Though I love Asian food, Korean cuisine isn’t usually on my go to list.
That’s changing after a recent visit to Lee’s Korean BBQ & Tofu House in Valencia.
Americans may claim to be grill masters, but I don’t know if there’s any more delicious beef than kalbi ($14.99 lunch, $20.99 dinner). The sliced Angus short ribs here are huge on flavor — garlic and soy infused, melt-in-your-mouth meat seared with the perfect amount of char. Each bite is a savory sensory delight and lovely to pair with thin slivers of onions served alongside.
It’s just one of the many legit, big-flavor dishes the small kitchen turns out based on recipes that originate from owner Jennifer Lee. Born in South Korea, Lee’s parents and grandparents ran a restaurant, where she worked as a youngster.
She continued to hone those skills as the oldest daughter of six children, cooking for her family until she married and came to America almost four decades ago. Lee eventually became a pediatric nurse, but still made time for her culinary passions, bringing elaborate Korean feasts to her church.
People would often comment that her food was so good she could have her own restaurant, which is exactly what Lee did upon retiring ten years ago, opening Fresh Korean BBQ in Lake Balboa in 2008, and Lee’s Korean BBQ & Tofu House in 2015.
Her secrets are simple: “I make food like I was taught, in the traditional way,” Lee said. “You have to use fresh ingredients and not rush it.”
Many of the vegetables and herbs used at the restaurant come from Lee’s own organic garden. The kimchi, or fermented cabbage, is made from scratch and has just the right amount piquant punch. It’s just one of six banchan, or small side dishes, served with your entrée.
When I tried it, it was sliced fish cake, roasted chilis with anchovy, bean sprouts, a salad of radish, seaweed, and carrot, and a potato salad dotted with peas. These are unique little bites, some sweet, some sour, some vinegary, some kind of pungent, each meant to provide a contrast to the flavors of the main course.
Whatever entrée you order, just be prepared to share family-style or take some home. These are huge portions.
The bimbimbap ($15.99 and fun to sing in the tune of The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop”) comes to the table sizzling in a massive, hot stone bowl filled with 10 colorful vegetables, sliced beef (or chicken or tofu), and a raw egg atop copious amounts of fluffy white rice.
The ingredients sit for a few minutes, allowing the rice to crisp up, the egg to cook into soft, pliant threads and the carrots, zucchini, enoki mushrooms, and carrot to get tender, before you toss it all together with a savory wild sesame paste into one delicious jumble. (If you’re intimated, the server is happy to help you.)
For extra yum points, add some homemade gochujang, a Korean pepper paste with sweet and spicy notes.
Served in a bubbling cauldron, the deluxe spicy pork neck stew ($15.99) boasts a bright red, chili-laced broth that wafts up and tickles your nose before your taste buds. It looks fiery, but is more on the medium side, the spice somewhat mellowed by the fork-tender pork, perfectly cooked potato chunks, and herbaceous notes from sesame leaf and green onions.
The extensive menu also offers items like 10 tofu soup options ($10.99 to $11.99, you pick the spice level) and traditional dishes like kimchi fried rice ($12.99), galbitang ($14.99) and fried spicy squid ($17.99). If you’re a vegetarian or have any dietary restrictions, ask your server for the best choices. Even if it’s not on the menu, the kitchen will do its best to accommodate you.
For drinks, Bok Bun Ja (raspberry wine), Chamisul Soju (clear spirits) and Hite (beer) are available, as are sodas and Snapple. Boricha, a roasted oat and barley tea with a pleasant nutty flavor, can be served hot or cold and is complimentary with your meal.
Weekends are a popular time to eat at Lee’s Tofu House BBQ, filling up the modest space of about a dozen tables with marble tops and sherbet-colored plastic chairs that are surprisingly comfortable. It’s a casual vibe where large families, couples, and friends talk animatedly as they pull noodles, scoop rice, and ladle soup into one another’s dishes.
The scene makes all the hard work of owning a restaurant worth it for Lee.
“I enjoy seeing my customers happy,” she said with a smile.
Lee’s Korean BBQ & Tofu House, 23360 West Valencia Boulevard, Valencia. Open Monday through Saturday, 11 am to 9 pm and Sunday noon to 9 pm. For more information, call (661) 254-2307 or visit www.tofuhousevalencia.com.