Spicy Stinky Tofu Test

Seeking a bean curd adventure? You found it -- but leave the vegetarians at home.

I made the mistake of thinking China Tofu was a good place to take vegans.

When I first walked by the bright, clean restaurant, which is located in a Union City strip mall devoted to Asian restaurants, I spied a case of soy milk and fake meat products at the back and decided to come back with a few vegetarian and vegan friends. But when we sat down with our menus, all we found was tofu with seafood. Tofu with beef. Tofu with pork. “What do you have without meat?” I asked the waitress, who didn’t speak much English.

She pointed to a few dishes like ma po tofu. “Doesn’t that have pork in it?” I asked.

“Oh. No meat,” she said.

Quick change of strategy.

Here’s the story: China Tofu’s owners, the three brothers Ling, have run a Hayward tofu factory since 1990 (see Kitchen Sink). About two years ago, they decided to open a restaurant featuring their many, many soy foods. Sonny Ling now runs the restaurant, which specializes in inexpensive, home-style Chinese. But I learned all this after finishing my first meal there.

Among the thirty or so tofu dishes on the extensive menu are a number of vegetarian versions, and the ones we chose covered quite a spectrum. I found myself missing the chopped pork in the meatless ma po tofu we convinced the kitchen to cook for us. The vermilion sauce on the wiggly cubes of silken tofu just tasted like chile paste and garlic. But the short, chewy batons of bean curd in the “bean curd strips with green bean” soaked up their salty, earthy soy-sauce coating, tasting meaty without losing their natural beany flavor — contrary to popular belief, freshly made tofu does have a flavor, albeit a mild vegetal one. And the “preserved vegetable with bean and bean curd” contained something I’d never seen before: fat tofu noodles, lightly stir-fried with green soybeans and an herbaceous-tasting, shredded leafy green. Those three, along with a platter of crunchy, garlicky pea shoots — which, by the way, I would have preferred with a dollop of nutty sesame oil to round out their flavor — and the meatless among us had enough to stuff themselves.

We omnivores started off with a bowl of free, but lackluster, hot-and-sour soup. I wasn’t impressed at all with the gooey wrapping on our pot stickers, or with the underseasoned filling. But my friend Allen and I kept gnawing the tender, battered meat off our salt-and-pepper short ribs.

The servers at China Tofu are out to have a good time. We could hear laughter from the kitchen throughout our meal, and the women got friskier with us as the night went on. They pulled T aside on his way to the bathroom. “Hey, how old do you think she is?” one said, pointing to another. He guessed. Apparently he was just a pawn in a drinking game, and he won — so their boss had to buy them all a round. They served us paper cups of sweetened soy milk to celebrate.

Still, I wondered what the restaurant’s specialty was if it wasn’t meatless meals. I asked a waitress who spoke a little more English what kind of Chinese food the restaurant specialized in. “Beijing style? Cantonese? Shanghai-nese?”

“Taiwanese,” she replied, and explained the restaurant’s origins. Then she brought over a copy of the take-out menu and circled a bunch of the house specialties. That menu proved to be a valuable map to China Tofu’s best dishes. Most, of course, included meat. I had to uninvite a few vegetarians I’d already asked to come back with me for visit number two and instead call up a couple of adventurous, flesh-eating friends.

“Hey! I remember you!” our server said when the three of us walked in a week later. (It’s hard not to stand out when you’re the only group of non-Asians in a place where everyone’s speaking Mandarin.)

The woman who’d circled dishes on my menu also stopped by. “Are you going to order the house special chicken this time?” she asked. Two other waitresses, passing by, seconded her — apparently it was the dish to order.

So we ordered the chicken, along with too many entrées from my preselected list (we had to pass up the fried calamari with pepper, seafood with tofu clay pot, and “basil sweet with tofu”). Then, for the Kauffman-tests-his-gag-reflex segment of this review, I had to argue with the waitress for an order of spicy stinky tofu.

The stinky tofu, of course, is why I had to bring adventurous friends. A famous Taiwanese specialty, it marinates for a couple of hours in a brine of vegetables and dried shrimp that has been fermenting for six months. And China Tofu’s mostly Taiwanese clientele loves it. On my first visit, we sniffed something hellacious wafting over from the table on the left, then from the one on the right. “It smells like baby poo,” T said, covering his nose with his shirt. The odor was sharply foul, not the mellow funk of Camembert or the deep, rich stench of durian.

Sure enough, the reek arrived first, followed by a plate of deep-fried squares of innocuous-looking but fragrant tofu drizzled with black vinegar, with chopped black beans and kimchi sprinkled over the top. You know what? Once we maneuvered the stuff into our mouths, the insides tasted mild and custardy (the brine produces its unique texture). A little challenging, but nothing like a raw-milk Livarot cheese. Any effort was worth it just to see the waitress’ face when she cleared away the empty plate.

Tofu, tofu, and more tofu. For our efforts, our server brought us a cold plate of another kind of tofu noodles, this variety skinny and long, marinated just with a little salt, red bell peppers, and scallions, so the noodles picked up a faint flavor of bell pepper. Then, with our meal, we devoured the Hunan tofu, big blocks of medium-firm tofu sautéed with leeks and bamboo shoots in a robust “pesto” of chopped garlic, ginger, fermented black beans, and chiles.

Instead of rice, we ate our entrées over noodles with pork and preserved cabbage, ladling chewy, irregular, house-made wheat noodles, pearl-pink strips of lean pork, and chicken stock into rice bowls. The intensely green flavor of the leafy preserved cabbage (mustard greens) predominated.

Sizzling beef arrived at the table covered in a paper napkin to keep oil from spitting all over us. Once it cooled down, we cleared the cast-iron platter of silky beef stir-fried with green peppers and onions in a meaty soy-based sauce.

Our servers were right — the house special chicken was the dish to order. Chopped chunks of dark meat — watch out for small shards of bone — are braised in a dark, sweet caramel sauce. There’s almost as much sliced ginger and garlic in the pot as there is chicken, and it all turns into candy by the time it’s cooked. Just before sending the pot off to the table, the cook tosses in a handful of Thai basil, and its flowery, anise-like flavor intensifies the longer the dish sits. I’ve eaten the dish at other Taiwanese restaurants, and China Tofu’s version beats them all.

So did the price. Five dishes, free soup, and tip? Thirty-five dollars. I ordered another round of soy milk to celebrate.

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