Hee Sook Lee, who founded the popular BCD Tofu House chain of restaurants, has died at the age of 61, as reported by the Koreatown Youth and Community Center’s (KYCC) Facebook page. Lee founded BCD Tofu House in LA’s Koreatown in 1996, growing the silken tofu stew restaurant into a 13-location chain across Southern California and even into Texas, New Jersey, and New York City. In the past, BCD expanded into Seattle, Tokyo, and Seoul, though those locations are no longer open. Lee partnered with the KYCC to provide meals to low-income seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Korean-Americans fell in love with soontubu jjigae, or silken tofu stew, thanks largely to BCD, which was one of many soontubu specialists to open in LA during the 90s including Beverly Soon Tofu, So Kong Dong, and Tofu Village. The dish was traditionally seen as a quick business lunch, but not quite reason to open as a main attraction of a restaurant menu. But BCD reached a greater audience thanks to its namesake dish, as well as its prime locations in Koreatown along Western Avenue and eventually into a grand Wilshire Boulevard space. The restaurant’s 24/7 hours was the perfect landing spot for late night revelers and night owls looking for a hearty Korean meal for a reasonable price.
Lee named BCD after a district in Seoul called Buk Chang Dong where her in-laws previously owned a restaurant. Many Korean restaurants choose to specialize in one dish, such as suhllungtang (beef bone broth soup) or naengmyeon (cold Korean beef noodle soup). Lee used soontubu, a dish that wasn’t particularly popular or highly regarded in Korea, as a staple that many non-Koreans came to associate with the cuisine. She also adapted BCD’s menu to include a variety of non-traditional combinations such as soybean paste, intestines, dumplings, and vegetables to appeal to a larger customer base.
In 1998, soontubu was popular enough in the U.S. that Lee opened branches of BCD in Seoul, Seattle, and Tokyo. The LA Times wrote that Lee achieved minor celebrity status in Korea for her influence in spreading the gospel of Korean food. “I consider myself a diplomat of sorts, making Korean food known to the world,” Lee said. At the time of her Times profile in 2008, Lee said BCD was making $19 million a year and employed more than 300 people.
According to L.A. Taco writer Lisa Kwon, Lee emigrated to the U.S. in 1989 to secure a “fulfilling education” for her two sons. She studied design at Santa Monica College and the Gemological Institute of America before decided to stay in America and open a restaurant. It took a year to experiment with soontubu jjigae before settling on the recipe that would change Korean food in America forever. Lee was also involved with the Global Children Foundation, which provided relief in such countries as Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Cambodia.
Thanks to Lee’s work, Korean cuisine grew in popularity across the country. Her restaurant’s business model was endlessly imitated by other restaurateurs in communities across the U.S., such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Dallas, bringing the flavors of soontubu, kimchi, bulgogi, and pan-fried fish to hungry diners everywhere. Her impact and influence will continue to be felt by generations looking for an affordable, delicious Korean meal, laid out with banchan and a steaming bowl of stone-pot rice.
In a 2013 interview with Lee, which is posted below, the BCD founder said, “In the future, as Koreatown food culture grows, I think that culture will extend to areas where Koreans do not live.” This was indicative of BCD’s growth not only in Koreatown, but also suburban areas like Irvine, Torrance, and Rowland Heights, where the chain has opened outlets. For Lee, the ultimate validation was for people visiting her restaurants from other countries, such as Brazil, Chile, or Japan, to make BCD their one Korean meal. “When customers say the food is delicious, it makes me truly happy.”