Tofu gets no respect. Its reputation as a “meat substitute” precedes it. Bad tofu— and that’s most of the stuff you can buy— isn’t just boring, it’s bad. Really bad. Good tofu, on the other hand, is glorious.
A tofu craftsman (artisanal or industrial) makes the product by curdling soy milk—much as cheese is made by curdling animal milk. The craftsman makes soy milk by soaking, grinding, boiling and straining dried soybeans, before adding a coagulant (acid or salt) to separate solids from liquids, and pressing the curds in a forming block. The result is tofu. As with cheese, though, the quality of the milk and care with which tofu is made can yield vastly different products, ranging from the splendid to supermarket-grade mediocrity.
That is why Dao Fu (3332 Adams Ave.) in Normal Heights can change the way you see tofu. Terms like “house-made” and “hand-crafted” get thrown around a lot, but at their best they connote care, craftsmanship and an unwillingness to settle for less than the best ingredients. That is precisely chef-owner Eric Tao’s relationship with his tofu.
The gratis salad of tofu with beet and raspberry vinaigrette seemed generous but less than promising. Looks can be deceiving. The tofu glistened, and in that moment I realized it was completely different from any I’d tasted before. There were hints of beans, nuts and bread fresh out of the oven, and even a bit of sweetness. Nevermind the perfectly fresh greens or surprisingly well-balanced dressing; the tofu was the undisputed, brilliant star of the dish.
Dao Fu bills itself as offering “Vietnamese & Japanese Cuisine” (in awkwardly-plated, enormous portions), though Tao’s affinity for spice suggests otherwise. A five on a scale of one to 10 was more than enough for this spice lover. Chinese and broader Southeast Asian influences seem as prominent as those of Vietnam or Japan.
The sweet-savory-sour-bitter flavor of the spice blend in the five-spiced bean curd and pepper stirfry, for example, gave the dish a pronounced Chinese character. As good as the noodles were, the vegetables were even better. Perfectly cooked zucchini maintains its texture, as does baby bok choy, with a pleasing hit of bitterness. But once again that tofu was the star.
The story with the stuffed tofu, eggplant and pepper was similar. Two vegetables and that tofu were stuffed with fish paste, sautéed and arrayed around a cube of rice laced with garlic chips before being doused with too much sauce. It looked awkward and tasted like a Chinese-Thai cross, and it’s hard to work up much angst over the appearance.
The same might be said for the lily bulb with asparagus and oyster mushroom. It was a dish that ought to have been all about the perfectly cooked vegetables. Asparagus spears prepared whole and al dente are not exactly common in Asian cuisine. But, once again, it was the tofu, fried this time, that stole the show.
Dao Fu also offers meat dishes, but that raises a question I’d never thought to ask: Why? With tofu this good, it’s the meat that seems like a mistake.