Ann Lee wanted to buy a farm. Instead, she built one in her garage.
Lee, a Northwest Portland bookkeeper and home cook, moved to Oregon with her family from the Bay Area a decade ago, infatuated with Oregon’s lush forests and rain. She wanted to start a farm, maybe opening a nearby restaurant where she could host her friends and family serving vegetables she grew herself. But after balking at the land prices around the state, she started looking into another option: Hydroponics.
The word hydroponics refers to systems that allow produce to grow without soil, instead using mineral-rich liquids to keep the plants alive. Hydroponics have become increasingly popular in recent years, considering the growing environmental impacts of climate change: hydroponics allow plants to grow indoors or in areas without fertile soil, which could become a necessity if things don’t change dramatically soon. Lee’s son, Jeremiah Son, was home from college during the pandemic, and joined her in the garage to research and experiment with various hydroponic systems.
First, they started making ssam with garage-grown lettuce and used vegetables they grew for bibimbap. After a while, they were growing enough produce to have a surplus. So, Lee and Son opened their restaurant, the Soop, on West Burnside as a way to expand the idea of a farm-to-table restaurant in a modern, urban space.
The Soop — which translates to “forest” in Korean — straddles the line between a casual lunch cafe and a Korean restaurant: The shop has a menu of sorrel salads and ham and cheese sandwiches with alfalfa, as well as kimbap rolled with microgreens and bibimbap topped with sunflower sprouts. Along the wall of the seating area, trays of various sprouts are lit with colored lights: Light green sunflower sprouts bathed in yellow light sit above a magenta-tinted tangle of speckled peas, all growing out of a shallow layer of clay pebbles. The pebbles help both to support and aerate the root systems of the plants. Tomato vines grow up a wooden frame with small yellow flowers; as she passes them, Ann Lee looks at them with a frown. “I can’t seem to get them to fruit,” she says. “We’re still in the stage of seeing what works here,” her son adds.
Toward the back of the restaurant is a glass room that serves as the restaurant’s mini-farm, which also passes for a laboratory. Scientists have developed a number of different hydroponic systems, and Lee and Son are using a variety for their restaurant: Buckets filled with tomato plants almost resemble planters, but actually serve as a deep water culture system, in which the plants sit in a tub of a mineral solution. A large white plastic frame supports lines of lettuce plants, utilizing a circulating system known as nutrient film technique. And stacks of black trays are dotted with tiny seedlings, which grow in a contained nutrient mist used in aeroponics.
The plants grown here become ingredients used in many of the restaurant’s menu items: The lettuces are used for salads and sandwiches, like the Soop’s BLT. The shop’s various sprouts and microgreens end up in almost all of the dishes, including the seaweed-wrapped kimbap, the bulgogi-topped bibimbap, and even the restaurant’s nachos. “Radish sprouts, beet sprouts, people think they’re not going to be much, but they’re so flavorful,” she says. “I love introducing microgreens to people who don’t know much about them.”
The shop’s beverage menu is similarly scientific, with a large cold drip tower standing next to a row of glass coffee siphons. On the other side of the counter, a gleaming espresso maker handles espresso and cappuccinos. And for something stronger, the back cooler is filled with soju, sake, and makgeolli.
As for the future, Lee and Son hope to expand both the menu and the farming operation within the restaurant. Lee isn’t growing her own cabbage yet, but she does make the kimchi for the restaurant, an adapted version of her mother’s recipe. The shop’s bibmbap comes with a house-made gochujang, which Lee plans to offer in an optional sizzling stone bowl (dolsot bibimbap). She wants to add things like crispy fried green onion and kimchi jeon, marinated and grilled galbi ssam served with the Soop’s own lettuces, and mandu (dumplings) filled with vegetables grown onsite. “I’d like to expand the menu, expand what we grow and our understanding of what we can and can’t do,” she says. “Between the farming and the cooking, we’re working all the time ... it’s been very hard to hire. I want to do more with the customers, educate them.”
Her son will return to college in the fall, but he hopes to see the business continue to grow and explore the concept of a farm-to-table restaurant in other ways. “We have this vision, this new farm-to-table concept, working with other farmers, sourcing meat from Oregon farms,” Son says. “Us starting small has been an adventure, but we want to get out there, staying true to our roots.”
The Soop is open for indoor and outdoor dining, as well as takeout, at 1902 West Burnside Street.
• The Soop [Official]