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Jan 28, 2009 01:20 PM

Vege Nian Gao at Sogo Tofu in San Jose

If you’ve been reading along the posts for Bund Shanghai and China Village, you’ve picked up on the tradition of chowing on nian gao (e.g., Shanghainese new year’s rice cakes) in celebrating the lunar new year. The bias-cut chewy discs are typically stir-fried with strips of pork and some chopped greens. Another tradition is vegetarian eating on the first day of the year to respect living things and ensure good karma. On Monday, the first day of the Year of the Ox, I combined the two by picking up some nian gao to-go at vegetarian/organic food purveyor, Sogo Tofu. Sogo is the “ancestor” of Hodo Soy, run by the kids, and hews to more traditional Chinese recipes versus the contemporary and more Western-leaning flavors of Hodo.

Sogo Tofu offers a bountiful steam table selection from more than a dozen trays stacked double-decker for its bento box with a choice of three items plus steamed rice, brown rice, or spicy rice vermicelli. I’ve posted before about the generous serving size, now priced at $6.99. Again, the box was filled to near exploding piled up above the box seam and as always losing some of its juices into the plastic bag for carrying it away, so be careful. It was plenty to serve two of us for dinner and then some. I picked brown rice, the five-spice scented folded bean curd skin, spicy eggplant with dried tofu skin, and the nian gao.

The nian gao prep included slivers of black mushroom, tiny strips of porcine-looking mock meat, and chopped up pieces of fresh Shanghai cabbages. Maybe a little soft, but otherwise good texture on the rice cakes especially considering that they were steaming in the styro box for over an hour before I had a chance to eat it. The mushroom and faux pork added some good umami savoriness brightened by the fresh greens and I didn’t miss meat at all.

The giant folded over bean curd skin is my all-time favorite item here. Subtle in the seasoning, and neither too sweet nor too salty, plus a satisfying chewiness and depth of flavor. The chunks of spicy eggplant held together but melted into a velvety mouthful when you bite into them. The firmer square-shaped pieces of tofu skin soaked up the juices nicely and the seasoning on this dish was quite masterful and complex.

I also bought yogurt, soy custard (dofu fa), and tofu noodles (gansi). The strength of the vegetarian cuisine here for me is the range of textures, inclusion of fresh vegetables (e.g., green beans, Shanghai cabbages, red peppers, Chinese eggplant, Napa cabbage, bitter melon, mustard greens, gourds ), complex seasonings without using too much salt or sugar to boost flavor, moderate use of oil or deep-frying, and minimal reliance on mock meat.
This was a delectable and pious start to the new year.

Sogo Tofu
1610 S De Anza Blvd, San Jose, CA

Hodo Soy Beanery
2923 Adeline Street, Oakland, CA

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  1. A few years ago I bought a block of their organic vegan daikon cake (lor bak go/luo bor gao) around Chinese New Year and it was pretty good, despite the lack of preserved sausage or dried shrimp flavor. Good to hear they are also selling nian gao.

    7 Replies
    1. re: K K

      I was too busy to make lohan jai this year, so this was a welcome treat for vege food. We still have nearly a month of new year's eating ahead of us, so I thought I'd mention this option.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Thank you very much for the heads up. Tofu rules and happy new year!

        1. re: sfbing

          You're welcome, and happy new year to you too! It's great to have you posting on this board.

          Sogo Tofu is a wonderful place. I first heard about it from KK, i think. Not everything is fantastic, but on the whole, very good and I've just barely scratched the surface. If it weren't in San Jose, I'd probably be there every week. I do stop by whenever I'm in the area.

          More about Sogo Tofu,

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            How did I miss this? I use the gas stations at that exit all the time, and have even explored some of the Korean tofu joints in that area (nothing north of 85 has been very good yet).

            1. re: SteveG

              I've tried to post about it a couple times a year since trying it some years ago. I still consider it an undersung place, and look forward to hearing your opinion. There are many, many products, and we've only scratched the surface. I'd love to hear more from you about chow you find in San Jose, which is so target-rich but under-reported here.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Swung by last night, Sogo Tofu proper closes at 8 PM but the bakery next door in the same shopping center called Sogo Bakery, which my GPS says has multiple locations, had a steam table. I was starved after a very long day at work so ordered a heaping container of steamtable food, which was predictably lukewarm and the noodles were soggy. The spicy tofu, however, was no worse for wear and was very tasty. The spicy pork also included quite a bit of dense tofu with the texture of lean meat, with brown edges, that was much more rewarding than the pork itself. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have eaten steam table food so far past the time when it was made, but it was pretty good for "fast food." If this is associated with Sogo Tofu, and the tofu I sampled was as good as it was probably 4 hours after initial preparation, then it is a gem indeed.

                1. re: SteveG

                  The steam table food court restaurant next door in the former supermarket location (through the sliding doors) which I believe is "World Journal Plaza" has no affiliation with Sogo Tofu.

    2. I have not bought anything from Sogo Tofu in maybe 1.5 years but I recall the following to be at least decent or half decent when the quality is good, although with some inconsistency, so just a summary:

      Tofu fa (tofu custard) - very inconsistent, when it is good, it is great, but when it is off, no idea why. Ditto for the 50+ cents they charge for the peanut sauce, which sometimes I got a "sour" tasting batch. By the time I taste it, I'm already home, so it is not like I can drive back and get a refund

      Black Bean Soy Milk - smaller container and more expensive than the regular soymilk.
      I've had good batches, and not so good batches.

      Rice milk - I believe made with brown rice, thus the color. Not my bag.

      dou gan - these are dried tofu cubes in the refrigerator (organic). They also have the pre-marinated soy sauce version, or you can buy the non marinated kind and prep it yourself. They go bad quickly so don't let it sit in your refrigerator for too long

      hot and sour soup - in the refrigerator to the left as you enter the store. No meat of course. A nice rendition

      sesame flat bread (zi ma buo bing) - maybe not as hearty as Darda's but when they do it right, it's pretty good. A good rice substitute

      Apparently if you come on an early Saturday morning, they have a variety of Northern Chinese/Taiwanese style breakfast starch items, but I never had the opportunity to witness or try.

      Red bean soup - the dessert version, they have containers as big as the hot and sour soup. It was half decent, probably better to cook your own at home

      Fresh tofu block (usually by the sink area behind the counter, or in the refrig in a container of water, ask for it) - I stopped buying these when I discovered the joys of San Jose Tofu (Japanese style artisan tofu), available at Nijiya and of course at the source in SJ Japantown, the best fresh tofu ever.

      Vegan daikon cake - a big block, mostly with mushrooms inside. Takes forever to cook and you can't use high heat, otherwise it will char outside and still moist and soft inside. Organic, pretty good for home use.

      Hakka Taiwanese style vegetarian mochi buns (hakka tsai bao) - Instead of a steamed white doughy bun as the outer layer, they use sticky rice and it comes out like a mochi. I haven't had this one in ages but it is a bit of an aquired taste. Although I'm of the camp that it needs to have a bit of pork inside with white pepper and a ton of shredded daikon (and maybe preserved veg) in order for it to be authentic

      red bean multi layered baked pastry - not bad, kind of like what you may find at Sheng Kee or some Taiwanese bakery but better.

      They used to have a poster outside offering their vegetarian sushi rolls (kind of Taiwanese style sushi rolls) that require advanced ordering, but not sure if that ever took off or is still offered.

      Don't remember a whole lot about Sogo Tofu's steam table fare, but I would highly advise that if you are buying a bento/combo to go (with your pick of rice noodles or white rice) to load up on tofu based products. They are dishes where it is plain veggies, which is either lower cost or "boring". There's one that has kao fu looking tofu product, with mushrooms and carrots (which was decent), and of course anything in the steam table with tofu skins (fu pei or yuba ) is great. The vegan version of Lion's Head meatballs were nice too, except they only give you two in a bento combo, or you can get more as a side order for a bit of a markup)

      But bottom line, your mileage will vary.

      1. Had to stop here last weekend to check this place out. Got there pretty early before getting some bun bo hue. The place is loaded to the gills with interesting stuff to try!

        Their vegetarian goose was very good, with the tofu skin seared and a little crackly with a tasty, not overseasoned, mushroom stuffing. Also liked the light hand with the tofu noodle salad. Grabbed a bun stuffed with pickled vegetables, cilantro, and a slice of mock chicken, which was surprisingly tasty and chicken-like. I liked it, but friends objected to fake meat that too accurately resembled meat.

        The spicy pressed tofu was a little too spicy--I think I preferred Hodo's version. However, it was easily fixed by adding some extra pressed tofu we also bought. They also sell the sauce on the side so that you can make your own concoctions.

        We apparently ordered enough to get a free container of warm soy milk fresh from the soy cow. Lightly sweetened, no sour beany aftertaste, very smooth. I was intrigued by still warm containers of tofu fa, which appeared to be garnished with chili oil and edamame. However, it looked like it would sour in the hot weather, so I had to pass.