Once upon a time, we lived in a world of discourse where two presidential candidates metaphorically argued about hatchets and scalpels in the name of progress.
Reality has since shifted. One of these aforementioned men is now dead; the other won the office, shared an unpretentious meal with Anthony Bourdain (whom we’ve also lost), and retired to make Spotify playlists. Coping strategies varied widely.
For me, surviving all of this involved repeated, fervent pilgrimages to Kimchi Tofu House for mini-cauldrons of its silken tofu soup. Sometimes I’d order it with dumplings, other times with nori, but always as a “special combo” with their spicy pork. Everything came prepared with attention and care by a family who would also, if asked, scald your face off with spice.
For our purposes, Kimchi Tofu House is the curative scalpel in the Cities’ Korean cuisine, where all other pretenders land like a hatchet.
“My mom’s been involved in King’s Korean restaurant out in Fridley which—if you want the most general, proficient Korean menu—go there. Our menu is so small.... Here, it’s, like, family love,” says Keehun Nam, son of Kimchi Tofu House’s owners Jaewoo and Gyusum Nam. “I think that’s why people come here. I grew up eating the spicy pork, the beef, the kimbap. It’s all stuff that my mom’s been doing since she was a kid.”
Throughout most of our conversation, Jaewoo cooked in the kitchen. Keehun estimates he can be found at the stove 99 percent of the time. His (and the restaurant’s) signature dish is sundubu, a Korean soup cooked over an open flame and served roiling. Each soup begins with a base of silken tofu and is customized to order. At last count there were 14 ingredient options, including vegetables, tripe, oyster, and “surf and turf.” Customers must also select a spice level from “No spice” to “Very, very spicy.”
A word to the wise? Be judicious in choosing your spice. Though cool in concept, eating magma will kill you.
The finishing touch is performed when diners crack a raw egg into their own still-boiling soup, which cooks as you eat. “Cracking the eggs into the tofu, I think that they think it’s kind of the last thing to finish the food,” said Jaewoo, for whom this tangible, participatory interaction between his creation and the customer functions like a chef’s kiss.
Some of us never recover from the spell that’s cast when we first crack that egg, form that bond. We’re pulled to Kimchi Tofu House—just one story tall and cheery like a kid’s line drawing of a storefront, with its buttery yellow walls and a maritime-blue pinstriped awning—where it fights for sun amid Stadium Village’s strip-mall aesthetic and we contend with a new, insatiable craving for soup that heeds no season or weather pattern.
Tucked within a sea of parking garages, condo-dorm things, and the light rail, the restaurant’s preciousness is rendered all but invisible in plain sight. Inside, smart wood tables turn communal during rushes. Tiny plastic flowers beam through the world’s dreariness from the windowsills.
Adding to the restaurant’s obscurity are its thickly steamed windows nine months out of the year. Those outside perceive it as a dripping veil, promising warmth. Once seated, this barrier is transportative—our increasingly bonkers world simply disappears into the mist.
For a 20-seat restaurant that takes no reservations, can’t be seen into (or out of) most times, closes promptly at 9 p.m., and doesn’t advertise... business is booming. “Definitely this restaurant is grow up,” said Jaewoo, who turned over the interview’s reins to Keehun when customers arrived. “I mean based on the sales everyday, it’s grow up about twice—and we added more food.”
The Nams acquired Kimchi Tofu House in April 2018 when its original owner, Pong-yun Kim, was looking to retire. The opportunity proved a fortuitous match for all involved.
“You know what’s funny? My mom’s the cook in the family,” Keehun tells me. “I grew up with my mom being the matriarch, the cook, her secret recipes on everything, sure, whatever.... But interestingly enough, on soft tofu, even at home, my dad would make it. That was like his one dish he was just really good at. I could even tell when he made it versus my mom. I don’t think he knew why, or she knew why.”
From her station at the counter, Gyusum is versatile. She toggles between working the register, helping customers, preparing the labor-intensive bibimbap bowls, assisting Jaewoo at the stove, and prepping house staples like kimchi.
“All the meat recipes are my mom’s. I’d say about half the soups are my parents’ at this point; they’ve adjusted them,” says Keehun, who pitches in with Google Analytics and the occasional digital marketing help. According to Keehun, Kimchi Tofu House is allowing his parents to live their dream, playing off each others’ strengths.
For all this talk of showing up to a place that holds its own lane justfinethankyouverymuch, I asked Keehun how he’d suggest newcomers approach the restaurant should they feel interested but anxious. Embedded in his answers was honesty, inclusion, and that sense of kindness that first made Kimchi Tofu House my port in so many storms, so long ago.
“It is very spicy. There’s no wrong way to eat something. And third, if they’re really confused, just ask my mom or ask the servers what to do. They’ll be very helpful!”
On that note, I genuinely love this place, and if revealing my secret spot to the world means I find I inadvertently took a hatchet to it, I could never forgive myself. I’m choosing to trust you with this precious cargo in dubious times, reader....
Take care of Kimchi Tofu House so that the Nams, in turn, can care for you.
Kimchi Tofu House
307 Oak St. SE, Minneapolis