Beverly Soon Tofu, one of LA’s longest running Korean businesses and perhaps the first-ever sundubu-jjigae restaurant, will be closing this month on September 20 after 34 years of business. Founder Monica Lee first opened Beverly Soon Tofu in 1986 on Beverly Blvd and St. Andrews in LA’s Koreatown, at the time preparing four distinct types of sundubu (also spelled soondubu). In Korea, sundubu is a simple dish for workers looking for an affordable, filling lunch, but Lee was the first chef to create an entire menu of different sundubu variants, including a combination beef or pork with seafood, kimchi, mushroom, fish roe, squid, and soybean paste. After popularizing the dish, which cooks silken tofu with a spicy broth traditionally served in a stone bowl, other restaurants in LA like So Kong Dong and BCD Tofu House helped establish sundubu specialists as a distinct Korean restaurant format.
Lee opened a second Beverly Soon Tofu location on Olympic Blvd in 1988, and this location has been the one most Angelenos have visited over the years (The original on Beverly closed in 1993). Lee eventually added other traditional Korean dishes such as bulgogi, spicy chicken, and bibimbap to the menu, retaining a charming dining room with low-flung tree-trunk tables and wooden stools. Korean American chef Roy Choi considers it to be one of his favorite LA restaurants, filming a segment there with Anthony Bourdain for Parts Unknown.
The decision to close was a difficult one for Monica and her daughters JJ and CJ, who helped operate the restaurant in recent years. “It’s telling of my mom’s character. She works really hard and wanted to open up eyes to Korean food. She’s really thankful for all the support, from the customers and from the community,” said JJ Lee, who spoke with Eater over the phone.
Koreatown has been battered by the pandemic, with notable restaurants Jun Won and Dong Il Jang both closing permanently in recently months. Others have rebounded thanks to LA’s outdoor dining program, with Korean barbecue spots and bars taking to parking lots and sidewalks to set up pojangmacha-style covered seating areas. BCD Tofu founder Hee Sook Lee died in July after a bout with cancer, though her restaurant chain, which now has 13 locations across California, Texas, New Jersey, and New York, will continue to operate.
Initially during the pandemic, Beverly Soon Tofu closed for a few months before reopening for takeout. But the takeout business wasn’t enough to support continued operations. “It was a really hard decision. My mom was giving 110% percent to this restaurant. The pandemic just called her to action and we just had to make this decision,” said JJ Lee. The prospect of setting outdoor dining, or reopening with a limited indoor dining capacity didn’t make sense for the restaurant either, especially with room for only 40 seats inside. “We don’t know when customers will start feeling comfortable [dining inside],” said JJ Lee. “I don’t know when it’s going to be the same sales as before. There are too many uncertainties to keep going.”
Lee and her sister CJ both had a strong desire to maintain the business for as long as possible, knowing full well the legacy their mother had built over the decades. The two daughters have full time careers outside of the restaurant but were helping Monica operate it for the past ten years. On whether Beverly Soon Tofu would reopen some time in the future, that depends on that status of the pandemic and the availability of another restaurant space. “It’s still on the table,” JJ Lee said regarding a potential reopening. “We’ll see what happens but for now, this is the right decision.”
Beverly Soon Tofu will continue to serve takeout until its closure on September 20.