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Seoul Tofu and Jjim owners tried the Broadway pho business but found Capitol Hill success in Korean braised ribs and Soondubu stew

Soondubu — Spicy Soft Tofu Stew with sides (Image: CHS)

 

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Seattle has no shortage of amazing food opportunities, but according to Michael Seong, manager of Seoul Tofu and Jjim, Seattle doesn’t have enough good Korean cuisine. Capitol Hill’s “newest” Korean restaurant came along during the pandemic and quietly became part of Broadway.

“Every block you can find Vietnamese food, even just one block over you find a Vietnamese place, and it was getting tough with the competition,” Seong says.

Owners Helen Lee and Joseph Seong took over the pho restaurant that has become Seoul Tofu and Jjim at the beginning of 2020. According to son Michael, the previous owners had their own thing going on and they were pretty successful, “when we took over, we didn’t have the same amount of success.”

Perhaps it was the pho competition, but there’s a likely chance they were facing an uphill battle with a spreading pandemic. “The pandemic was starting and people didn’t want to come out and eat, and also restaurants were closing. Things were not going so well.”

Towards the end of the first year, they realized a change had to be made.

“We have to make a plan to start transitioning over and become the thing we really want to do. We really want to do Korean food,” Michael Seong said. “We’ve grown up with it, we were born in Korea. We really love Korean food and eat it every day.”

Now that pandemic restrictions have loosened, the change has been made and the focus is on Korean food, things are looking up.

“The people of Seattle have been really welcoming to us so we’re really grateful for that”, Seong tells CHS, “There’s a lot more customers now and I feel like people are a lot happier when they come to our store. I’m happier, we’re all happier. We’re doing things we’re passionate about and I think that shows in our food as well.”

Seoul Tofu and Jjim replaces the old Pho Cyclo — later known as The Pho after a 2016 ownership change before the latest deal for the space to swap hands — on Broadway, part of Seattle restaurant veteran Taylor Hoang’s ventures. Now Head of Community Affairs at Amazon, Hoang has shaped her work in Seattle community and politics from a start with a decade of restaurant business on Broadway.

Korean options on the Hill, meanwhile, are on the rise. In 2020, Meet took over the former Trove space on E Pike with table top Korean BBQ. A year earlier, Soju Anju filled its 12th Ave space with Korean bar food and a Soju forward drink list. 2019 also brought Oma Bap’s “contemporary fast casual Korean” to the Hugo House building across from Cal Anderson while Seoul Bowl followed with a similar recipe on 12th Ave in 2020. More? 2021 brought Pelicana’s Korean fried chicken to the old Bill’s space at Harvard and Pine while 2022 brings promise of Korean-style corn dogs across the street at Korn Dog.

Back at Seoul Tofu and Jjim, while transitioning from pho to Korean food, Seong says they’ve focused on quality ingredients. “We made a huge effort to make sure all the food is fresh. I think the biggest thing is that our kimchi is homemade every day. It’s always going to be fresh and never store-bought. We want to make sure everything is really quality.”

The tofu takes up the middle of the menu as it’s a major selling point for the restaurant. “Tofu has a healthy image, and it is pretty healthy and hearty. It can be really filling, so that’s why we recommend the tofu.”

For many though, tofu isn’t why they’re coming. It’s the jjim that draws them in.

Jjim means “braised” in Korean, and while it’s not as famous as Korean BBQ, the beef short ribs are Michael Seong’s favorite food. In fact, every birthday, that’s what he asks his mom, Helen Lee, to make him.

“It’s really soft and tender, you just need to try it,” Seong tells us. It’s also a hard to find dish, Seong says. “For people who don’t really like tofu, something they might not think of that’s meat, but isn’t Korean BBQ, and that’s what we sell here. The jjim comes as beef braised short ribs and spicy pork braised short ribs.

Before making the switch to tofu and jjim from pho, the family reached out to the Korean community in Seattle for advice.

Other business owners said switching to Korean BBQ would take an additional year in permitting and big changes in the kitchen. As money was tight, they decided to go with Helen Lee’s braised short rib recipe.

As the pandemic made things especially difficult, the restaurant family found help through Seattle’s business community. “When we were struggling, they let us know when certain loans were coming up like the EIDL loans, they let us know every single time,” Seong said. “That helped us stay afloat for a while. The business community has been really stepping up. I don’t think we’re competition because we’re doing our own thing here. We’re totally different food.”

Now they are growing their own Capitol Hill community.

“When we were a pho place, it felt like customers were from the previous owners, and they would compare us to the previous owners and quality of food, but we really wanted to make it our own story, our own relationship with the customers,” Seong says. The reimagining of the family restaurant has been a positive change. “We can develop these relationships with our customers as a fresh start, whether it’s our service or our food, it’s a whole new relationship.”

While the kitchen may be developing new recipes for the summer like refreshing Korean soba dishes, the family has no plans to expand beyond Broadway. “We have some of the best Korean food here in Seattle,” Seong says. “If you’re looking for a unique experience, I recommend our braised beef short ribs or spicy pork short ribs. You’re not going to get those in any other Korean restaurant in Washington, so if you’re in the area, stop by and we’ll take care of you.”

Seoul Tofu and Jjim is located at 406 Broadway E and is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 12pm – 9pm and Friday through Sunday 12pm-11pm. Learn more at tofunjjim.com.

 

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Judy
Judy
16 days ago

I tried the Bibimbap, and it was good.

Hillery
Hillery
16 days ago

Miss the Pho. Won’t be going there anymore but at least I found another pho place just north.

Little Saigon Resident
Little Saigon Resident
16 days ago
Reply to  Hillery

If you’re eating pho outside little saigon, you are doing it wrong.

Hillery
Hillery
16 days ago

I venture down there too

Natalie
Natalie
16 days ago

I support them making the food brings them success and that they enjoy, but the claim that there are too many Vietnamese options on the hill is just blatantly false – as the article mentioned, there seems to be a korean restaurant opening every other week (not that I’m complaining about that!)

I really enjoyed The Pho/Pho Cyclo too though and I hope we’ll be able to get some more pho options around the hill soon.

Caphiller
Caphiller
16 days ago
Reply to  Natalie

Interesting, I feel like there are many Pho places around the neighborhood, but not many Korean!

WorldWraps
WorldWraps
16 days ago

Can we also hear it for the colorful moasic tile on the outside facade of the space that lives on, years after the world wraps (that it was installed for) closed?

Harvey
Harvey
14 days ago

Went in to try the short ribs and my partner got a tofu stew, so so good. As a longtime resident of the hill, we definitely have our routines and favorites and the totally different type of food was awesome. It was an easy choice, unlike the difficulty of trying a new sushi place when you already like yours. Flavorful food, fresh taste, spicy in the best way. I think five separate add on plates including their homemade kimchi? It felt like a special date night without the complication of reservations or fancy equipment. Good for impressing out of towners or a group outing. Go early, we went at 5:30 on a Friday and it was full up by the time we left. You might even get a special dessert treat.