Regulars and Shorts

Chef Profile: It’s Tofu Grill

By catalyst

Trust us: It’s not just tofu. New grill offers Korean delights.
by Emily Moroz

Tofu has been a traditional element in many types of East Asian cuisine for ages. Seasoned tofu-eaters celebrate the varieties and versatility of this natively bland food made from cultured soy milk. Skeptics distrust its stealth, its ability to masquerade as other foods. Belittled or bedazzled, interest in this bean product is blossoming. See for yourself at the new It’s Tofu Tofu Grill in Cottonwood Heights. These people know and love the stuff.

Co-owner Kevin Kim has a gentle demeanor, greeting diners with a warm smile, and it’s easy to feel welcomed by his restaurant’s simple, groomed interior. Variegated dark wood accents walls and comfy booths under soft lighting and clusters of plants. Kevin wanted his restaurant to express a refined touch, hospitality and gratifying service in a relaxed atmosphere, which are all part of enjoying a traditional Korean meal.

He and his co-chef (and wife) Elisa are proud of their selections made, where possible, with seasonal and local ingredients.chefprofile_tofu

If you’re unfamiliar with Korean cuisine, you won’t feel overwhelmed with options at It’s Tofu. Everyone usually has a few questions, and Kevin loves answering them. He says that apart from a too-spicy kimchi variety here and there, since opening three months ago he hasn’t heard anyone say they didn’t enjoy the meal.

Their most treasured tofu is a silken variety, special-ordered. With the consistency of light, creamy, flavorless pudding, the silky dollops look like egg whites or sour cream. In a savory broth, however, this tofu is something extraordinary.

Banchan is the Korean word for an array of small dishes eaten alongside main entrées. You may know of kimchi, a fermented cabbage and vegetable side dish and by far the most well-known banchan. Kevin and his chefs make all of their kimchi from scratch. In traditional Korean dining, shared dishes of kimchi are set in the middle of the table and diners help themselves; here, each diner enjoys four or five personal dishes.

Presentation is important. Most dishes come with delicate metal chopsticks, the exceptions being the soon dubu (hearty Korean tofu soup that arrives, boiling, in its own tiny cauldron and is eaten with a long-handled spoon) and jun (the giant Korean rice flour pancake with ginger soy sauce, eaten with your hands).

Despite the name, It’s Tofu specializes in variety: Chicken, pork, beef and seafood dishes share the easy-to-read menu. The spicy pork and chicken barbecue dishes, marinated and tenderized for several hours, are spectacular, served in a sizzling metal tureen that singes the wooden tray underneath as you spoon the succulent pork and onions onto your plate, surrounding your table with a primordial aroma of smoked wood. Bibimbap —”mixed food”—is a beautifully arranged knoll of vegetables (such as bean sprouts, mushrooms and spinach) and seasoned meat or tofu over rice, topped with an optional cooked egg. The hot stone bowls are coated with sesame oil before heating, turning the rice on the bottom golden brown and crispy.

Kevin and Elisa brought with them recipes from both sides of the family. Growing up on a ginseng farm in Gye-sung, South Korea, Kevin learned from his parents how to eat, appreciate and cook food according to the seasons. They’ve called Utah home for 18 years—they fell in love with the mountains while touring the West in 1992, and moved to Ogden three months later.

Kevin and Elisa have big plans for It’s Tofu. In the coming months, they’ll be nabbing the space next door and preparing it to rent for private parties. Kevin is also looking forward to serving Korean wines with a liquor license, starting a catering element and offering events and classes about traditional Korean cuisine.

The entrepreneurial couple plan to open four or more restaurants in Utah alone; look for locations in downtown Salt Lake and Park City in the coming year. Outside of the kitchen, Kevin and his wife enjoy being outdoors hiking, skiing and camping. And cooking? “Absolutely.” Kevin adds with a smile, “For us, food is our life and passion.” Stop by sometime and dare yourself to rethink tofu.

It’s Tofu Tofu Grill
6949 S 1300 E, Cottonwood Heights.
M-Sat 11a-9:30p.

This article was originally published on January 29, 2010.