Although there are several plant-based items on its menu, and its name brings for many an immediate connection to vegan food, Tofu House is not a vegetarian restaurant.
The confusion over what items the San Diego-based dining establishment actually served may have hurt business for Tofu House in its early days, says its founder and owner Joonsok Kim, who was only 23 years old when he first started out in the restaurant business in Kearny Mesa.
But in the nearly 25 years since it first opened, Tofu House has gained and kept a devoted following of people from across San Diego County.
The restaurant with items that include tofu stews with beef, chicken, pork or seafood opened on Convoy Street in 1998, and Kim’s second site opened in 2015 in Mira Mesa.
A third Tofu House, which opened earlier this year on El Cajon Boulevard near San Diego State University, is run by a franchisee. A fourth, also to be run by a franchisee, is expected to open in the Otay Ranch area of Chula Vista next year.
“We had a lot of confused customers because of our name, thinking we only served tofu and that the tofu was only for vegetarians,” said Kim, 49. “At the beginning we had only vegetarian customers, but as time went by, customers started talking to their friends and family. We had tofu but we also had shrimp, beef, we had rib eye.”
Kim said with help from the Small Business Administration’s paycheck protection program and other government assistance, the restaurant was able to successfully pivot its business model during the closures and re-openings that challenged restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said during the pandemic, he was able to cut both sites’ staff in half and narrowed down Tofu House menu items from 40 to 20.
Its current offerings include several boiled tofu stew dishes as well as Galbi (marinated short ribs), Bul Go Gi (marinated beef rib eye) and Japche (glass noodles made of sweet potato starch). Tofu House’s Crispy Fried Tofu with mushrooms and seasonal vegetables and its vegetarian miso soup with mushrooms, vegetables and kimchi are the highlighted vegetarian dishes.
Kim said his eventual goal of “seven, eight or nine items, like In-N-Out hamburger restaurants” that will allow him and his staff to better control the freshness and quality of Tofu House ingredients is closer than ever.
Kim said he started dreaming of a career in the food business in the United States as a teenager living in Korea.
“I was thinking about the food business when I was 14 years old,” Kim said. “I was thinking about healthy food. I realized at the time that tofu was a great dish in Asian countries but that it was not particularly popular in the U.S.”
But even as pondered his future, Kim said he was on a problematic path, hanging with a rough crowd, and getting into trouble so his parents sent him to attend school in the United States.
“I was so afraid,” Kim recalled. “I was a sensitive teenager. But I was hanging out all the time with troublemakers. I wouldn’t go to church with my parents, I didn’t like to study. I remember my parents were crying and so worried about me. I have two daughters now, so I understand how they must have felt.”
Kim landed at Christian High School in El Cajon, where he lived with a pastor and his family. There, he said he remembered going to grocery stores with his host family and trying to learn the names of different food items.
Early on, Kim said he decided he would rather learn English and stay focused on school than create problems for himself and cause his parents further anguish. “From the beginning I was trying to learn hard,” Kim said. “I was thinking, ‘This will be my last chance to study in school. If I fail, I have nowhere to go.’”
After graduating from the private school, Kim attended Grossmont College and then graduated from San Diego State with a degree in business management.
Kim spent three years working multiple jobs just trying to survive. He recalled working from the early-morning hours until late at night, delivering dry-cleaning items, vacuuming and detailing automobiles at a car wash and cleaning a hotel kitchen.
Through the extended labor, he was able to save about $20,000 each year and invested $60,000 to open Tofu House in 1998.
Now married and living in Tierrasanta, Kim finds time to work in the kitchen for a Korean church his family attends in Clairemont. “I make the Sunday lunch and they keep inviting me back,” he said. “They really like my cooking.”
FOUNDER/OWNER: Joonsok Kim
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego, with sites in Kearny Mesa and Mira Mesa
BUSINESS: Restaurant featuring Korean cuisine
CONTACT: (858) 576-6433
NOTABLE: Both Tofu House restaurants combined typically serve about 300 people on weekdays and about 900 per day on weekends.