At the end of University Way, past the bookstores and coffee shops, past the yellow and purple signs and sweatshirts, and past the numerous restaurants advertising sandwiches, pho, and more teriyaki than logically should be on one street, sits a quaint yellow house between 52nd and 55th Streets with "52nd Tofu House" written in black lettering on the side. Two wooden signs in the shape of apples advertise tofu soup and a vegan plate, each for $6.95--spectacularly cheap for vegan cuisine, which is often shockingly expensive.
The Tofu House's late hours are a little confusing. Take the 8 p.m. opening time with a grain of salt: At 8:15 pm on a Monday the door was still locked, although there appeared to be a faint light on in back. By 8:45 on Wednesday (the restaurant is closed Tuesdays and Sundays), however, the little red front door was propped open, and soft yellow light illuminated the handful of polished wooden tables and straight-backed chairs waiting for customers.
Owner Jen Seo explained that until recently the restaurant was primarily a bar, but she and her husband, Eugene, decided to open a bit earlier to appeal to a dinnertime crowd. The couple offers customers two full menus of handmade Korean specialties, one of which is entirely vegan, and will happily provide recommendations to anyone who is Korean-cuisine illiterate, or just indecisive. Although there is meat at the restaurant, they are careful not to cross-contaminate the vegan choices.
$6.95 buys almost anything on the menu, from tofu soup to beef or shrimp bulgogi, with a side of sticky white rice and potatoes. Don't let the bland appearance of the potatoes fool you: They may look like home fries but have a subtle, pleasant sweetness with a surprisingly spicy finish that entice you to reach for more . . . until too soon they disappear.
The gyoza is offered in vegan and non-vegan forms and is unremarkable, although the dipping sauce added much-needed flavor to make the dumplings more savory. The $3.80 green-onion pancakes are tender, moist, and flecked with bright-orange shreds of carrot and freshly cut onion and potato, and with the flavorful sauce are a savory delight. All the food was made in under 10 minutes; then again, there was nobody else in the restaurant at the time.
Besides the extensive menus with college-friendly prices, the true charm of the Tofu House lies with Jen and Eugene Seo. Jen confided that the couple moved from Korea "many years ago" for their children's education. When Eugene's company asked them to relocate after they moved to Seattle, they refused because their children were already settled. "They already had their school and neighborhood they were attached to. We couldn't move them," Jen says.
The couple opened the restaurant as a way to support their family without having to disrupt the life they had already made in Seattle. The Seos' devotion turns out to be good news for carnivores and vegans alike.
52nd Tofu House, 5210 University Way N.E.