Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The City of Tampa According to Tofu: Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu

Five spring breaks ago my wife and I spent a few days in Asheville. We were spending two nights in a hostel before moving to a bed and breakfast for a night before coming back to the hostel for one more night (if you didn't catch that the first time, you have my permission to reread the line until it makes sense). When we arrived at the hostel the owner took us on an abbreviated tour. As he showed us the kitchen he said "Some local commune gave us a bunch of homemade tofu. Feel free to take as much as you want while you are here. Hell, you can even take some with you when you go." A solitary tear rolled down my face as I thought about homemade tofu and why Tampa can't seem to get nice things.

Hey, it may have taken until 2016 but thanks to Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu, Tampa finally has gotten nice things (at least in the world of artisanal tofu making). Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu is a unique place. When you walk in half of the business is a restaurant that serves boba tea, Vietnamese desserts, Pho and other traditional Vietnamese dishes. The other half of the building is a grab and go with coolers of homemade tofu, soy milk and various meats that might be necessary for cooking Vietnamese at home. There are also a number of metal trays that hold freshly made items. It was here, in these metal trays, that I found the artisanal tofu I was looking to take home.

According to Laura Reiley, food critic for the Tampa Bay Times Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu churns out seven different flavors of tofu. When I visited they had only four (ha, only four, like four flavors of tofu is a normal thing around here). These four were original, lemongrass and chili, onion and mushroom. The mushroom and onion were sliced into large rectangles. They were priced at four for a dollar. I filled a miniature plastic baggie (yep, that's how you take things to go here) with eight of each. The lemongrass and chili came in two forms, large rectangles (like the onion and mushroom) and a block similar to how traditional tofu in a grocery store is sold. I grabbed four of the rectangles and a big block. I was absolutely astounded when they lady rang me up for the block of tofu and it only came out to two dollars. The only place that I have found tofu that cheap in this city is Whole Foods (organic, $1.99) and MD Market (full of GMO's, $1.29). The lady at the register asked if I wanted any sauces with my tofu (options include chili paste, soy sauce, fish sauce and another one  that I don't remember). I settled on some chili paste.

My Plate of Different Flavored Tofu from Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu

I would love to say that I waited until I got home and ate that tofu properly but I didn't. I ripped into the rectangles as soon as I got to the car. Each tofu flavoring was subtle, it wasn't going to overwhelm you with whatever it was covered with. I liked that because it gave you the option of eating it with a dipping sauce or using it in a recipe. The different tofus had a nice chewy shell on the outside of them. Inside they were soft and creamy, almost like a custard. It was absolutely and without a doubt the best tofu I've ever eaten. J-Fur wasn't as instantaneously taken in as I was. She would not go on record as saying that it was the best tofu she has ever eaten. But when I pressed her to name a place that had better tofu, she couldn't. I took that as a motion seconded.

I used the lemongrass and chili block to make Thug Kitchen's Spring Veggie Bowl with Red Curry Lime Sauce.  I adore this recipe but hate the time it takes for the tofu to finish baking and marinating. Already marinated and baked tofu made this a total win scenario. I was very pleased with how the tofu held up when I put it in Red Curry Lime Sauce to warm. There was no crumbling or falling apart and it kept its chewy shell and creamy interior.