Saturday, July 10, 2010

SD Mapo Tofu Findings - Part Two

I just had lunch, sampling the limited time Tatsunoya's tonkotsu at Mitsuwa Torrance. Hope to post about it tonight but man, that was some good stuff! Surprisingly no line at all.. Anyway, more on that later.

So this is a part two to my first SD Mapo Tofu post. I'll be first to say the information was never intended to be useful in anyway as it is more to be some entertainment for people that are nerdy about food like me. The intro in the first I felt did a good job at putting things in perspective so a quick copy/pasting to make my afternoon go a little easier..

"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'm 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 now that's out of the way.. First up is still one of my favorite executions in SD. The version at Dumpling Inn which they call Tofu with Spicy Meat Sauce ($8.95). Not surprisingly not the most authentic as DI doesn't specialize in Szechuan. It's somewhat of a hybrid without the use of the Ma la peppercorns, the umami and hot spice flavor is a bit one dimensional but for me it seems to have the best sweet spot balance of concentrated savoriness, a good amount of ground pork and a good level of heat that makes me crave that steamed rice (in a good way).

I'm going to try to stick mostly to the Mabo but this day I had a small Wonton Soup ($2.95). The wonton had a pleasant gingery meat filling. The soup was on the light side but nice. I also have had the popular potstickers a few times since and all were beautiful looking as ever but I felt there was less filling in them than in the past.. ?

Dumpling Inn, 4619 Convoy Street San Diego, CA 92111

Not in SD but I thought the Mabo at Chin Ma Ya (Little Tokyo) was relevant to put here for the sake of Japanese influenced Chuka variety goes. I can't remember the number of times I felt I was maybe a bit hard on the post where I would reread it only to leave it untouched.

The flavors seemed to be all there. It just had the consistency and quality of a Cook Do pouch. I think the phrase summed up best was that to me Chin Ma Ya is to Japanese Mabo as Curry House is to Japanese Curry. A decent rendition but nothing I would go out of my way for. I felt the price was right though and if there were a branch conveniently located near me I bet I'd visit them on occasion.

Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo (Weller Court 2F), 123 Astronaut Ellison S Onizuka St., Los Angeles, CA 90012

So I'm here to say not all versions made at Japanese restaurants are successful at satisifying my personal preference of mabo. The version at Chopstix is grossly sweet while Tajima's version which I believe is only available as a topping to their ramen is a complete afterthought. The version at Sakura had potential but...

..Just lacked that concentrated savory/spicy punch. Especially for a donburi which should be maxed for (what I call) rice craving potency. Wasn't bad, just not particularly interesting and I guess many people felt the same as the trial dish didn't stay long on the menu.

Although a little on the salty side I guess I could always pick one up at Nijiya. Since a savory bowl of mabo over rice is right up my alley in what would be a good lunch I do wish one day Sakura will give it another try with an overhauled Version 2.0. :)

Izakaya Sakura, 3904 Convoy St #121, San Diego, CA 92111

Then there were some Mabo that I found that were just too far off for my taste. The version at Maxim's Seafood Restaurant (Ma Pau To Fu - $7.99) had a very grainy texture from a ground spice that was unidentifiable to me while the flavors of Vietnamese nam pla fish sauce wasn't too hard to figure out.

After their Pho that I didn't enjoy as much as well this was strike two, but I still can't help feel I just haven't ordered the right dish from the place so I'm pretty sure to be back.

Maxim's Seafood Restaurant, 4616 El Cajon Blvd - Ste 1, San Diego, CA 92115

A block down, the version at Minh Ky Mi Gia faired a bit better for my personal taste. I can't seem to find it on their menu so they must have made this for me on request.

On top this photo must be at least a year old but I remember fairly enjoying it despite the base being a bit generic "brown saucey." Pretty straight forward in flavoring but it did have a decent amount of heat and ground pork to pass as a main dish which is one of my criterias for a good mabo..

Minh Ky Mi Gia, 4644 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

I visited LA China off Santo Road enough times over the years to probably do a dedicated post in all its lovely Americanized Chinese ways but here is their Ma Po Tofu Chung King Style ($8.95).

I should upload their menu now since their online site seems to have come down since. Anyway the flavor base seemed not too far from Minh Ky's in that brown sauce kind of way...

But I actually ended up also enjoying this as I would a stir-fry maybe with all the large (for a mabo) chopped onions, bell pepper and even button mushrooms. Wasn't very spicy either but I added some of the hot chili paste/oil.

LA China, 5910 Santo Road, San Diego, CA 92124

So I always wondered if the MPDF at Sam Woo BBQ - SD was different if ordered sit down as opposed to the version in the steam tray for take out. The take out version has my MBDF pet peeve - peas and cubed carrots while the flavor overall is also quite bland. Well one lunch hour I had set out for the question to be answered.

Similar but better. No peas and carrots and also (obviously) much fresher tasting. I also noticed the use of Zha cai chinese spicy/salty pickled mustard plant. But without much use of Touchi fermented beans or tenmenjan, and the chili paste is still bright and raw. I prefer it where the chili paste is braised well and charred with the oil and pork in the dish's early stage of cooking.

So long story better but ultimately still not quite to my taste. It was also a bit watery.
I got a plate of roast duck which was of pretty poor quality (at least this day).

Very chewy and boney, and my goodness the drippings were crazy salty. I really miss the roast duck at the Sam Woo in Alhambra.

Sam Woo BBQ Restaurant (SD - Inside 99 Ranch Market), 7330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd #103 San Diego, CA 92111

The MPDF at China Max was extremely similar to Sam Woo SD's with a predominant Zha cai ingredient but with much better concentrated flavor and I noticed the use of touchi beans. Ma Paw Bean Curd (with pork, $13.99).

Was a bit high it being dinner prices. With such close similarities to Sam Woo's version I'm wondering now if this is Hong Kong style?

China Max, 4698 Convoy Street, San Diego, CA 92111

Back to a more Szechuan rendition I really enjoyed the version at DeDe's a lot. Mapo Tofu ($7.50). Full menu here.

The numbing crushed Szechuan peppercorns were definitely there and it was quite authentically oily as well but not over the top.

Douchi and roasty chili flavors abound and the large leeks were also a nice touch. Great rice craving potency. :)

I don't know if the cold dish platter is usually free but the waitress seemed to be in a good mood this day. Or maybe she saw me taking photos haha. ;) I always try to be as discreet as possible though.

Bamboo shoots, chicken, seaweed, maybe even pig's ears from what I remember... Everything was spicy Ma la central but I thought these were just fantastic and a nice meal in itself, much like how Korean banchan can be.

I'll be honest and say I had a few duds here but overall I really enjoy the place and that B.O. smelling Cumin Lamb dish that Kirk got me into was great.. :) Dede's is another place that I owe a full post on.

DeDe's Tea Juice City, 4647 Convoy St, San Diego, CA 92111

The last which I had most recently was at Chin's Szechuan (Kearny Mesa). Full menu here. Szechwan Bean Curd (with seasoned pork, $10.95).

This was a puzzling execution because it seemed to have all the right ingredients.. It fell short in the savory department where I remember sprinkling salt occasionally and it also lacked that earthy fermented bean based umami. It was too bad because visually it looked pretty promising.

Was quite low on ground pork as well. The egg rolls I thought were not worth getting, it was a bit expensive for vegetable. The free beef broth based rice soup was interesting where it reminded me a bit of a home style French Onion (sans cheese of course). I'll definitely be visiting this Chin's again as there were many dishes on the menu that I wanted to try out in the future.

Chin's Szechwan, 4433 Convoy Street, San Diego, CA 92111

Hope you were at least mildly entertained, haha. If there isn't an ounce of useful information I at least enjoy looking at the photos of different MBDF styles out there. Well, until next time! ;)


K and S said...

mabo tofu palooza! what a great post :)

KirkK said...

You are surely a Ma Po lover..... still, I find what I make at home suits our tastes. Every place I've had it, even in China (other than the really good bean paste and numbing Sichuan peppercorns) fell short.

OkiHwn said...

Great post! To me the best I have had was at Helen's, a little restaurant on Kapahulu Ave in Honolulu, which is no more.

fliu said...

Oh man! That was awesome! I LOVE Mapo tofu.

Do you ever buy that mapo tofu packet from 99ranch? It's that instant mapo sauce and you just add fresh ground pork, tofu, and green onions...I swear it tastes just like homemade mapo tofu!

Anyhow, wonderful post. And i also agree that the roast duck from Sam Woo has been VERY disappointing lately.

Dennis K. said...

Haha, thanks K&S, glad you enjoyed it.. :)

Hi Kirk, I remember that post of yours! I've been too busy and haven't cooked in ages. My version has ample amounts of meat. Would never be mistaken as a vegetarian dish, ha.

Thanks OkiHwn! It was fun putting together. It'd be neat to see everyone's favorites!

Hi F, thanks! When I'm lazy I used to use a Marumiya brand which had the cornstarch in a separate packet. If you go all out scratch with mapo tofu though the difference is from pretty good to Amazing. :) Haven't had amazing mabo in a while... :(

Liz said...

So much mapo tofu!

Junichi said...

I was up in LA yesterday for the Mitsuwa food fair. I had Tatsu no ya last year and had to go back to get it again this year. It's so good. The tsuke men at Costa Mesa was ok. It was the first time I had ramen that way so I don't know it's supposed to be. Missed out on the Utsunomiya gyoza though. They were sold out by the time I got there. Must have been good.

Dennis K. said...

Hi Liz, and they all went in my belly! ;)

Hi Junichi! I totally agree on the tsukemen. It was the first for me too. Maybe I should've got the spicy red version. The gyoza samples were expensive and I was pretty full so didn't get to try them. Now that you mentioned though I'm sort of regretting a little... haha

Anonymous said...

I love these posts! My fav in San Diego is definitely Ba Ren. The Dede's version looks good too though. I'll need to try it next time. I haven't been to Dede's in a really long time. Time for a revisit.

Dennis K. said...

Hi Kirbie, I still can't comment on your blog! I don't know what the bug is.. Anyway I liked Ba Ren's a lot but it had a little to much oil and also the ma la peppercorns for my personal taste. Nice to have a few bites of but finish an entire dish. DeDe's have been a hit and miss with the dishes I've ordered. I need to do some more homework before heading back..

moowiesqrd said...

Ahhhh, one of my favorite comfort food dishes. Great review! My favorite is from Dede's, but I've done a decent rendition of my mother's version, too. Speaking of Dede's, totally agree on the cumin lamb... one of the best dishes there.

Dennis K. said...

Hi moowiesqrd, another mapo tofu fan!? Nice to hear. The last I went DeDe's was supposed to start a lunch special menu with individual portions. I should head back again soon. :)