A Little Pine Tree sprouts downtown



Korean restaurant offers adventurous, savory dining, family recipes

Why: When Huisuk Chi married her military husband, Yong Chi, 20 years ago, she couldn’t have known that it would be the start of both a marriage and a culinary career. But as an Air Force wife, Chi who hails from Daegu, South Korea, found herself working in restaurants and in military chow halls. At home and for holidays, she whipped up traditional Korean fare, which her husband always lauded.

After her husband’s retirement from the U.S. Air Force seven years ago, the couple relocated to Vancouver, where they have friends. And a few weeks ago, they began a new life chapter by opening a restaurant, A Little Pine Tree, which features many of Chi’s family recipes. Korean fare dominates the menu, but the downtown Vancouver restaurant also offers burgers and chicken strips at lunchtime.

Atmosphere: Walk into A Little Pine Tree and you’ll notice the kitchen first, where you can see the chef at work beyond a low partition. High ceilings are accented with track lighting and rows of dangling lights, which drape like wild vines cascading from tree limbs. A stained concrete floor and sparse Asian décor give the restaurant an über-modern vibe, with cozy tables scattered around the open dining room.

What I tried: I opted for the bibimbap with beef while my dining companion tried the bulgogi, also with beef. Both dinner entrees come with a choice of soup or salad. I tried the dwen jang soup; my dining companion tried the clam chowder. An appetizer of dubu junk sik, a pan-fried tofu, started off the meal.

While we looked over the menu, we were served complimentary deep fried mushrooms. With whetted appetites, we tried the dubu jung sik, which is marinated and pan-fried tofu that’s drizzled with a peppery sauce. The appetizer was a flat point in an otherwise rich meal. While the sauce had a little kick, the tofu was largely flavorless and bland. It’s one part of the meal I’d skip next time.

The dwen jang soup was a rich and full-bodied miso-style soup, served with cabbage, green onion and tofu cubes. The clam chowder hit the rich and creamy mark with bits of clams.

The bibimbap arrived in a wagon wheel-style presentation, with a dome of rice at its center and spokes of beef, cucumbers, mushrooms, egg, carrots, bean sprouts and more fanning across the bowl-shaped plate. The trick, our server explained, is to drizzle the savory sauce across it all and then mix it up. The result: A blend of textures, temperatures and tastes.

The bulgogi was a saucy experience, served with sautéed slices of beef, broccoli, onion, carrots and more alongside twin domes of white and brown rice. My dining companion murmured an “mmm” while savoring the dish, which piqued my curiosity and netted a generous offer to try several bites. Something of a signature Korean dish, this is one dish that we both agreed is worth trying again.

At the dinner’s conclusion, we were both served a cup of hot cinnamon and ginger tea, topped with a trio of pine nuts. The cinnamon scent wafted over the cups’ brims and the ginger warmed the palate, adding a clean finishing note to an adventurous dining experience.

Other observations: While we were welcomed with friendly smiles, the service was spotty at times and attentive at others. The waitress patiently answered questions — and helped with Korean pronunciations that we stumbled through. And when our dinners were served, staff was quick to answer questions and help with serving suggestions. But other times, such as when we wished to pay and leave, we were left waiting.

Menu highlights beyond what I tried: Japchae, a dish of steamed sweet potato noodles, stir fried with mushrooms, green peppers, onions, carrots and beef.

Cost: Plan on $11 to $15 for a dinner entree and about $4 or $5 for an appetizer. Lunches run $7 to $9.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Contact: 360-597-4266.

Where: 585 W. Eighth St., Vancouver.

Health score: A Little Pine Tree passed its initial inspection, but has yet to receive an official score. Clark County Public Health closes restaurants that score 100 or higher. For information, call 360-397-8428.