Let's get it out of the way. Stinky tofu is, for many, an acquired taste. It's simply outside of the food comfort zone of westerners. We'll admit the smell can be off putting to the uninitiated, but its bark is much worse than its bite. And really, what's the difference between stinky tofu and very smelly French cheeses?
Chou dofu, literally stinky tofu in Chinese, is a popular snack and street food item, particularly in Taiwan, where it is somewhat of a national dish. While stinky tofu can be served grilled, steamed, or in hot pots, the most common preparation is deep fried, then served alongside pickled vegetables (primarily cabbage) with soy-garlic and chili sauces for dipping.
In the San Gabriel Valley, stinky tofu can be found at Hunanese restaurants and most Taiwanese diners, cafés and sports bars, where it appears on menus under sobriquets such as stench tofu, strong odour tofu and special tofu. While there's much to be said for SGV versions, ranging from the fluffy cream puff like pillows at Ay Chung to that served at Old Country Café with an unsurpassed chili sauce, for this week's food fight we'll focus on a couple of old school stinky tofu spots, Tofu King and Lee's Garden.
The first stop is in Rowland Heights. Situated in a corner of Dynasty Plaza, and featuring no English signage, Tofu King would be difficult to locate were it not for one thing: the aroma. The scent of chou dofu wafting across the parking lot means you only to have to follow your nose to find the tiny, brightly colored stall. On the menu as Taiwan-style stinky tofu, it arrives as three large, scored squares in a cardboard container. After all, this is a food court, folks. Fried to a nice, golden hue, the tofu delivers a nice crunch, but is only moderately stinky. It is also a bit on the salty side, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The lighty spicy pickled cabbage and dipping sauces are solid, if unspectacular. Overall, very good.
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Our next stop is in Alhambra, and another small, difficult to find place. Lee's Garden is located in a mini-mall behind a Starbucks and a gas station, and has been serving Taiwanese comfort food since 1984. On the wall are mounted dry erase boards that serve as the menu, where you will find it listed as fried odor bean curd. The cubes have a crisp, crunchy exterior, a soft, creamy interior, and in the strongest batches are reminiscent of a good bleu cheese. The accompanying pickled cabbage is on the sweeter side of the tart-sweet equation, which is not a bad thing, but might not be exactly what you're looking for. Those are incidental though, as the star here is the stinky tofu. Recent visits have found the tofu not as strong as in the past, but this matters little. If one is craving stinky tofu, it's hard to go wrong with Lee's Garden.
In the end, the fight goes to the west side of the SGV with Lee's coming out the winner, though Tofu King still ranks the best in Rowland Heights. Neither of these are recommended for stinky tofu beginners, who would be better served trying the versions at either Ay Chung or The Indian Theme Restaurant.
Tofu King: 18414 Colima Rd., Rowland Heights; (626) 964-6250.
Lee's Garden: 1428 S. Atlantic Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 284-0320.