Tofu gets a bad rap, typically written off as bland, unappetizing blocks of soy protein. But with all its craggy little nooks, it’s the ideal sponge to absorb flavors. And when properly fried, it takes on a whole new dimension, as with several renditions from Southeast Asian cultures that have mastered tofu to golden, savory perfection.
At the humble Siam Taste of Asia in Santa Ana, the star dish arrives on an oval platter, each perfect cube of deep-fried protein splashed with a garlicky soy sauce. The battered and crackly exterior gives way to a silky interior, and there’s an accompanying bowl of dipping sauce for irresistible bites of sweet and salty. Resist popping them into your mouth too quickly—they’re often piping hot.
For takeout tofu with a twist, New Hung Vuong in Westminster offers two flavorful and fragrant options—one studded with wood ear mushroom, onions, and garlic, and one embedded with minced lemongrass and chili. It’s just $1 for six pieces so you can mix and match. Leave the box slightly open so the tofu won’t be mushy by the time you get home. Dunk the pieces in soy sauce or nuoc cham, a dipping elixir with garlic, chili, lime, and fish sauce.
Although it’s renowned for its Chinese-style lobster and salt-and-pepper crab, Tan Cang Newport Seafood in Santa Ana serves a stellar simple fried tofu. After the cubes are fried, they’re wok-tossed with chopped green onions, cilantro, and fresh chilies. The kicker is the dipping sauce, with sliced jalapenos, for a bit of heat—make sure to ask for it. Enjoy this dish with steamed white rice and call it a meal.
Siam Taste of Asia
3520 W. First St. Santa Ana, 714-418-9678
New Hung Vuong
9098 Bolsa Ave. Westminster 714-622-4812
Tan Cang Newport Seafood
4411 W. First St., Santa Ana 714-531-5146 tancangnewportseafood.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue.