Who Took the *Stink* Out of Stinky Tofu??? Tofu King, Ding's Garden & Dong Ting Spring (Chun). Rowland Heights & San Gabriel, CA.
Who let the stink out?
Let's talk briefly about acquired tastes. These are foods that you need to get used to in order to appreciate. Edible things that grow on you. Or, foods your developing taste buds mature into enjoying. Stuff like black licorice, alcohol, hot peppers, pungent cheeses, coffee, caviar, olives, dark chocolate are all normally what people would consider foods of acquired taste.
Contrary to public opinion, stinky tofu is not an acquired taste. Stinky tofu is a sucker punch. It is a fully coordinated ground assault on your senses fortified by drone aircraft cover. It's flipping over the guy in a wheelchair at the middle of a busy intersection. Stinky tofu, this infamous, notorious, hell-bent, barely-edible abomination, tofu mutation, tofu from the Black Lagoon, festering for weeks, even months, in rotting vegetable and bio-decomposition soup, is anything but an acquired taste.
The odds are with the casino that if you've never had stinky tofu, you'll never enjoy stinky tofu. In fact, you'll probably reverse course as quickly as possible away from it. Stinky tofu has an odor and flavor so unrelentingly potent you'll likely be gasping for air while gagging simultaneously making it appear like you're choking on your food. This is because of the noxious fumes that are released upon puncturing the tofu with your teeth. These fumes are closer to a battering ram than aroma.
My concise description of stinky tofu back in a post I wrote in October 2004, almost 7 years ago, was that it tasted like a savory ammonia. I don't know of many people who would enjoy that particular flavor profile, even many Asians who've grown up around it find it challenging.
So, no, stinky tofu is not an acquired taste. There's something more sinister happening. It's more like Gastronomic Stockholm Syndrome. This is when you put something in your mouth that you know you shouldn't. Your body confirms the notion by reacting properly with gagging, tearing up, nose running, stomach turning, grimacing, pathetically whimpering. However, because the brain is a powerful thing, you can override your body's natural instinct to reject the item. Instead, you have the option to embrace it, by forcing yourself to appreciate exactly those characteristics that repulse you. It's an endurance challenge. A kind of self-mutilation of the palate.
Captives of stinky tofu: Me & Val of Trippy Food at Tofu King.
I grew to fall in love with my captors, er, I mean, my stinky tofu. And, like many stinky tofu enthusiasts, I enjoyed my stinky tofu as stinky as possible.
Star Lunch, a now defunct stinky tofu spot in San Francisco's Chinatown, served up stinky tofu so malodorous, the stink marked its territory for several blocks.
Made in Taiwan. Steamed Stinky Tofu with Broad Beans.
Of course, Taiwan's stinky tofu is world famous for its advanced degree of stinkiness. The version I ate on the island country sat in its own and other filth for so long, bacteria growth marbled on the tofu's surface which made it absolutely delicious.
Weapons of Mass Malodor!
Once in a while I get a strong craving for stinky tofu. Dear reader, I'm sure you can relate on those days when you really need the flavor of bad morning breath but times 1000. Yeah, that was me. So I headed to Rowland Heights where there are quite a few restaurants in the area serving stinky tofu. In fact, one called Tofu King specializes in the funky fermented blocks of soy.
Tofu King has a brine that has aged for weeks but probably not months. The Taiwanese Style Stinky Tofu on the menu is three large slabs of fried stinky tofu that have been scored to sponge up more of the beastly brine. The trio is accompanied by sweet, piquant pickled cabbage and a Chinese chili sauce.
Although full of flavor and respectable pungency, Tofu King's stinky tofu is not nearly as overpowering as the killer cubes served at Star Lunch nor has the depth of the ones in Taiwan.
The level of stank maybe manageable for a stinky tofu novice or those jonesing for a taste of overripe socks.
If you go looking for this stinky spot, know that everything on the storefront is written in Chinese. The only English you'll see are the words "Dynasty Plaza". Of course, you could be Stevie Wonder and still find the place with no problem so long as your nose works.
Tofu Terror from Taiwan. (iPhone photo)
Ding's Garden, also in Rowland Heights, offers a great variety of "small eats" and is a good place to experience "nose to tail" eating with items like Pig's Ear, Duck Tongue, Salted Duck's Neck, Pig's Feet, Duck's Head, gizzards, tripe and tendon to sate your whole beast appetite. Ding's noodles are some of the best I've eaten and made fresh from scratch daily in house.
There are two types of smelly tofu at Ding's, and they don't bother with euphemisms like many of the Taiwanese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. You can order Fried Stink Tofu or Steam Stink Tofu in Spicy Sauce. If you're extra hungry, go for the Fried Stink Tofu & Fried Pork Chop — it's the Taiwanese pork chops and apple sauce.
The fried stinky tofu at Ding's is very good, full of foul flavors with a pleasant pillowy crisp shell and soft airy innards. A spicy chili sauce and a sweet sauce come with the serving of these tofu nuggets. But, it's not especially stinky. Sure, it will horrify the first-timer, but any fanatics of the stinky stuff will find them wanting.
Stewed in own stink. (iPhone photo)
Again, Ding's steamed version is also quite good with a really flavorful spicy broth, but the beautiful bouquet of rot is missing. It's just not stinky enough to be truly stinky tofu.
Double whammy! Stinky & Gamey.
Over at the San Gabriel Square aka "The Great Mall of China" on Valley Blvd and Del Mar Ave, there's an exceptional Hunan restaurant called Dong Ting Spring (also goes by Dong Ting Chun) that seems quite proud of their selection of stinky tofu and cooks them up six ways including with intestines and pork blood, all served up in a wacky, gold foil receptacle atop a flaming Sterno.
Here, they don't use the term "stinky tofu", instead the not-so euphemistic phrase "Strong Odor Tofu" is preferred. Strong Odor Tofu and Spicy Intestine is a clever way to present stinky tofu that, perhaps, isn't as virile as the overseas variety. Fairly gamey beef tripe is used which very effectively enhances the pungency of the dish thereby making this fried stinky tofu stinkier without having to use an intense brine bath. Also, the liberal use of chiles in the spicy sauce as well as scattered onto the tofu make for even more intense flavors. Well played, Dong Ting Spring (or Chun)!!
Now it's pretty easy to figure out why the stinky tofu here in LA isn't as stinky as the ones abroad or other areas in the country. You can blame (or thank) the County of Los Angeles Health Department. They don't think the stink is in the interest of the general public's health and well-being. This was confirmed by the proprietors of Tofu King who used to be renown for extra stinky tofu just like the ones back in the old country.
Tofu King explained that the Health Department started cracking down on the amount of time the brine was kept fermenting. This resulted in a less mature brine and ultimately less flavorful and less putrid product.
So, is this a case of jack-booted food police kicking down kitchen doors and overstepping their authority? Or are they simply acting in the public interest? Is this cultural insensitivity or bureaucrats just keeping things under control?
Nobody is forcing anyone to eat stinky tofu (although the smell may violate your personal space). Is stinky tofu that much different than a musty Camembert? Would connoisseurs of rank cheese stand idly by while the authorities stripped the stench from their beloved Brie de Meaux or Stinking Bishop? I would hope not.
Stinky tofu could just be an easy target because its odor is telegraphed from a good distance. Also, it is strange and exotic to most diners. Many local stinky tofu loyalists seem resigned to the fact that stinky tofu in Los Angeles isn't as profoundly pungent as the stuff in Asia. But if they knew the reason why, maybe they'd demand the return of the reek.
I, for one, want the stink back in stinky tofu! Who's with me??!!
Tofu King (aka Dynasty Plaza)
18414 Colima Rd.
Rowland Heights, CA 91748
18922 Gale Ave.
Rowland Heights, CA 91748
Dong Ting Spring/Dong Ting Chun
140 W. Valley Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776