Lighthouse Tofu is tucked in the first-floor corner of a two-story brick building, just off Columbia Pike in Annandale, that also houses several other businesses. There’s a parking lot that seems perpetually full and a sign on the door warning not to leave anything valuable in your car.
With that introduction, you are not sure what to expect until you enter a pleasant dining area that is much larger than it first appears. The tables and chairs are utilitarian but comfortable, and the pattern of Korean characters on the wallpaper begs for translation. The voices you hear are speaking what must be Korean, but the waitresses speak English and are ready to answer any and all questions about the food.
Glancing around, everyone seems to be enjoying the same dish — a bubbling hot tureen of soondubue jjigae, which translates as extra-soft tofu soup, and that’s what the waitress suggests. It is an excellent suggestion.
This is an amazing dish, and the perfect antidote for a dreary, drizzly winter day — and probably for any other time you can think of, as well. This is Lighthouse Tofu’s specialty, and, with its eight different versions and multiple spice levels, it dominates the short menu.
When a restaurant has a specialty dish and little else on the menu, you can be certain that dish is worth trying, and this one is, even if tofu is not your favorite. This is soft, silken, melt-in-the-mouth-fresh homemade tofu. The tofu swims in a multi-flavored soup with strong pepper overtones. You can pick your spice level, but medium seems about right, with enough spice to let you know it is there, but not enough to bring tears.
You also can choose what goes into your soup, which then becomes more like a stew. For newcomers, mushrooms are an easy, healthy and nourishing choice. Your other choices are seafood and beef, seafood, kimchi beef, oyster, beef and pork, vegetable, and soybean.
This feast is accompanied by the traditional Korean banchan, an array of small side dishes that includes pickled cucumber with chili paste, bean sprout salad and, of course, kimchi, and for this dish a fresh egg your server will crack and add to the soup/stew.
You can either mix the raw egg into the brew or let it poach gently in the hot soup The combination of gently poached yolk and broth is a singular taste experience — an unexpected and delightful surprise. The dish arrives hot, very hot, and it stays hot throughout the meal.
For hearty appetites, a tofu soup combination comes with Korean barbecue ribs, marinated and grilled not at the table but in the kitchen. These tasty pieces of meat quickly become finger food, defying the metal chopsticks, which also made sampling the banchan a bit tricky.
If you want to add on to your meal, you have a few other choices. One is a Korean-style pancake, either with seafood or with kimchi and pork. Be prepared, though, for these are huge. A small pancake is more than enough for two, while the large one easily serves three or more.
You do have a few other options, such as Korean bulgogi and spicy stir-fried squid with noodles, but why bother. The tofu soup is the star here and it is a worthy one.