It kicks milk and honey's ass.
Mapo dofu (or doufu if you're running a vowel surplus; 麻婆豆腐) is a flagship food of Sichuan cuisine. We were eager to hunt it down on its own turf. The MD is a spicy amalgam of tofu, ground meat, chili oil, and bean paste, among other variable ingredients.
Named after a disfigured old crone with a skin problem (possibly one scarred from leprosy) its etymological roots aren't doing the dish any favors. Luckily, it doesn't need a lot of help in the delicious department.
Usually I do this topless.
The word on the street is that mapo dofu was conceived and first assembled right here in Chengdu. (Hey, we're in Chengdu!) Tons of places have it on the menu but be forewarned, the execution quality and the flavor profiles vary widely. When it's good though, man is it ever good. Let's visit two of our favorites.
This place barely even looks Chinese.
First we checked out the amply named Chen's Mapo Bean Curd Restaurant. Chen's actually holds the most legit claim to authenticity, supposedly tracing their recipe's provenance back to the pock-marked old bitty herself.
My first surprise of the meal was that this most traditional version is made with beef. In the US it's made almost exclusively with pork and I always assumed that was part of the canon. Whoops.
Chen's is up front about their ingredients,
Even putting out a helpful display.
They use soft tofu, fermented black bean paste, chili bean paste, suanmiao (a local leek-like green), ground beef cooked until some of the bits are crispy, dried chili flake, salt, black pepper, garlic, and one metric shit-ton of Sichuan peppercorn, otherwise known as huajiao. This was the second surprise.
Sichuan chefs are masters of ma and la. Used to describe spice, ma is the numbing one and la is the mouth burny one. Chen's mapo dofu is 2 parts ma to one part la. It actually wasn't near as hot as I had been led to believe.
This is an advanced dish, not one you just spoon idly into your mouth. The flavors are aggressive, dynamic and demand your attention: an earthy funk from the bean paste, a grassy onion note from the suanmiao, the nose tickling chili, the oily richness, the floral lidocaine action of the huajiao, all wrapped around gobs of silky bean curd. Don't let your attention wander or they might gang up on you.
Chen's other food is not too shabby either. Their gong boa (kung pao! 宫保鸡丁) chicken is great; much sweeter and with a higher peanut to chicken ratio than I've seen before. A nice break from the intense tofu.
Their zhong's dumplings put the ones I've had back home to shame; thick chewy skins and moist pork swimming in a tangy sweet chili sauce.
But back to tofu.
Our contrasting version was provided by the much more casual, diner-style restaurant of Tiantian Kao Ya.
TTKY's tofu differed from Chen's in multiple areas. First, they used pork instead of beef, giving the dish a more familiar flavor. They also went with a firmer curd that held its shape a little better as you attacked it with the spoon.
This incarnation was also more fiery and less numbing, adding a pounded green chili paste to the dried red flakes and cutting down on the Sichuan peppercorns.
Tiantian Kao Ya's interior.
The most enjoyable difference was Tiantian's bean paste. They use a quite pungent one that's slightly creamy and has some overtones of blue cheese. It really added depth and helped to round everything out.
We also munched on a pickley wood ear mushroom salad that was a fine palette refresher
and sao qiezi (烧茄子), a chilled salt and vinegar roasted eggplant and pepper dish that was just plain scrumptious.
If you're looking for a winner in the Mapo Dofu Smackdown, you're asking the wrong guy. Both places bring their A game and churn out serious flavor. You'll just have to trot your fine buns over to Chengdu and make the call for yourself.
Chen's Mapo Bean Curd Restaurant(Original Location)
Address: 197 Xiyulong St. (near tourist sight Du Fu's Thatched Cottage)
Tiantian Kao Ya (no english menu)
Address: 17 Yulin East St.