.
Lee crams a lot of atmosphere into her tiny restaurant, an open dining room that looks more like a woodcutter's cottage than a restaurant. The tables and benches are made of roughly hewn wood, much of which Lee sanded and stained herself nearly 30 years ago; thatched eaves jut out from under a low ceiling trellised with wooden beams. The walls are decorated with massive cross-sections of redwood, concentric circles looming above the tables like exhibits in a natural history museum.
For Lee, woodworking wasn't so much a hobby but rather a case of wanting the hands-on feel of designing her own restaurant. If you spend any time at Beverly Soon Tofu, you'll see Lee, 30 years later, doing the same thing with your dinner: hands on, her food, her place.
The place only closes two days a year, and most days Lee is there, navigating the crowds. At 60, she is herself part of K-town's juxtaposition. On a recent afternoon, she moves among diners, expertly mixing the enormous stone plates of bibimbap that servers place along the communal table that occupies most of the center of the restaurant. In a black dress with tulle ruffles at the hem, black stockings and black boots, her hair a sleek pageboy, her bright lipstick perfectly applied, Lee divides the contents of one dish into four portions, admonishing the hungry diners ("Now, don't fight") - she's part boarding-school headmistress, part Anna Wintour.
Lee came to L.A. from her native Seoul when she was 25 to work as a nurse. But she didn't like nursing ("It was so sad"). After friends and family encouraged her to cook the dishes she made at home for a wider audience, she decided to open a restaurant.
Restaurants may be happier places than hospitals, but the turnover is just as high, in both customers and equipment - Lee says she goes through more than 1,000 ceramic tofu pots a year - and the hours just as long. "This is more difficult than nursing," she says matter-of-factly. For this reason, although her two daughters help their mother out at events, "They don't want to be in the restaurant business," Lee says, with some satisfaction.
Soon Lee is moving around Anna Sanches, who has been working with her for almost 28 years, to check the temperature of the pots on the fire. Just what temperature the tofu is cooked to, Lee won't say: It's the secret to her recipe. As Sanches moves an obsidian-colored pot around the grill using specially made Korean pliers, the chile-spiked soup spits and roils like lava.
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"We have to watch it like a baby," Lee says, smiling. With one last critical look at the soup and a nod to Sanches, she heads back into the dining room, past a tray of iced barley tea and a glossy photo of herself posing at her restaurant with Anthony Bourdain and Roy Choi, the ruffles of her black dress twirling.