I'd never set foot in Lacey's Tofu Hut until you selected it Best Restaurant of the Year. I'll be honest: it was the name. I've never been a huge fan of tofu, and I don't expect killer cuisine from a hut. Even numerous recommendations from colleagues, in print and in person, failed to persuade. How blind I was. Tofu Hut is a treasure.
So what's with the name? That was the first question I asked owner and Head Chef Soo Kim. "I've heard it before," she sighs. "I thought about changing the name, but it was a draw for vegans and vegetarians," initially her core fan base. "That's why we added the sign." She's referring to the sign out front which reads, with admirable directness, "We serve meat." Rest assured, they do. "I'm a total carnivore," Kim adds, and her kalbi - charbroiled short ribs of beef - are savory and tender enough to bolster that claim.
There's nothing pretentious or expensive about Tofu Hut (most dishes are under $10), though "Hut" might be underselling its charming location, a former gift shop. The appetizer plate is a pan-Asian crowd-pleaser of spring rolls, meaty pot stickers and luscious crab rolls. I followed a tip from Volcano co-publisher Ken Swarner and ordered the pineapple curry rice with fried tofu. I'll be damned if this dish isn't a subtle delight. And despite tofu's resemblance to fried egg white, Kim's version is crispy with an inner texture and earthiness closer to fried mozzarella. I don't think there's a redneck in America who wouldn't inhale it if it were served with a side of marinara sauce.
The Japchae (pronounced "jopp chay") looks daunting but turns out to be as approachable and delicious as good old greasy "Thai-merican" pad thai. The sweet potato noodles, a first for me, are a Korean variety of glass noodle called dangmyeon, and they're buried in broccoli, shiitake slices, scallions, carrots and beef.
How Chef Kim, who's only 27 by the way, manages to prepare such complex feasts in a kitchen not much bigger or fancier than mine must remain a mystery. She told me she's slightly worried her many well-deserved accolades will increase business faster than she can handle. But sadly for Tofu Hut's loyal fans, who will now have to wait for a table, her restaurant will no longer be their special secret. The word is out: Tofu Hut is for all of us, vegetarians and kalbi-cravers alike.
[4804 Pacific Ave. SE, Lacey, 360.456.TOFU (8638)]