While a huge fan of the Mabo Dofu, it wasn't until I left Japan that I realized there were as many or more variations of this Chinese Szechuan dish as there were maybe pronouncing and writing the word in English. For this post I'm going with the way I'm most familiar with "Ma Bo Do Fu" while admittedly I've been getting used to saying "Ma Po Dou Fu" in the last few years.
Since I am in no way an expert of this dish, as usual a quick Wiki search proved to be invaluable in understanding at least some of the reasoning behind the wide varieties. If I managed to spark some interest, you can read a more comprehensive post on this dish on Kirk's mmm-yoso blog. I find it a great resource not to mention fun reading.
So I guess I should start with Ba Ren's since it is probably the most authentic MBDF you can find in San Diego.
Before you even taste it, the aroma of the Szechuan peppercorns and hints of sesame oil from the Ra-Yu were fantastic.
The flavors were just as complex and great as it smelled. Though after half way through I could feel these said peppercorns kick in where my mouth was simultaneously numb and on fire. Not sure how this is even possible but so as good as it was, I have to say this almost proved to be too authentic for my personal taste.
While I had other great dishes here I think I'll save it for another post and be fine with being called a Mabo woos for the time being. "Please pass the ice water.."
Ba Ren Szechuan, 4957 Diane Ave, San Diego, CA 92117
As I mentioned in my most recent Sakura Lunch series post, my favorite Mabo Dofu to be had in San Diego so far is the one served at Dumpling Inn.
Where it may lack in aroma, the flavors were in high gear and nicely spicy (although maybe leaning a little on the Toubanjan side of spice and taste).
The concentrated flavors that made me crave large spoonfuls of rice (in a good way) easily made up for the perhaps less complex taste than Ba Ren's. Unlike most of the MBDF on this post, I have had Dumpling Inn's repeatedly.
I can't bring up Dumpling Inn without mentioning the great pan fried dumplings (potstickers) here. Always perfectly crispy on one side, they have a thicker chewy skin than usual with a good flavorful filling to match.
And while I'm at it, I should mention the Xiao Long Bao's are quite good here as well. Fyi, they also sell them frozen to-go if you want to steam them at home.
Dumpling Inn, 4619 Convoy Street #F San Diego, CA 92111
Spicy City's I may consider somewhere in between Ba Ren and Dumpling Inn's. It had a good aroma and very good level of spiciness and concentrated flavor.
If I remember correctly I think the standard MBDF here is without meat and so I had ordered it with ground pork. I had the opportunity to taste the vegetarian version (it was mistakenly served to me without but quickly corrected) and I have to say it was pretty tasty as well.
The Noble Chef's was interesting. As you may guess by the darker color, the sweet miso Tenmenjan was the more predominant flavor here.
If for whatever reason I have any inkling of doubt, I have learned to ask for my MBDF "Extra Spicy" to be on the safe side. And I was glad I had insisted on this because what was served was a borderline medium spicy. If this MBDF was any less spicy and any more sweet, I may not have enjoyed it at all.
I really love discovering little ideosyncrasies of privately owned restaurants. Like check out the cute way they serve the rice. :) Not to mention this place is always very tidy.
The Noble Chef, 6159 Balboa Ave, San Diego, CA 92117
The one I had as a lunch special at King's Garden in Solana Beach I debated whether to include in this post or not. Let's just say I had to ask for chopsticks. Their example of the MBDF although repeatedly asking for extra spicy was not spicy at all, watery and without a lot of flavor.
The Hot & Sour Soup wasn't bad though.
I'm not in any way ruling them out as a good place to lunch and dine when in the area. I've only been here once and as far as I know they are the only sit-down Chinese around the area. I also noticed a separate vegetarian menu that was quite extensive if you are into that.
King's Garden, 280 Lomas Santa Fe Dr, Solana Beach, CA
Hsu's Szechwan was another I debated in including only because they are no longer around.
Like many places only the dinner portion was available for lunch. Still if made to my liking I wouldn't have a problem finishing so I had asked again "Extra Spicy."
It again turned out only a medium for my standards and also a bit tame in flavors and a tad on the watery side. Still wasn't too bad and I was able to finish it without much trouble.
I've only had Sam Woo's take-out Mabo Dofu which had my MBDF pet peeve, Peas and Cubed Carrots. I don't remember it being much spicy either. If any of you know that it is better or different when ordered sit-down, please let me know.
168 Restaurant is located on the south main entrance of 99 Ranch Market (the opposite end to Sam Woo) and it was the most recent MBDF I've tried. I found the menu having a large Taiwanese Cuisine section that I'd like to come back and try some day.
If you zoom into the spoon photo below, you can see one of the many large garlic slices that made this dish a bit unique.
A little on the sweet side and I would've wished the flavors to be a bit more concentrated like Dumpling Inn's. Still I was able to taste the great flavors of the touchi (douchi) and it fared to be a nice dinner.
The potstickers were good as well, though what I really wanted to try were the Chive Potstickers which they were out of.
168 Restaurant, 7330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd, San Diego, CA 92111 (inside Ranch 99 Market)
What would I consider the best Mabo Dofu I ever had? Probably the one at a Schezuan restaurant in Shanghai many years back but that was before my meal photographing days not to mention having consumed way too much beer (it was free!) that evening to even try to start describing it.
So my next best which was still pretty darn fantastic was at a small place in Yokohama Chinatown. I'll update with the name when I find the chopsticks sleeve that I kept as a souvenir.
All the authentic Szechuan flavors were there while the spiciness (especially the use of Szechuan peppercorns) were dialed down just enough so to experience the dish without too much pain.
You would've never mistaken this for a vegetarian dish with the amount of Ground Pork. The depth of various bean type umami from tenmenjan and touchi, and several spicy flavors from the toubanjan and crushed peppers all were perfectly balanced (at least for Japanese my taste).
The Wakame Soup and even the Zha Cai pickles were great.
(Sorry these pics were before I discovered the Hi ISO function on my camera..)
Funny how the Wakame Soup is so ubiquitous to Chinese cuisine in Japan but I can't remember coming across a bowl anywhere else.
Now that I had a chance to absorb some of this material, I think my conclusion to what I personally find is a great Mabo Dofu is the kind that is not treated as a side but made substantial enough to be considered a main dish. The presence of a decent amount of ground meat, rich concentrated flavors and good level of heat.
So the best bet for me is to simply make it myself and in which on occasion I do. But even better is to have friends who would for you! ;)
The R.G.A. Mabo Dofu @ R.G.A. Mabo Dofu Night.
Although some complained too spicy, it was perfect for me.
I believe this was based on a Chin Kenichi recipe. A YouTube clip of an easy how-to that I will try translating some time here:
An awesome vintage Chinese vid of making Mapo Doufu I found on YouTube here, and a random but fun 30-sec. Mabo making vid here.
Happy Mabo Dofu eating!