Growing up, I remember the prevailing opinion that tofu was not a desirable food. To the average person, tofu was a mere meat substitute, something to be manipulated, molded and seasoned so as to resemble a hot dog, a turkey or a hamburger. The idea that there could be food out there that included both meat and tofu seemed absurd, like pouring equal amounts of Splenda and sugar into your coffee. But tofu is not just a meat replacement, as China, Korea and Japan have proven countless times, and it can be quite tasty alongside some dead animal parts. Mabo tofu (or mapo doufu, or any of the myriad alternate spellings) is one such delightful dish. Soft, silken tofu, simmered with either ground beef or pork and Chinese black beans, in a spicy, oily sauce. It is a traditionally Szechuan dish, though a version of it has become very popular in Japan. Today, we compare both the Japanese and Szechuan takes, with the Chinese from Chung King in San Gabriel Valley and the Japanese from Foo Foo Tei in Hacienda Heights.
At Chung King, the mabo is an exercise is technical proficiency. The tofu is delicate, splitting in two as chopsticks attempt to grab hold. The ground beef is almost liquefied in the bright red broth, dispersing its fat into the environs. It is spicy, but a complex, dry heat, like T.E. Lawrence trekking through the Nefud dessert. The loose, fatty broth is loaded with layered flavors, and should be poured over rice, or consumed directly so as not to be lost.
But if Chung King's mabo is a desert, then the version at Foo Foo Tei (where they also make some of the best and most interesting ramen in Los Angeles, including a mabo ramen) is like a dark and heavily shaded forest. There are hints of red, but it has mostly been muted and infiltrated by darker, heartier tones. The black tochi beans have a much stronger presence, especially alongside the ground pork, making it feel closer to the earth. It is less flashy, like something a farmer might make for dinner, but also deeply satisfying. It is interesting, ultimately, to use a dish like this as a conversation between two cultures. Two dishes, one based on the other, but both still representative of themselves.
As for a winner? I'd be less likely to desire a bowl of Chung King's mabo for a lunch all to myself, while I'd be more than happy to do so with Foo Foo Tei's. But Chinese food, as we all know, is generally best eaten with a large group, many dishes and lots of things to try. Under that circumstance, Chung King is the clear victor, and at the end of the day, the version I'm more likely to accidentally discover myself daydreaming about.
Note: Do not confuse the Foo Foo Tei in Hacienda Heights with the one in Monterey Park. The one in Monterey Park is in no way related to the original.
Chung King, 1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 286-0298., Foo Foo Tei, 15018 Clark Ave, Hacienda Heights, (626) 937-6585.
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