HOME > Chowhound > San Francisco Bay Area >


Mapo Doufu - SF Dish of the Month November 2013

The SF Bay Area Dish of the Month for November 2013 is Mapo Doufu ( Mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐 ).

Now is your chance to try versions of Mapo Doufu that you haven't tasted before. Some things to note might be what kind of meat is in it or if it's vegetarian, spice level, quantity of Sichuan peppercorns and its numbing properties, and whether the tofu is served as a block or in chunks.

Let's collectively try as many versions of Mapo Doufu as possible during the month of November! Report back with reviews and photos.

Here's a link to the this month's vote:

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Just had a great version a few weeks ago at Sichuan Fusion in Albany (Pacific East Mall.) Vegetarian, blocks of tofu. Very numbing but not their hottest dish. Made a nice version at home from my Epicurious app that I really enjoyed. Ground pork, plenty of peppercorms, numbing but flavorful.

    1. great choice of dish for the month.

      i like the version at hakkasan. perhaps partially because that's the only way you can get a full meal there for ~$13.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Dustin_E

        menu says it's made with beef..interesting

        1. re: vulber

          hmmm ... beef is what is in the authentic version. See my post coming up soon. Makes me want to try Hakkasan.

        2. re: Dustin_E

          i had mapo tofu at hakkasan again last saturday night at the bar. $12 i believe. steamed rice is $2, or (quite good) fried rice $5. seemed to be more caramelly than spicy. i'd get it again, but probably more for the atmosphere than anything -- the interior here is really nice.

          as an aside, at the same meal i also tried the crispy duck salad ($28). expensive, but i really can't overstate how good i thought this was. i'd put it on par with, and say that together with yum's bistro's "under the bridge crab" these are my two favorite a la carte chinese dishes in the bay area.

          also tried coconut dessert ($10). not good. disappointing, because i really like the chocolate orange dessert here.

        3. We have been disappointed with recent ones we have tried at China Village. The versions we had the last two times there were the crab version and the regular version. Both versions were overly oily with not much sauce and the tofu was firm and not as creamy as it should be. We had some stellar versions back in the pre fire days.

          Mission Chinese has an interesting version although not my favorite.

          The best version we had this year was at San Xi Lou in Hong Kong. It was with shrimp and was probably the best version I have ever had because the quality of the Tofu and shrimp was so high.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Ridge

            I had the version in San Xi Lou in August. The tofu quality was good. The spicing went well together. There was one problem with the dish that night- it's very mild. I didn't felt the need to drink or eat rice after eating the dish. I am normally a weakling when it comes to spiciness. Perhaps they dumbed it down for us..

          2. I'm a novice re this dish, looking forward to the opportunity to learn more this month from others.

            But I didn't love the one I had @ Mission Chinese, found it all heat, no complexity or nuance. A chef friend refers to their food as testosterone cooking. This felt like a good example.

            1. I liked the version I had at Golden Happy Bowl in El Cerrito on the lunch special. Spicy oily and inexpensive with soup and roll.
              I think they were transitioning to new name.
              Ancient Szechuan
              10675 San Pablo Avenue
              El Cerrito, CA 94530

              1. Right now.

                Shao Mountain, Hunan restaurant.


                2 Replies
                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  We will have to trek to Fremont to try that... Suppose we could precede or follow it with a Chaplee Kabob at De Afghanan Kabob House.

                  1. re: Thomas Nash

                    I would never try to talk you out of chapli kabob, but Shao Mountain has an extensive menu of Hunan dishes not available elsewhere around here. Good Hunan food is an even rarer bird than good Sichuan food in these parts. Even our chowdown barely scratched the surface of the repertoire. The mapo doufu's made through the filter of Hunan and has a little different flavor. But I found it as tasty and equally addicting, making it hard to stop eating even after I was more than full. I'd say it's medium-hot, only needed part of a bowl of rice and didn't have to wash it down with that much tea. The leftover warmed up for dinner tonight were much hotter from the chiles steeping longer.

                    Be prepared to wait during prime dining hours. I asked the host if it was unusually busy when I was there, and he said, "always like this". Here's more about Shao Mountain and details on the mapo doufu,

                2. I am very fussy about ma po tofu and will probably bore many people on this subject once again. The reason I care about ma po tofu is that the version we searched out a decade ago on an obscure street in Chengdu at the descendent restaurant of Mother Chen’s, was one of the two or three most memorable dishes of my life — up there with the Truffle Soup at Paul Bocuse’s little place in Collonge au Mont d’Or. A dish like that is what makes you a foodie, more important it helps to explain the mystery of life.

                  As Fuchsia Dunlop says in her Land of Plenty, “It’s one of the most famous Sichuan dishes and epitomizes Sichuan’s culinary culture, with its fiery peasant cooking … Many unrecognizable imitations are served in Chinese restaurants worldwide [and I might add, the Bay Area is no exception], but [Fuchsia’s recipe] is the real thing, as taught at the Sichuan provincial cooking school and served in the Chengdu restaurants named after Old Mother Chen.”

                  I can imagine that some deviant version of ma po tofu could be better than the authentic, but I haven’t found one so far. At Chengdu I was in awe at the balance of textures and flavors between the tofu, the black beans, and the slightly crispy meat (I believe it was beef as Fuchsia says is typical) with a hint of cinnamon (in five spice?) that caught my attention. And (extremely) fiery hot in a way that only accentuated the many flavors playing off each other.

                  Texture and flavor plays are critical parts of Chinese cooking, as others more expert than I could explain better. So, I blanch, so to speak, when I see vegetarian versions labeled as ma po tofu. Without the ground meat (at least pork), you miss an essential aspect of the texture. I guess many of even the better Chinese places seem to be looking to fill out their “vegetarian” list, but then it is not a complete ma po tofu experience. Putting shrimp or crab or chicken, or God only knows what else in, is also creating a totally different thing. End of rant.

                  Most of the Sichuan and Northern Chinese places around here have versions of ma po tofu that are infinitely better than the US shopping mall horrors that are so labelled, even if some have crab or are vegetarian. Having said that, here is my short list of the best and better ones:


                  Spices II — I still think theirs is the closest to the real deal around here.
                  Lucky Noodle King - 534 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel (just follow 101 south until you get to the 10, east to San Gabriel Blvd north, turn left at E. Valley Blvd.)


                  Little Sichuan - we didn’t have it on a recent visit, but I recall from a year ago that they did a decent version. Will have to go back before the month is out.
                  K&L and Chili House
                  Mandarin Gourmet (Palo Alto) - need to request the meat as this is on the veggie menu. We asked for beef and the Chef chopped up the same beef as in the Boiling Water Beef so it didn’t have quite the texture it should have. Nonetheless the flavoring of the sauce was one of the best around these parts.

                  Better than the malls

                  Beijing Restaurant (not their best dish - not sure if I ever had ma po tofu in Beijing city, but I am sure some of the superb Sichuan restaurants there get it right.)
                  China Village (I had the crab version and inspected a vegetarian version at a neighboring table recently and was generally unimpressed)
                  Yi Yuan Szechuan
                  Mission Chinese (better than the malls, but a ridiculous one dimensional, just red pepper hot, version)
                  Mama Ji’s (almost makes the Better list. Great for the Castro.)

                  33 Replies
                  1. re: Thomas Nash

                    For more background reading about mapo doufu, here's the piece by former SF Bay Area chowhound, Robyn Eckhardt, "Chengdu's Bold and Tingling Tofu" in the Wall Street Journal:

                    1. re: Thomas Nash

                      If only Lucky Noodle King was as close as you make it sound! :)

                      1. re: Thomas Nash

                        Here's the photo of Mapo Dungeness Crab at China Village, circa 2008.

                        1. re: Thomas Nash

                          The posts by mdg and eatzalot remind me about Chef Zhao Bistro in Mountain View. I thought highly of the place after an exploratory visit maybe a year ago. I am sure I would have sampled the ma po tofu as a test of the place, but I don't remember the dish in any detail. But my overall very positive recollection of Chef Zhao's implies that the ma po tofu was probably in my "Better" category. I hope to confirm sometime this month.

                          1. re: Thomas Nash

                            super helpful post -- thanks.

                            i've read that mapo tofu is a dish that has a very strong following in the japanese / tokyo food scene. do you know if the japanese version of the dish is the same as the authentic chengdu version?

                            1. re: Dustin_E

                              Don't know about Tokyo, but "mabo tofu" appears on quite a few Japanese menus around here, often as an appetizer. The versions I've had locally hew closer to the original than the watered down mapo doufu one is typically served at a Cantonese restaurant. Sansho is often substituted for hua jiao, its cousin, and some versions veer toward sweet. Mabo ramen, mabo don, and mabo udon are also found and worth exploring. Gochi has a mabo pizza that I've enjoyed in the past.

                              The Korean name for the dish is "mapa dubu". I've not seen it locally yet.

                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                very interesting, thanks.

                                could you name a few japanese places that have mabo tofu as an appetizer, hopefully including one or two in sf proper?

                                i haven't noticed this before, but would be very interested in exploring.

                                1. re: Dustin_E

                                  Well, a search of San Francisco Menupages turned up only six (and you'd be wise to check directly before making a special trip). http://sanfrancisco.menupages.com/res... Of those, I had a fair version at Suzu long ago and I've heard there have been some recent changes at the place.

                                  Kagura in San Mateo (another from the Waraku et al group) has a mabo tofu salad. Haven't been there yet.

                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                    thanks. i'll keep my eye out next time i'm near Suzu, Katana-ya, Genki, or Delicia.

                                    1. re: Dustin_E

                                      tried the "mabo don" last night at suzu.

                                      it is a $3 add-on to any noodle dish (they won't give it to you by itself.) not terrible, but definitely not worth going out of your way for. we also tried gyoza, tempura soba, unagi don, and hiyashi chuka. tempura soba with unagi don was the winner, and what i'd return for.

                                      1. re: Dustin_E

                                        stopped by katana-ya last night. they don't serve mapo tofu anymore.

                                        ... so again tried cold soba, tempura, and an unagi don. compared with suzu, the cold soba was about on par, tempura worse, and the unagi don perhaps marginally better, at $20 compared to $15 at suzu.

                                        1. re: Dustin_E

                                          Did you taste sansho or any hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns)?

                                      2. re: Melanie Wong

                                        i've seen it spelled "mapo" more commonly (which yields more results)

                                        1. re: vulber

                                          Just now I did an advanced search on menupages among Japanese restaurants in San Francisco using mapo spelling and came up with zero results. Which restaurants did your search turn up?

                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                            your search earlier was for all restaurants, not japanese. i just changed the b to a p in the URL

                                            1. re: vulber

                                              Correct. My first search used the Japanese spelling so I searched all restaurants since the spelling would filter out non-Japanese restaurants.

                                              However, when I use advanced search for Japanese restaurants and mapo spelling, there are no results.

                                              Dustin E's question was which Japanese places have mabo tofu. You say there are more using mapo spelling, but I cannot find any using menupages search engine whereas you say you can. Using your method, none of the 20 results returned are Japanese restaurants. Are you claiming those places serve Japanese-style mapo/mabo tofu?

                                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                sorry, i misunderstood. though it looks like a few chinese places use that spelling too.

                                                1. re: vulber

                                                  Actually I was surprised that there aren't more than 20 of any cuisine using mapo spelling. I guess that most places call this dish something else like hot and spicy tofu.

                                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                    Spelling as "ma po" to search all restaurants in SF turns up a lot more,including quite a few places that are closed.

                                    2. re: Melanie Wong

                                      Koryo Jajang in Oakland has the only Korean version I've seen. It's tasty, but not particularly spicy and contains green peas. The tofu itself has a great texture and subtle beany flavor.


                                      1. re: calny

                                        from the notation on the menu for Koryo Jajang, it appears that their version is vegetarian. can't remember where, but recall having this dish with green peas, so it isn't an eccentric variation.

                                        1. re: moto

                                          Vegetarian by request.

                                          The standard version has Ground Pork (and peas).

                                        2. re: calny

                                          Cool, thanks for spotting, could be interesting at a Korean-owned place. The Korean-Chinese places in Santa Clara such as Tong Soon Garden and China Way have the dish, but they might lean more Chinese-y.

                                    3. re: Thomas Nash

                                      The full provenance of the restaurant Chen Ma Po Tofu in Chengdu would take an incredibly proficient and dedicated historian to discern. In Chengdu of the present post 2000 era, I believe the ma po tofu it offers represents what local people believe is now the best example of the original. It does come close to what Fuchsia Dunlop also offers based on recent (1990s) research and experience from the recognized cooking school for the area’s cuisine. The recipes are also similar but, perhaps, not identical to what was brought to the English speaking world during shortly and after the cultural revolution, a period when Chinese gastronomic information was dispersed and hard to obtain, in the cookbooks referenced earlier in this thread, some of which I also have.

                                      Having said all that in order to avoid encouraging further debate on the “authenticity” question, I thought it would be interesting to point this thread at the website of this restaurant in Chengdu as it contains some interesting information both about the dish and its history, again, as presently understood in Chengdu.

                                      The site is http://www.chenmapo.com . There is a tab for an Engish version, but that is very thin. Best is to suffer through the Google translations and to look at the pictures.

                                      Most interesting to me is the attached picture of the dish as it is served in the restaurant. It is as I remember it - though the tofu was more regular and neatly ordered as presented in the red saucing under the pile of (what the website confirms is) beef. The dark color and crispy texture of the beef is exactly what I remember. I believe the meat had a bit of black beans and definitely a fragrant 5-spice? component.

                                      Here is the Google translation of their description:

                                      Chen Mapo Tofu is a world-class dishes. Han Qing years with Pioneer (1862) Chengdu Hail bridge (Chen Xingsheng Fanpu). Chef Chen Chunfu's wife. Chen's face raw hemp marks, diners before it cooked tofu dubbed "Chen Mapo Tofu."

                                      Mapo Tofu feature is that the choice of materials and the production of the "character Scriptures" that is; hemp, spicy, hot, fragrant, crisp, tender, fresh, live character. Ma: refers to the tofu pot when you sprinkle pepper at the end, pepper is Maxim.Tingle pure, refreshing Hanyuan tribute pepper. Spicy: is optional Longtansi Dahongpao pepper oil produced beans do Youla incense. Hot: refers to the pot and serve immediately, oil and more insulation, easy cooling too hot and delicious, hot sweat. Incense: refers to making tofu tofu served plaster smell taste, cold soak water rust tofu flavor. And colored condiments original odor. Only the smell of an appetite. Crisp: beef flavorful, golden color, crisp red no plate. Entrance cakes, dip teeth on the technology. Tender: refers Tun fried tofu well, the color white as jade, flute angle distinct, a twist on the broken, so diners eat with a spoon. Fresh: All vegetables raw, Jujie fresh, fresh and green, red and white color all taste fresh, live: Chen Mapo Szechuan store a stunt. Serve tofu, inch-long garlic, green Zhan Lan, oil Ze very brilliant, as if the ground had just picked chopped vivid, but the entrance Jujie cooked.

                                      Note the emphasis on "crisp" in regard to the beef.
                                      Don’t get excited about the word “hemp” that appears in various Google translations of the site. It is a mistranslation of 麻, ma in ma la. An example is in their description of the dish:

                                      translated as:
                                      Won: 2000 First National tofu Contest
                                      2002 National Chefs Festival Gold Award
                                      Ingredients: Tofu
                                      Accessories: beef, garlic
                                      Features: hemp, spicy, hot, fresh, fragrant, tender
                                      Cooking method: burning

                                      There is more about the history on the site as the restaurant tells it.

                                      They also sell seasoning mixes for MPTF and other dishes. I brought home a sample from the restaurant. The seasoning for MPTF is incredibly intense and dark in color. I attempted to use it and was forced to doctor up the dish to get it closer to what I remembered. Probably each packet is meant for a very large quantity, but I have difficulty locating or translating instructions on the package as they are too small for the Pleco OCR to make out. I have never seen these seasoning mixes in US Asian food stores.

                                      1. re: Thomas Nash

                                        the ideogram 'ma' gets translated to 'hemp' because it the image does refer to the plant, and isolated as a monosyllable (rather than in context within a compound like 'ma la'), hemp is the correct, literal translation. in the context of flavour, translated as 'numb', by association with the plant.

                                        1. re: Thomas Nash

                                          Thanks for all this excellent detail, Thomas.

                                          For the record, if anyone is interested in the _history_ of mapo doufu, this board has already discussed it in great detail this year. Earlier, I linked the wrong dan-dan thread touching on some of this; correct link:


                                          -- while detailed discussion of ma po tofu history arose in another topic; here for example is a pinpoint link to one note of mine there:


                                          Regarding what "we have learned from Fuchsia Dunlop" on this dish and other dishes, please keep in mind some of us learned the same things from older standard Sichuan cookbooks that have been widely read, not at all hard to obtain, and covering much the same recipes and history as Dunlop or even, as with mapo doufu, more than Dunlop does. (It also came up in the dan dan topic that Dunlop, unlike predecessors, lumped together two distinct spicy cold chicken dishes, ban-ban and "strange flavor" chicken.)

                                          Dunlop's MPTF recipe resembles that in Delfs's book from 30 years earlier, which also said much more re standard recipe variations. Delfs (a scholar) also approached the recipes' perennial "originality" or "authenticity" claims, now surfacing once again on this thread, with caution and humor, where Dunlop (a journalist) just repeats them uncritically. Though Dunlop IS among sources citing the phenomenon of competing Chengdu restaurants all claiming descent from Mrs Chen herself, a point that surely merits mention along with any particular Chengdu restaurant's claim to be The True Original, even if you enjoyed its MPTF greatly. Even in the US, cities now famous for particular dishes have many competing restaurants claiming to be the original. We went over much of this already in the later thread linked above.

                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                            It would be very helpful if you would tell us about the other Chengdu restaurants that you have been to in the last decade or two that serve ma po tofu and claim lineage along with links to their websites and images of their ma po tofu. I am not aware of any others and would love to hear about them. Nobody I talked to in Chengdu knew of others than the one I referred to.

                                            Frankly, I had been hesitating to post more to this thread because I didn't went to re-fan the flames of authenticity discussions as they pertain to restaurants in Chengdu and cookbooks and scholarship vs. journalism. I went ahead because I thought some would find the material useful.

                                            1. re: Thomas Nash

                                              Thomas, I'll happily elaborate on points I've actually raised. You yourself quoted Fuchsia Dunlop on "the real thing" served in "the Chengdu restaurants [plural] named after Old Mother Chen." As a longtime student of this dish and its recipes myself, I've encountered various mentions over the years of multiple Chengdu restaurants claiming descent from the original. Since you've now asked about others, a recent WSJ article (link below; also cited upthread) mentions that the "Chen Mapo Dofu" restaurants are a chain claiming plausible, but unverifiable, linkage to the original -- the circumstantial reasoning is given in the article. Wikipedia cites multiple Chengdu MPTF restaurants, some said to be better than others. Delfs already addressed the ambiguity of "authentic" recipes in 1974. If you have issues with any of these points, I wish you'd explain further.

                                              I only raise them because your latest posts, which I found extremely informative, appeared to incidentally repeat Dunlop's recipe claims, and one particular restaurant as the original, without acknowledging the uncertainties that publicly attach to such claims.


                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                Thanks for pointing at the WSJ article. I really don’t understand what any disagreement you perceive is about except that you seem to disdain Fuchsia Dunlop’s “journalist's” approach to getting information about Sichuan food and to my referring to Chen Ma Po Tofu as the “descendant restaurant” without a) using the plural in my original post since there are multiple restaurants in this chain and b) that verification of the provenance is difficult (as I acknowledged subsequently after you pointed out that this may be so very important to the gist of the information we are trying to discuss on this thread).

                                                Quoting from the WSJ article, which extensively quotes Fuchsia Dunlop:

                                                "The owners of Chen Mapo Dofu, a chain of restaurants in contemporary Chengdu, maintain that their shops are directly descended from the late 19th-century original. It's a claim that's impossible to verify, though Ms. Dunlop thinks it may have merit because when the Chinese Communists nationalized privately owned restaurants in the 1950s, they usually left the businesses' family names intact."

                                                As I noted before, I believe the conventional wisdom in Chengdu is that this group of restaurants is the descendant. The other restaurants cited do not make such claims, though they serve versions that given the high standards of Chengdu, I am sure, are also very fine.

                                                As to the “authenticity” of the MPTF at Chen’s, another quote from the article, referring to “Chinese-American Zuo Ziying, who was born in Chengdu and who conducts tours in southwest China for Lotus Culinary Travel”:

                                                "Each place makes it a different way," says Ms. Zuo, "but the style served at Chen Mapo Dofu"—with a generous pool of oil, lengths of suanmiao, heavy-duty spice and browned beef (some cooks substitute pork)—"is authentic."

                                                The Wikipedia article on ma po tofu references many of the 1970s era cookbooks you have told us about. The article comes with a typical Wikipedia warning:

                                                “This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page.
                                                This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (December 2012)
                                                This article needs additional citations for verification. (December 2012)”

                                                Perhaps you should help to fix up this article, if you haven’t already tried to do so. The article, like the WSJ, notes correctly there are several MPTF restaurants in Chengdu, which I believe include the several from the Chen chain, but does not cite any others that claim the same provenance. Maybe you can.

                                                By the way, there is a very interesting comment at the end of the Wikipedia article:

                                                "Vegetarian can easily be made without meat at all (and simply just tofu) while not toning down the spices; this version is technically referred to as Mala doufu although this name is not always well-known.[citation needed]"

                                                Interesting to me because the Chinese speaking western lady who was eating the vegetarian version at China Village said exactly this that the vegetarian version is called "ma la tofu" rather than "ma po tofu". I can live with that distinction.

                                                1. re: Thomas Nash

                                                  Look, you don't have to quote the WSJ article itself, that's why I posted a link.

                                                  Mrs Zuo, quoted in the WSJ, simply asserts that the style served at the particular chain "is authentic." Adding to many other heartfelt assertions of authentic recipes over the years.

                                                  The Wiki page cites one (not "many") of the 1970s Sichuanese cookbooks I've cited. For MPTF and other specialties, those books put Dunlop's more recent cookbook into much clearer perspective. For example, a rare firsthand experience of Mother Chen's actual restaurant. And a recipe similar to Dunlop's "real thing" in a much earlier source, showing more variations. I have cooked directly from Dunlop and the resulting texture of the meat was soft, as at most Bay Area restaurants -- not a major player in the finished dish, unlike the more interesting version you've described from Chengdu, which I'd like to find locally, or learn to make.

                                                  (The problems cited about the Wikipedia page are typical of many Wikipedia food pages, flagged or not.)

                                                  I've tried to summarize my points already, without excursions into side issues or rhetoric, so if you "don't understand," why not just ask me. The "plural" arose only because Dunlop cited multiple restaurants, not singling one out as original; it was unclear in her book that she referred, in 2003, exactly to the same chain you mention. That the chain's originality claim is unverified argues against accepting it at face value. These are simple issues, I'm just asking that they not be repeatedly ignored.

                                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                                    This whole thing is starting to sound like "Ray's Original Pizza" in New York City.

                                                    1. re: davidg1

                                                      Ray's was indeed among US parallels I had in mind earlier. But I'm done with belaboring that point here, plan to post more MPTF restaurant reports. Maybe we can do a separate specific discussion just on MPTF history on another board, and not mix it in with the local restaurant renditions.

                                      2. Finally, a dish of the month that I really like! I decided to start by revisiting my favorite Silicon Valley rendition so far - the one at Chef Zhao Bistro in Mountain View. It was as delicious as I remembered.

                                        The first aroma that you smell is the fragrance of the Sichuan peppercorns. That and the red pepper heat were at a perfect level for me - very noticeable, leading note flavors, but complementary to everything else in the dish rather than overwhelming it. This is a meatless version, so that includes nice soft cubes of tofu, some interesting black bean flavors, garlic, garnished generously with scallions and red oil.

                                        Food evolves with culture over time and I am delighted to have such delicious meatless versions available. I hope to try more versions of one of my favorite dishes this month, both with and without meat.


                                        1. Wow, we've touched a lot on this dish in other recent Sichuan food threads, incl. in the dàn dàn miàn "dish of the month" thread earlier this year, at which time it was not known that ma po tofu (MPTF) would later be another such dish:


                                          Ma Po tofu also is perennial in Bay Area food e-media; there was a detailed discussion on another such forum before I registered on CH in 2007.

                                          From a silicon-valley viewpoint, I join mdg in preferring Chef Zhao Bistro today, a vividly flavored, well-balanced rendition, dusted with ground toasted hua jiao. (Tried about 4 times there so far.) It resembles the versions available for 10 years previously from two other Sichuanese chefs located a few minutes' walk from Zhao, but today both of those other restaurants are history (Zhao perhaps has the edge anyway).

                                          Important to know: MPTF is _basically_ a simple dish: four key ingredients, easy to make well. It can be exquisite if scrupulously made, even from just those four.* Usual problem in US Chinese restaurants is that non-Sichuanese cooks, even if quite skilled at their native regions' cuisines, put out all sorts of junk as "MPTF," much as cooks around the world offer bizarre "Bolognese meat sauce" interpretations unheard-of in Bologna.

                                          NUMEROUS pretentious, competing, sometimes ridiculous claims to "authenticity" around Chengdu notwithstanding (Delfs already parodied those in his US Sichuanese cookbook -- 40 years ago! -- and we visited this topic in the DDM thread linked above), both the essentials and the standard variations of MPTF have been in print in US Sichuanese cookbooks since the 1970s, decades before Fuchsia Dunlop only partially rehashed the subject in her currently popular "Land of Plenty." The early US "Mrs. Chiang" Sichuanese cookbook even quoted a (presumably elderly) scholar from China on the first-hand experience of the particular way the dish was ordered and served by "the famous pock-marked lady herself." Such standard sources are inseparable from any detailed discussion of origins and "authenticity."

                                          I've enjoyed MPTF in Bay Area Sichuanese restaurants since the middle 1970s and often made it at home from the Chinese recipes. Chef Zhao has served an exemplary version, as fine as any I've had from Bay Area Sichuanese cooks.

                                          (Don't get me started on the countless BAD Bay Area versions, with everything from library-paste sauces to peanut butter to black peppercorns to frozen pea-n-carrot bits.)

                                          * Tofu, suan miao, dou ban jiang, hua jiao.

                                          5 Replies
                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                            >> often made it at home from the Chinese recipes.

                                            could you refer me to a book or website with a recipe for this dish that you like?


                                            1. re: Dustin_E

                                              Yes, Dustin. This feels like familiar CH ground, because this topic has come up so often before; I believe I went over the 3-4 standard Sichuanese cookbooks readily available and accessible to North American readers in the 2013 dan dan noodles topic linked in my first post in this current thread. (All but Dunlop's book are from the 1970s and all readily available used.)

                                              Dunlop's is the one everybody talks about now who is new to Sichuanese cooking, and it is an excellent book. US title "Land of Plenty" (it was edited from the UK original for different measurements, nomenclature, etc in the US). It has a fine MPTF recipe. My only criticism is that Dunlop does not approach the dish in the more comprehensive way that at least one of the 1970s books did -- a core recipe of tofu, leeks, hot bean paste, hua jiao, to which several standard variations exist; instead, Dunlop just gives one of the standard variations (with fermented black beans, widely considered a valuable addition!) and unfortunately throws in some of the regrettable "authenticity " rhetoric, by mentioning that her version is the one taught today at the cooking school she attended in Sichuan.

                                              (Incidentally, chef at aforementioned Chef Zhao Bistro may have been an instructor at that school, anyway he was a cooking instructor in Chengdu before becoming a Bay Area restaurateur.)

                                              As a reader and user of very many cookbooks, I'd say Fuchsia Dunlop displays more the journalistic than the scholarly writer's sensibilities, e.g., claiming authority rather than demonstrating it, omitting to mention other sources or important antecedents. In contrast to writers like Hazan or Julia Child, who tended to credit each other and their predecessors; also in contrast to important earlier English-language Chinese cookbooks, whose authors or editors typically were actual scholars (Tropp, Delfs, Schreckers), whose work in China brought them in contact with its amazing cuisines and inspired them to spread word. At a time when those cuisines were NOT widely known in the US, travel to or in China was difficult for foreigners, and there were NOT yet hordes of travelers comparing restaurant notes from their business or vacation trips to China, or foreign journalists attending cooking schools there.

                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                thank you eatzalot. very helpful. i ordered copies of:

                                                ken lo's chinese regional cooking
                                                robert delfs' the good food of szechwan.
                                                mrs. chiang's szechwan cookbook

                                                1. re: Dustin_E

                                                  Then you are well covered.

                                                  That particular book by Lo, which I like a lot, is not specific to Sichuan, in fact it tends to neglect Sichuan and make the (fatal) "availability" substitution of black pepper for hua jiao, which Lo, unlike other authors, and very inaccurately for the Bay Area, presumed at the time would be hard to find in UK and US. OTOH it is a good and highly evocative overview of Chinese cooking principles and regions, from an eloquent Chinese perspective. (Lo had a well-rounded life, he also was a diplomat and tennis champion.) Dunlop incidentally makes a similarly annoying and inaccurate "availability" second-guess about fresh noodles, whereas Delfs simply tells you how to make your own if you can't buy them.

                                                  Mrs. Chiang is a minor classic in the US, very popular, with some unique background details on some dishes incl. ma po tofu.

                                                  I do also recommend Dunlop's Land of Plenty, which should be cheaply available used, even though still "in print." Good modern Sichuanese cookbook with wide range. And more than any of the others it is heavily illustrated with photos, some of which will make you want to try making the dish!

                                              2. re: Dustin_E

                                                Something else, very important, about relevant cookbooks that I forgot to mention here, or on earlier related threads.

                                                Several classic Chinese cookbooks in English, including the Mrs Chiang Sichuanese cookbook, Barbara Tropp, Claiborne and Lee, and the Fu Pei Mei volumes (Taiwan's grande dame of cookbook authors) all are now conveniently available electronically, via Amazon, Google, Apple, etc. Publisher's list:


                                            2. Is there anywhere good to try ma po tofu these days in SF Chinatown, besides Z&Y? If so, let me know, since I might try it out!

                                              7 Replies
                                              1. re: Dave MP

                                                According to ABC records, the owner of Spicy Empire and Pot Sticker is now owner of "Spicy King," at the former Uncle Cafe at 65 Waverly.


                                                The vegetarian and Hunan restaurants might be worth a gander.

                                                1. re: hyperbowler

                                                  Has anyone eaten at Spicy King yet?

                                                  1. re: Dave MP

                                                    Ate at Spicy King last night. It wasn't good. See more here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/886651

                                                    We also walked past Pot Sticker and noticed that the menu is identical to Spicy King. If the food is anything like it, it should probably be avoided as well.

                                                    To be fair, both places have huge menus....so there might be good things in there, but we unfortunately didn't order them. The ma po tofu was vegetarian (no meat option was available).

                                                    1. re: Dave MP

                                                      A fish option was available, tho. Just no red meat.

                                                      1. re: pane

                                                        This was the first I'd heard of it. Now with Ericruo's report from Xian Gourmet and davidg's from Grand Hot Pot Lounge, sounds like fish in mapo doufu is a thing. Wonder where this started.

                                                2. re: Dave MP

                                                  has anyone tried the Pot Sticker on Waverly Pl. in Chinatown recently ? J.Hu of sfgate liked it two years ago when one of the cooks from Z & Y took over its kitchen . she recommended sticking to Sichuan or chef's/house special dishes.

                                                  1. re: moto

                                                    Here are the most recent reports on Pot Sticker,

                                                    You'd probably get a better response by bumping that thread than simply tacking onto this one.

                                                3. So I am unfamiliar with this dish, and I go through Oakland Chinatown twice a day, as it lies between home and work. Any suggestions for a good rendition in Oakland? I am excited about trying it!

                                                  7 Replies
                                                  1. re: karenfinan

                                                    Can't help w/ specific restaurant there, but be sure you get a recc from someone who KNOWS THIS DISH! Because so many hokey products have been put on Chinese restaurant menus under the same name, whose only connection to MPTF is tofu.

                                                    The good ones I've had always came from cooks from Sichuan province, traditionally the only part of China where the hua-jiao spice ("Sichuan peppercorn") is widely used. The Chiang-Schrecker book called MPTF the defining dish of Sichuan, and other cookbook authors cite it among their top examples.

                                                    Interestingly, some of the best Bay Area renditions I've had were from restaurants not advertised as Sichuanese and some of the bad ones at restaurants with Sichuan in their names -- but the good versions always came from Sichuan-born cooks. (When I've had a good MPTF I've always inquired -- it is a tipoff for the presence of a Sichuanese cook.) IMO, that should not be so -- since I can make a pretty good version at home, from Sichuanese recipes, and I have no connection to Sichuan -- but that's my experience FWIW.

                                                    1. re: karenfinan

                                                      I haven't been to this branch, but Spices III is probably your easiest target in the Oakland Chinatown area.

                                                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                        Tried the Ma Po tofu at Spices III a couple of times earlier this year and it was outstanding.

                                                        1. re: Ridge

                                                          I had it for lunch yesterday and it was as delicious as ever.

                                                        2. re: Melanie Wong

                                                          I also think Spices III's version is solid. Intensely, but not overwhelmingly, numbing and spicy.

                                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                            Great, that place is on my short list to try!

                                                          2. re: karenfinan

                                                            Osmanthus just opened in Oakland (Rockridge) and ma po tofu is on the menu for $12


                                                          3. I tried the vegetarian version at China Village yesterday. Assumed it would be spicier, more complex, but no. With all I've read this week, I better understand the nuances of this dish and why texture plays such a role. This dish had no difference in texture, just the one dimension of the tofu, was pleasant to the taste but hardly numbing and fiery. Missed the texture that pork or beef would have offered. The veg. version at Sichuan Fusion had much more going on, even with the tofu taking on the flavor of the peppers and oil.

                                                            1. Regarding its name in Roman spellings, this dish raises the ambiguities usual in phoneticizing something from another language. (Hard enough even just within English.)

                                                              Here are the ways the same dish is rendered in English in some popular Chinese cookbooks I had at hand. The last from a Bay Area restaurateur.

                                                              Ma-po's bean curd (Pei Mei, 1969)
                                                              Ma-po dou-fu (Delfs, 1974)
                                                              Mapo doufu (Chiang, 1976)
                                                              Ma po tou-fu (Lo, 1979)
                                                              Ma-po tofu (Tropp, 1982)
                                                              Ma po's hot bean curd (Lawrence C. C. "Chef" Chu, both 1983 and 1996 books)

                                                              For what this is worth, in spotting this dish on Bay Area menus since the 1970s, I have usually seen it rendered as "ma po tofu" or some variation of that, but generally a space or hyphen between ma and po, and the bean curd rendered in the traditional US way, as "tofu" (regardless of modern pinyin or scholars' preferences).

                                                              4 Replies
                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                And I just (belatedly) saw the "voting" thread (which incidentally re-nominated dan dan mian, already dish of the month a few months ago), and the request there to change the spelling on this thread title to the official pinyin form "mapo doufu."

                                                                While it is easy to argue for doing that, I believe a responsibility then coexists to make very clear to readers (some of whom have said they are new to this dish) that many Bay Area restaurants do not spell it "mapo doufu" on their menus. "Ma po tofu" is very common on Bay Area menus, that is how it appears at the Sichuanese restaurant where I got it today (opened in 2012), reported elsewhere in this thread.

                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                  Thank you for laying out alternate spellings in common usage. That will be of great help to many, I'm sure. No need for this to become an argument nor to point a finger at shirked responsibilities. We are all authors here, just as we are all readers. There's no editorial board or "them" that authorizes what appears here. Each of us offers input along the way to share what they know, as you just did. The more information, the better the discussion for everybody.

                                                                  Since I was the one who I asked for the official pinyin spelling to be used, let me say why. Just as I would not adopt "pizza Margarita", "pre-fixed", "chipolte" nor "brushetta" [don't those hurt your eyes?] except to transmit eccentric spelling found on a specific restaurant's menu, I feel that chowhounds deserve to be informed of the real name for this dish. The real name used in Sichuan is 麻婆豆腐 and its official romanization is mapo doufu. Many restaurants here do not use romanization at all and make up their own name in English for the dish, such as Szechuan bean curd, spicy tofu, etc. In those cases, the Chinese characters will come in handy also to match up to the menu in order to figure out what it really is.

                                                                  More than a decade ago, when New Yorkers were talking about "soup dumplings", this board used their real name, xiao long bao (XLB). Some otherwise non-Chinese speaking chowhounds have endeared themselves to restaurants by learning to order by name. And gradually that terminology made its way into the popular press even though few restaurant menus name it that way.

                                                                  While pinyin was introduced in the 50's, little of Mainland China's modern culture had much impact on the US until after Nixon's historic visit in 1972. So it's not surprising that many different romanizations have been in popular use in the US. But even Taiwan saw fit to abandon its own system and adopt pinyin in 2009 as the transliteration standard, and maybe we should too.

                                                                  This piece lays out one opinion of how the Japanese spelling, tofu, became popularized in the US from the mid-70's.

                                                                  The Chinese pronunciation for 豆 (dou) is not with an initial "t" sound but with a "d". Some years ago work required frequent trips to Taipei. I sent my very American CFO (farm boy from South Dakota) to meet with our country manager there. On his return, he told me about one of their dinners together. On the way to restaurant, the Taiwanese manager said that the specialty was "dove", served hundreds of ways and described some of the preparations of dove. He geared himself up mentally for this, then was surprised to discover that the meal would consist entirely of doufu dishes, that he knew on sight as tofu. While the Taiwanese manager was fluent in English, he used the Chinese pronunciation and was misunderstood by the CFO.

                                                                  So the moral of the story is: Learn the correct Chinese pronunciation and you'll never hunt for pigeons in your bean curd.

                                                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                    before pinyin became widely accepted outside the PRC as a conventional romanization of Chinese phonemes (one single phonetic element, a word in itself but often part of a compound forming another word like doufu), one of the systems in wide use was Wade-Giles. the general public reading Wade Giles did not distinguish the aspirated initial consonants marked with an apostrophe that differentiated them from non-apsirated consonants [ch'ing/qing vs. ching/jing or t'ai/tai vs. tai/dai ]. in Wade-Giles, the word for bean was romanized as tou (dou in pinyin), so this contributed to non Han 'hearing' the word as t'ou .

                                                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                      Thanks for the linguistic background, folks -- substantiating what I touched on earlier: good arguments for "mapo doufu" when writing about the dish per se.

                                                                      As their readers know, these arguments have been in US Sichuanese cookbooks for 40 years. Delfs and Chiang / Schreckers used modern pinyin and Chinese characters -- like the initial post in this topic. I've taken those arguments and the formal spelling for granted in many online discussions over the years.

                                                                      I do feel that restaurant usage seen in "most places" (Melanie's Nov.-5 phrase) is at least as important though, in a restaurant topic on this board (as disinct from one on linguistics, or Taiwanese practice). In my experience of Bay Area restaurants, spellings like "Ma po tofu" are far more standard than anything like "pizza Margarita", "pre-fixed", "chipolte," or even [my own seasonal favorite!] "Brussel" sprouts. Spelling-challenged writers will always be with us, no question. But "tofu" is such a US spelling convention (the points I raise concern Roman spellings, not pronunciation) that it labels the ingredient in supermarkets that people will buy if they make their own mapo doufu.

                                                                      So, had I spotted the voting thread that preceded this one, I'd have argued for giving prominence to Bay Area restaurant spellings that people will often see, _along_ with the ideal pinyin (which they often will not).

                                                                2. A couple of pleas here from an irregular reader and contributor to the Bay Area Chowhound board that I believe will increase readership and contribution to threads: 1) When mentioning a restaurant for the first time in a thread, please mention at least the city where the restaurant is located, preferably the street and neighborhood. Since Chow did away with the location hyperlinks, some of these discussions can be impossible to follow without multiple Googling or Yelping of restaurant names. I still can't find a location for K&L mentioned in a post here. 2) A translation of foreign language terms would also be welcomed the first time they are used in a thread. Yes, I could Google, but that's not always easy when one is using a smart phone. Perhaps I'm just lazy, but I still don't know what the four supposed essential ingredients of Mapo tofu are, and I'd bet that's true of most readers of these posts.

                                                                  Otherwise, these discussions may become simply a learned discussion among a few cognoscenti. I do appreciate the effort and wisdom in many of these posts, but much is lost to most readers.

                                                                  9 Replies
                                                                  1. re: johnrsf

                                                                    I second that emotion. Particularly number 2.

                                                                    1. re: johnrsf


                                                                      K&L is a mistake--- I believe they meant Z&Y in SF Chinatown

                                                                      I don't know the "four essential ingredients" either, or how controversial that number is anyway. Here's a summary of things that have, or will, come up in this thread.

                                                                      花椒 = hua jiao = sichuan peppercorns
                                                                      麻辣 = ma la = numbing spiciness
                                                                      豆瓣醬 = doubanjiang = broad bean paste or chili bean paste
                                                                      豆豉 = douchi = fermented/salty black beans
                                                                      豆腐 = doufo = tofu

                                                                      1. re: hyperbowler

                                                                        yes... K&L is a wine store...a dyslexic slip on my part. Meant Z&Y 655 Jackson St San Francisco CA

                                                                        1. re: Thomas Nash

                                                                          I actually tried the mapo doufu at Z &Y this past weekend, along with the dan dan mein. Of the two dishes, I liked the noodles better. I'm not sure whether it was pork or beef in the mapo doufu, but it was not at all crispy. There was less of the numbing pepper and more of the hot pepper flavor present, although it was not overpowering. I'll try Spices II when I get a chance, and will try Mama Ji's (which I've had before) again.

                                                                      2. re: johnrsf

                                                                        Excellent points john. I also have noticed some tendency even in thread titles to lately use ideal or academically correct renderings of dish names, without allowing for the many or even customary variants actually appearing on restaurant menus. That is especially an issue with this current dish of the month.

                                                                        And I apologize for, likewise, not further explaining the four ingredients I cited (distilled from studying cookbooks with Sichuanese recipes), maybe I can remedy that. Besides tofu (in its various spellings) the other core ingredients are:

                                                                        - a leek-type vegetable (a particular, compact one is used in Sichuan; common leeks can be readily substituted; some domestic adaptations use scallions)

                                                                        - spicy or "chili" bean paste (dou ban jiang, or "toban djian" as Lee Kum Kee spells it and I don't recommend that brand of paste anyway, FYI)

                                                                        - hua jiao, the citrus seed with fragrant citrusy aroma and palate numbing effect (called brown peppercorn by Pei Mei, Sichuan peppercorn by others), often roasted, ground, and sprinkled on top, in highly Sichuanese versions of the dish.

                                                                        There are numerous perfectly faithful variations, including addition of hot peppers to make it spicier, though a good dou ban jiang paste already renders the dish quite hot. (That paste is also the signature seasoning in twice- or double-cooked pork, another Sichuanese standard; and is the basic flavoring in Sichuan's variant of so-called "red-cooked" meat stews, giving a much spicier version than the soysauce-based forms common elsewhere in China. Such a Sichuanese beef stew, with water and noodles then added, becomes a classic Sichuanese spicy beef "noodle soup.")

                                                                        Meat, ginger, garlic, wood ear, fermented black beans, and other typical Chinese ingredients all appear in variant ma po tofu recipes from Sichuan. I find the black beans a good addition, and evidently some CHers take them for granted, but they don't by any means appear in all Sichuanese recipes, or local restaurant versions, of this dish.

                                                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                                                            Which brand of the spicy bean paste do you recommend?

                                                                            1. re: kclb

                                                                              One basic factor is that versions of this condiment vary by 20:1, or more, in salt content per unit quantity (discernible as "sodium" in the nutrition label). Very heavily salted commercial flavorings remove control from the cook -- you can always add salt or soy sauce to taste, and the important flavors in these products aren't the salt.

                                                                              With that in mind, Lian How brand "Hot Broad Bean Sauce" (NOT the same firm's "Hot Bean Sauce"), and especially Fu Chi brand (?sp, but it has green and white jar labeling with a red camel logo) "Chili Paste with Fermented Soybean" have fine flavor in a homemade ma po tofu, are relatively lightly salted, and I've bought them in Bay Area Chinese markets, which get them from major distributors.

                                                                          2. Any versions of Mapo Doufu in the North Bay, particularly Marin county?

                                                                            3 Replies
                                                                            1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                              ... well it appears under "Sides" as apparently a vegetarian version ("Mapo Organic Tofu (v) 素麻婆豆腐 8 brown bean sauce, sichuan peppercorn oil") for $8 at M.Y China at the Graton Casino...

                                                                              1. re: Thomas Nash

                                                                                Thanks, Thomas. I have no present intention to go to that new casino, but hey, maybe I should stop in the next time I'm up that way and see.

                                                                              2. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                                Since you've posted before about the potstickers at House of Lee, I looked at the menu posted on http://www.allmenus.com/ca/san-rafael... . It lists "bean curd with ground pork in hot sauce, $5.95". That could be mapo doufu. You might take the Chinese characters in with you on your next visit and ask if it's the same dish.

                                                                              3. Mrs Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook (1976, reissued 1987, and electronic edition cited upthread) has the most interesting background details I've seen to date on this dish, calling it the quintessential Sichuanese specialty, and citing (in 1976) one Dr. Eugene Wu's long-ago Chengdu schoolboy memory of the pock-marked Mrs Chen herself. "You ordered by weight, so many grams of bean curd and so many grams of meat, and your serving would be weighed out and cooked as you watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and so spicy hot, or _la,_ that it actually caused sweat to break out."

                                                                                Today's take-out order from Chef Zhao in Mountain View (an uncompromisingly Sichuanese restaurant, English barely spoken) wasn't weighed out within view, and this restaurant makes it vegetarian as mdg noted, but otherwise that cookbook's description fits. Garnished with chopped scallions and a dusting of ground toasted Sichuan peppercorn (more of which evident in the stir-fry ingredients, from the distinct citrus background flavor), fierce-looking red oil floating around the edges. Soft tofu in half-inch cubes. I saw no fermented black beans or bits of them (even put it under a spotlight, to check), but small vegetable bits, including plenty of chopped hot red peppers, and occasional flattened brown beans characteristic of some chili bean pastes. VERY hot, vividly flavorful, about as tasty as any I can recall in the Bay Area, and hotter than most.

                                                                                2 Replies
                                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                  Thanks for the update! The beans looked black to me but they may well have been brown beans; I'm no expert in Chinese bean varieties and pastes.

                                                                                  I've never had a problem with the English at Chef Zhao's in either of my visits. To say English is barely spoken does a disservice to them and may scare folks away. The whole regular menu is translated with lots of authentic dishes; there are a handful of specials on the wall that aren't.


                                                                                  1. re: mdg

                                                                                    Maybe I do do the place a disservice, and yes I agree the (current) regular menu is pretty good. But I also wanted people to be aware of what they might encounter, as I have now encountered in several of my 10 visits there so far, everything from large groups to simple take-out orders.

                                                                                    Except for chef's son "Yong" (who is very fluent, and also told me in August 2012 that he provided the restaurant's original dish photos on Yelp, but whom I've not seen there for a year), all serving staff encountered, though helpful, have had limited English, in some cases very limited. Today one of the less limited struggled to explain to me a particular veg. in one of the wall specials (turned out to be asparagus or a variant of it, which we resolved after she looked up a Chinese reference online). I have on file at home three different "regular" menus from this restaurant, which have evolved, dishes appearing and then departing, such as a superlative spicy cold chicken no longer available; OR, changing their English translations. Because of that last factor, one large group lunch wrangled with servers to describe and order a particular savory pastry done very well there (the addictive "pan fried chive pancake"); our best efforts produced three wrong dishes (all of which we consumed and enjoyed anyway). Not being a fluent Chinese reader, whenever possible I will copy down the characters in advance when I know what I want to order, to avoid ambiguity, but that does not help when the menu changes again, or new specials appear (interesting sets of them are now on two perpendicular walls, not present a few months ago). So there is some basis for my cautioning people what to expect.

                                                                                    But also, Yong told me in August 2012 that his father (the chef) can do "many dishes seldom seen in restaurants here," if you call a few days ahead. I think that too is important to know.

                                                                                2. Z&Y in SF Chinatown has a version with pork, crushed Sichuan peppercorns, green onions, chile paste of some sort, and tofu chunks . The dish is reminiscent of their Dan Dan noodles in the sense that a quality broth, I suspect, thins out the sauce and acts as a backbone for the layering of other flavors. The heat and flavor of the sauce, which clings to small pieces of ground pork, contrast nicely with the custardy pieces of tofu. Restrained amounts of lightly crushed Sichuan peppercorns top the dish, but both their numbing properties and their citrusy flavor come through with each bite. It's just the right of saltiness and heat for my palate. There are no black beans in this version.

                                                                                  Yi Yuan in Millbrae also has a version of Mapo Doufu that uses ground pork, tofu chunks, green onions, crushed Sichuan peppercorns, and a chile paste of some sort. The sauce here is a bit thicker than at Z&Y. There might be a good dish lurking below, but the presence of whole fermented black beans dominates to the point that I can't taste much else. For example, I can see and smell decent quality Sichuan peppercorns, and I can certainly feel their numbing properties, but their flavor is lost. On the rare chunks of tofu free of black bean heavy sauce, spicy and salt come through, but there's a lack of complexity and umami.

                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                  1. re: hyperbowler

                                                                                    An old friend of mine has been working as an acupuncturist in Redding for a few years now, and studied Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Diego, with several months additional study in Sichuan, China. Last summer he took me to Z&Y and said the food there was the closest to what he had in Sichuan. I don't know if he has ever been to Yi Yuan, but he has the highest regard for Z&Y. FWIW.

                                                                                  2. I got some mapo doufu from Ark, the restaurant in Alameda I thought would do the most creditable job.

                                                                                    It was a pretty weak version.

                                                                                    The good: the doufu was in large silky pieces and was quite good

                                                                                    The mediocre: the spicing. It was hot enough to qualify as "hot" but not by much. I felt some numbing, but I couldn't really taste the Sichuan peppercorns.

                                                                                    The bad: there was ground pork, but it had absolutely no flavor. In fact, despite the heat upfront, this dish was a bit one-dimensional and lacking in umami due to the apparent absence of brown bean paste.

                                                                                    It was a generous serving and came in a bowl, as it was rather soupy.

                                                                                    It was well-made enough that I think the leftovers can be doctored to make it into something closer to mapo doufu.

                                                                                    1. Just ate at Z & Y and had the Ma Po tofu. It was very satisfying. It wasn't overly greasy like the last time I had Ma Po tofu at China Village. It was with ground pork and black bean. My husband said he really liked it because you got the Ma (numbing) before the La (heat), In other words you got hit by the numbing of Sichuan peppercorn before the heat of the chili. The balance of numbing to chili heat was perfect. A good hit of garlic, the wonderful funk of fermented black beans and umami from the pork brought the dish together. The tofu was soft and silky. All in all I thought it was a very good version of Ma Po tofu. Very satisfying, full if flavor and comforting. I could eat this every day.

                                                                                      13 Replies
                                                                                      1. re: Ridge

                                                                                        i also just re-tried mapo tofu at z&y last night.

                                                                                        agree this dish is very good -- the pork in particular was very nice and brought the dish together.

                                                                                        this is now definitely one of my favorite dishes at z&y. i had thought green onion pancake would go well with this dish, but it did not -- perhaps partially because the pancake was under-cooked/fried and so too soft compared to other visits.

                                                                                        on future z&y visits, i'll probably go for mapo tofu, dan dan mien, beef roll, and the prawns with corn; and if it is lunch time, their homemade soy milk.

                                                                                        does anyone have an opinion as to what is best to drink with mapo tofu? i believe z&y's standard wine offering is a Riesling.

                                                                                        1. re: Dustin_E

                                                                                          Believe it or not we drank a Pinot noir with the meal and it went well with the mapo tofu.

                                                                                          1. re: Ridge

                                                                                            thanks -- would love to hear about any future successful pairings of red wine with chinese food.

                                                                                            1. re: Dustin_E

                                                                                              French red wines include such a variety and range there are many possibilities -- Chinese cooking is very diverse, so the specifics depend very much on the dishes and what flavours are prominent in them. French wines come to my mind before the others because there are many affinities between their cuisine and Asian cooking, and their wines get paired with Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian foods constantly in France. Bordeaux and duck are very compatible.

                                                                                            2. re: Ridge

                                                                                              I tend to think good pinots noirs (French or otherwise) go well with practically any savory food.

                                                                                              Yet MPTF can be very hot, sometimes it's made too strong even for people accustomed to other hot-spicy food. I wonder if that doesn't overpower many wines. Though, when I think over books through the years that addressed classic food-wine affinities and conflicts, the conflicts they cited often involved other kinds of flavors, like pickled vegetables or vinaigrette sauces, or sweet flavors.

                                                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                thank you very much moto and eatzalot -- very helpful posts. fwiw, i became interested in red wine and chinese food pairing through this blog (by "peech" on the asian chowhound boards): http://www.diarygrowingboy.com/

                                                                                                1. re: Dustin_E

                                                                                                  with our leftovers from Ancient Szechuan, a 2000 Numanthia Termes, from 100 yr. old tempranillo vines in the Toro region, was quite good. the currently available vintages of this wine go for around $20./bottle, similar in profile and comparable to the top notch Cotes du Rhone Villages you might find.

                                                                                              2. re: Ridge

                                                                                                For me, the best pairing with Mapo Tofu would be shots of a chinese liquor made from sorghum, 白乾, which is clear, served straight, and about 35% abv. The bracing flavor goes well with ma and la.

                                                                                                1. re: Tripeler

                                                                                                  Any suggestion where to get this stuff? Ranch 99?

                                                                                                  1. re: Dustin_E

                                                                                                    That would probably be the best place to look. What it would be called in English would likely vary by the manufacturer. Where I am (Japan) it is called "pai-karu" but likely it would be called Bai Gan in China.

                                                                                              3. re: Dustin_E

                                                                                                @Dustin_E: The tiger stripe jalapeno dish was pretty tasty at Z&Y if it is still available...I don't see it or the teatree mushroom dish we had on the current menu, but they may be on the Chinese-only one per first para here http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7844...

                                                                                                1. re: grayelf

                                                                                                  We got the teatree mushroom dish the last time we went to Z & Y and it was disappointing. It was not nearly as good as in the past. In the past it has come served under a flame so it continues to cook and get crispy. This time it did not come under a flame and was not fried enough so it was more soggy than crispy and caramelly. This dish is easy to make at home, if people are interested I will post a recipe.

                                                                                                  1. re: Ridge

                                                                                                    Sad, it was quite good when we had it. I think it might be a Hunan dish, though I'm not sure about that.

                                                                                            3. A couple of nights ago I had one of the best, if untraditional, mapo dofu versions I've ever had, at Xian Gourmet at 3741 Geary (near 2nd Avenue) in SF. It was MPDF with sliced fish filets. The flavors were clear, a restrained use of chile oil but picante nonetheless, they didn't stint on the hua jiao and it wasn't gritty as it can sometimes be. I would have preferred more and more tender tofu, but that's a pretty minor quibble. The small white fish filets were latitudinally cut and were cooked to just past the jelly texture stage, very nice flavor and texture contrast. I didn't see the dish on the printed menu; it was on the wall.

                                                                                              I do think the very best version I've ever had was at Jai Yun, but that was more of a deconstructed and purified version, but that place is beyond my normal means.

                                                                                              4 Replies
                                                                                              1. re: Ericruo

                                                                                                Do you recall if it was called mapo doufu on the wall sign?

                                                                                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                                                  FYI, Xian Gourmet has the same owners as Dong Bei Mama (formerly Panda Country Kitchen) down the street on Geary btw 11th and 12th). DBM has what I've long considered the best Sichuan food in SF.

                                                                                                  I had a vegetable noodle dish at Xian Gourmet, which was realy excellent. I haven't tried any Sichuan-style food there, but now I will.

                                                                                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                                                    yes, in English and presumably in Chinese. There were lots of things up on the wall that were not on the menu.

                                                                                                    1. re: Ericruo

                                                                                                      Ericruo: it's exciting that they Xian Gourmet is offering non-menu items. The wall items had been redundant with the menu items as of mid-October.

                                                                                                      If anyone else has any other tips about Xian gourmet, please post them on this thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/914726

                                                                                                2. Enjoyed an excellent variation of the dish with fish fillets at Ancient Szechuan (formerly Happy Golden Bowl) in El Cerrito. it's listed on their menu as 'Spicy Fish fillet/Beef/Lamb with on Spot Made Soft Tofu', so they offer the meat variations as well. the house made doufu was silken, and light, complemented and not overpowered by the assertive but still delicate sauce. the floral and sweet characteristics of the Sichuan pepper came through nicely. preserved/fermented beans were not present in this interpretation. the cold appetizer we had also featured Szechuan pepper, a bit more assertively. on their menu, it's called beef combo, in other places sometimes 'couple's' beef because it pairs thin slices of meat with tripe. the spice levels were appropriate, given the differences between the beef and offal in the appetizer and the delicate fish and fresh doufu.

                                                                                                  also top notch were the knife cut noodles with beef and vegetables, garlic eggplant, and twice cooked pork, which was prepared with perfectly charred and tender fresh leeks, seasoned with an assertive jolt of black pepper that rounded out the red chili also used in the preparation. the noodle and pork dishes both had a savory wok char accent, without any tell tale dark spots on the food. one other dish we enjoyed showed the kitchen's competence with an entirely different regional dish, Shanghai style rice cakes, which we had with preserved veg and pork.

                                                                                                  our only previous visit to this place came when China Village was shut down, and we found their former head waiter and chef both here. neither returned to CV post-reopening. the head waiter has always given us the best of service, and on the previous visit he had the chef prepare an off menu item, ma po doufu crab, as it was Dungeness season. he remembered we bring our own wine or beer ; for this visit we drank a 2004 l'Avion (Stolpman/S.Moorman), .98 Rousanne and .02 sauvignon blanc, which did very well with the range of dishes and the variety of spices. he also remembered that twice cooked pork is one of my wife's favorites, and it was his recommendation to our meal. the courses were served fairly quickly after ordering, they came one at a time in pretty close succession, so everything stayed warm, and the noise level was low with most of the tables occupied.

                                                                                                  one fairly large appetizer, five generous courses, plenty of plain rice, a tasty dessert of bean soup with mochi balls, plus corkage and tax before tip came to just over $ 66. when the fresh Dungeness returns, we'll be going back for ma po doufu crab. my wife declared that this is now her favorite Chinese eatery on either side of the bay.

                                                                                                  5 Replies
                                                                                                  1. re: moto

                                                                                                    great recommendation -- stopped by here last night.

                                                                                                    we had:

                                                                                                    kimchi in chili oil appetizer -- excellent

                                                                                                    beef combination cold appetizer -- excellent, amazing with the red burgundy we were drinking.

                                                                                                    green onion pancake -- very good. better than the ones at z&y i had a couple nights before

                                                                                                    knife cut noodles with beef and pork -- very good

                                                                                                    spicy fish filet with soft made tofu -- very good. this dish was very similar to the "fish in flaming chili oil" i've had a number of times at z&y, but with tofu -- so i'm not sure if this is a separate dish from mapo tofu, or just a more liquid / brothy variation.

                                                                                                    decor was very nice, service was perfect.

                                                                                                    pretty incredible they charge no corkage. would also love to hear if anyone knows any other chinese restaurant with low / no corkage fee.

                                                                                                    prices were low. our bill all-in before tip was $34, and there was more than enough food for 4 people. (even though there were only 2 of us.)

                                                                                                    we drank a 2011 jean-luc et paul aegerter, which was the only >$15 red burgundy available from the nearby costco. it was $40, and i probably wouldn't get this again. separately, it was amazing with the beef combination, but went less well with the fish/tofu, i thought.

                                                                                                    i'll definitely return.

                                                                                                    1. re: Dustin_E

                                                                                                      you might consider a Cotes du Rhone -- careful shopping can yield good ones from the still available and excellent 2010 vintage for $15 to 25.

                                                                                                      1. re: moto

                                                                                                        Six of us were here last night and had a great meal.
                                                                                                        Ancient Szechuan
                                                                                                        10675 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito, CA 94530
                                                                                                        (510) 524-8772
                                                                                                        We had the spicy fish filet with SPOT made tofu, excellent BUT not MapoDofu. In fact ma-po tofu was in the same section of the menu and the waiter said that this version had no meat. So we will have to go back and try the real ma po Doufu (I am using as many spellings as possible so as to agitate the purists in this thread). We also had the pork shoulder, pea leaves, green beans, and sesame bread ( fluffier than China Village's), and a cold plate of rolled bean curd with tofu. All were excellent. Also tea smoked duck which was just OK. No brown rice -- only white. We took home leftovers.

                                                                                                        The waiter was formerly at China Village and he told us that the chef was also from CV. The menu is essentially the same as CV's.
                                                                                                        Good service; we were there early and the place was mostly empty.

                                                                                                        We had two bottles of wine and they did charge us $10 corkage for each bottle.

                                                                                                        The wines went very well with the food. We selected a 1981 sparkling wine, 100% Chardonnay from the Tepusquet vineyard, disgorged two hours earlier (thirty years on the lees). Good mousse and intense yeasty bouquet that jumped out of the glass.
                                                                                                        We also had a 1981 Zinfandel from the Dry Creek region (Sonoma), good color and lots of sweet fruit. Sorry to tell you that these wines are not for sale.

                                                                                                        1. re: Joel

                                                                                                          the tea smoked duck at China Village in its former incarnation used to be pretty good, so that's a bit of a surprise. which vineyard and winemaker was your 1981 zinfandel from? (some places from then have changed their style of course, because the market and climate have shifted). the only vineyard I've cellared that long, also with pleasing results, was in the Glen Ellen part of the county. thank you.

                                                                                                          we used to be China Village regulars because their cooking was consistent (Chinese establishments often have short tenured cooks, or inconsistent home-style cooks) and their service was very good as well. both have declined noticeably since the re-open. as long as Ancient Szechuan keeps that waiter and chef, we'll return.

                                                                                                          1. re: moto

                                                                                                            We made the wines. The Zin grapes were from the Kelley Creek vineyard which I think was later acquired by Preston (maybe).
                                                                                                            About corkage fees: I find many ethnic places are random about charging fees. Sometimes they do, sometimes they forget. But it's usually $5 to $10 per bottle at most.

                                                                                                  2. So this dish of the month finally got me over to try Chef Ma in west San Jose that Melanie and others raved about earlier:


                                                                                                    This was another excellent mapo doufu, perhaps even a bit more scrumptious than Chef Zhao's version thanks in part to the meat, which looked and tasted like pork to me. Once again the hua jiao was the first thing you smelled when the dish was served, but again it was a leading flavor, not overwhelming. This was a bit less red pepper spicy and oily than Chef Zhao's version (the oil there coming mainly from a red oil garnish). Besides the meat there was also a more noticeable amount of black beans, but lighter on the scallions. The tofu was equally fine soft cubes at both places.

                                                                                                    It's worth repeating that Chef Ma is a little tricky to find. It's inside the Sogo Bakery building in the mall at 1600 S. DeAnza in San Jose. There's a food court there with Sogo at the front and Chef Ma at the back. The entire place was pretty quiet at 8 pm on a Tuesday; from previous posts it sounds like the dinner rise is closer to opening time.


                                                                                                    1 Reply
                                                                                                    1. re: mdg

                                                                                                      At Chef Ma in SJ (near Cupertino border) I tried ma po tofu. This order was more alike than distinct from versions tried at other Santa Clara County restaurants known to have Sichuanese chefs. A few fermented black beans visible; a few rings of small linear onionoid (small leek or large scallion); seasoned a bit saltier than most. This particular MPTF order was flavorful and competent, and within the style range of multiple orders each tried at Chef Zhao Bistro and two nearby, now-defunct competitors. Very lightly dusted with hua-jiao, also discernible in the mixture.

                                                                                                      What really stood out at Chef Ma to me was its dàn dàn miàn (main report: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8887... ) -- by definition a much more free-form specialty than MPTF. In chatting with the waiter after that meal, I mentioned liking Sichuanese cooking, and making MPTF at home. He acknowledged, "yes, ma po tofu -- easy to make!" To find another good one from the evidently skilled Sichuanese Chef Ma reinforces this point, and also the puzzle of why so many other Chinese restaurants offer random boring tofu dishes (with none of the usual Sichuan flavors) under this venerable name.

                                                                                                    2. Fey Restaurant in Menlo Park is so close to home I felt I had to try their version of Mapo Doufu (had it before but can't remember much about it).

                                                                                                      When I placed the order I was asked if I wanted "spicy". I emphatically said "yes". Wasn't spicy at all. I was disappointed in the dish. The overwhelming flavor was pickled chiles. No discernible Sichuan peppercorn flavor/sensation, nor were any black beans visible. Small amount of green onion. Very one dimensional.

                                                                                                      Grayelf has suggested that when placing an order in a Sichuan restaurant to say "ma la, da la". I will try that next time...

                                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                                      1. re: RWCFoodie

                                                                                                        Unlike Da Sichuan and Chef Ma farther south, Fey has an unfortunate history here of multiple reports this year about inauthentic Sichuanese food, including Melanie's "worst version of DDM I've had in years" :


                                                                                                        In my reading of cookbooks, the dishes most often cited as Sichuan's province's best-known specialties are MPTF, DDM, and twice-cooked pork. (I omit kung pao chicken, per Dunlop's explanation that it was politically deprecated or something just when it became popular internationally in the 1970s, therefore was long relatively uncommon in Sichuan itself.)

                                                                                                        Based on this, I would not rush to try Fey's twice-cooked pork!

                                                                                                      2. If a place isn't giving you any Sichuan peppercorns, try asking the servers for some on the side to season the dish yourself. This would be a problem with dishes that get seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns during the cooking process, but typically, ground and roasted Sichuan peppercorns get sprinkled on the top of MPDF when it's plated or in the step after everything is pretty much cooked. There shouldn't be any loss of flavor if you season them yourself.

                                                                                                        1. Thanks so much for this dish of the month! I really don't know much about Chinese cuisine, so the discussion was fascinating. I went to Spices 3, and I fell in love with Mapo Doufu- I went with 2 other people and we got 5 dishes, and the 2 highlights by far were Mapo Doufu and the fried calamari. Both really emphasized the Szechuan peppers, and they are fabulous. The heat was not extreme at all, and the numbing sensation was addictive. I will keep exploring this cuisine, thanks folks!

                                                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                                                          1. re: karenfinan

                                                                                                            if you can really embrace the regional style, be prepared to ingest dishes that mainstream amerikaners might consider 'drenched in oil.' that's one factor behind the default beverages to have with the food -- beer or hearty ales, or sparkling wines. the lightly brined veggies, usually cabbage similar to kim chi, you might encounter on the table before you place an order -- they're covered in chili infused oil, just to prepare the palate.

                                                                                                          2. I was at Henry's Hunan on Church on a cold afternoon last week and decided to branch out (which is rare; I've gotten the same two or three things there for years).

                                                                                                            I realized the tofu with ground meat was ma po dofu and got it. It's not a particularly authentic version, and the the peas and carrots and gravy are nothing special. The meat is ground pork.

                                                                                                            But the Szechuan peppercorns are sweet and fragrant, and it was cheap and hearty. I took home a giant box of leftovers and devoured it later that night. Not worth a detour, but satisfying if you're at Henry's.

                                                                                                            1. tried the version at spices II tonight (along with some tan tan noodles and green onion pancake).

                                                                                                              very solid, though i prefer the version at z&y. the meat here seemed more well done, and didn't complement the tofu as well imho.

                                                                                                              onion pancake was better than the most recent one i had at z&y -- but i prefer z&y when this dish comes out right.

                                                                                                              tan tan noodles are about the same level. maybe i prefer those spices II by a little bit.

                                                                                                              but overall, a very solid alternative to z&y for me.

                                                                                                              1. I wish this were a report rather than just tip, but I noticed the menu at East Ocean Emeryville has Mapo Shrimp

                                                                                                                1. I had MaPo tofu three times in the past week. I had a layover in Shanghai and at dinner we ordered a dish labeled "Yunnan spicy tofu". It was very similar to MaPo Tofu. It was soft tofu with a sauce flavored with chili and Sichuan peppercorns and some spices I could not identify. Compared to MaPo tofu it tasted like there was less soy sauce, garlic and chili oil. It was very good. The next day we had lunch at the Shanghai airport and I noticed the table next to ours was having MaPo tofu and that it looked good. We tried it and it was good but not great. Then on Saturday we went to China Village. Before the fire the MaPo tofu at CV was outstanding especially the MaPo tofu with crab. After the reopening I found the MaPo tofu mediocre- oily and one dimensional. I am happy to report that the MaPo tofu at CV is improving. The version we had on Saturday was VERY different from previous versions we have tried since the reopening. Not as oily and more saucy and complex. It was very enjoyable. Perhaps not yet at the level of the pre-fire days or Z & Y but on its way. My one criticism was that the tofu seemed a bit too firm and maybe needed to be poached longer to soften it up a bit. And the Sichuan peppercorn could be in increased a bit.

                                                                                                                  1. The Mapo Doufu from Mission Chinese doesn't get a lot of love on this thread, but it's miles better than anything I've ever gotten at a Cantonese restaurant, and better than lots of Sichuan places. I find it in the next to upper tier of MPDF's I've eaten in the past year.

                                                                                                                    The server said that they've changed the recipe over the years. They've eliminated pork and chicken broth and added marinated mushrooms instead.

                                                                                                                    The sichuan peppercorn flavor comes through both in terms of flavor and numbingness, there's a good amount of doubanjiang, just enough black beans, and the tofu is custardy and flavorful. These qualities would put this in the upper tier of mapo doufu in the Bay Area--- it has all the important qualities of mapo doufu.

                                                                                                                    However, they lose me when it comes to the use of (shimeji?) mushrooms instead of meat. The graininess of ground meat is a better texture contrast to tofu than are mushrooms. Kvetch kvetch... if I were vegetarian, I'd probably prefer mushrooms to be included.

                                                                                                                    Here's my rankings of the Ma Po Doufu I've eaten in the past year:

                                                                                                                    Top tier: Spices III in Oakland, Z&Y, (Fuchsia Dunlop's version at home)
                                                                                                                    Penultimate tier: Mission Chinese, Mandarin Garden (memory is iffy, but I might have liked Mission Chinese's version a bit more)
                                                                                                                    Middle tier: China Village, Yi Yuan, Fey Restaurant
                                                                                                                    Bottom tier : I've thankfully managed to avoid peas and carrots versions.

                                                                                                                    1 Reply
                                                                                                                    1. re: hyperbowler

                                                                                                                      I tried the Mission Chinese version years ago when they first opened and thought it was just ok. Since they have changed it since then I am curious to give it another try.