Dueling Dishes: Battle Ma Po Tofu

Categories: Dueling Dishes
Edwin Goei
Legend has it that ma po tofu is named after its creator, a woman with pockmarks on her face who first popularized the dish in China's Sichuan province. You see, ma po loosely translates to "pock-marked woman", as I'm sure our resident translator and multi-linguist Dave Lieberman will confirm.

As it is from Sichuan, it's characteristically spicy. The silken presence of tofu is a constant, but these days, as the dish continues to proliferate, you're liable to see variations that subtract the chopped meat and add vegetables like peas and carrots. No matter the interpretation, it's perfect fodder for slopping onto a bowl of hot rice--one of those soul-warming meals your body seems to crave during cold winter days like these.

Usually, I eat my ma po tofu prepared at home starting from one of these boxes (see above). It's the Asian equivalent of Hamburger Helper with the same objective: supper ready in less than 10 minutes. I often put in more ground pork than the directions suggest and a bit more chili paste into it to suit my taste (I get the Medium-Hot box as a baseline so that those eating the dish with me can portion out theirs without complaining that their mouth is on fire).

Using the boxed stuff as a very low benchmark, our Dueling Dishes today pits two Irvine Chinese carry-out joints, Sam Woo on Culver and Capital Seafood in Diamond Jamboree, and their version of ma po tofu.

Edwin Goei
Sam Woo's Ma Po

First, the commonalities. Service is usually brusque and no-nonsense at both establishments. Their aim is to move you down the line so you can pay and get the hell out.

At Sam Woo, a surly man--whose primary duty is to hack pieces of roast duck and pig to bite-size on a wooden chopping block--seemed to be in a daze when he asked what I wanted. "Two item combo," I said, "White rice, double ma po tofu". With a zombie-like lack of enthusiasm he went through the motions of mounding the food into the Styrofoam, ladling the ma po tofu generously, scoop after scoop, until it topped off and he could mound no more.

I experienced the same generous pours at Capital Seafood, though the gent working there seemed also tired and worn out, he was slightly more upbeat.

Another thing Sam Woo and Capital Seafood has in common is that both ma po's do not contain meat.

Sam Woo's tofu was, however, more silken. And the shiitake mushrooms in it trumped the canned button ones Capital chose to use. Though I liked the snap of the carrots and peas in Capital's dish, Sam Woo's accented theirs with a faintly sour pickled vegetable. Sam Woo's sauce was also tangier, spicier, more lip-numbing, helped by actual pieces of sliced chilies. Capital's seemed muted by comparison, and the rice was dangerously close to stale, while Sam Woo's rice was fresher (understandable, since Sam Woo gets more customers, thus more turnover).

Edwin Goei
Capital Seafood's Ma Po

Each combo meal came with a container of soup. Here Capital Seafood triumphed. Their hot and sour smacked of flavor, piercingly hot and properly sour. Sam Woo's seemed watered-down.

The victor of Battle Ma Po, I would have to say, is Sam Woo. The price is more than a buck cheaper ($5.17, after tax, compared to Capital's $6.47, after tax) and when it comes to the dish, the spicier and the silkier it is, the better. But is it better than the box? Not really. Controlling the meat content, that is, adding lots of it, really brings a lot of flavor and texture that the take-out "vegetarian" versions can't match. And what's better than that? Making your own, from scratch, with chili bean paste. That's a completely separate post.

Sam Woo, 15333 Culver Dr. Suite 720, Irvine, (949) 262-0888.
Capital Seafood, 2700 Alton Pkwy # 127, Irvine, (949) 252-8188.

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