I’m a very private vegetarian. I’m not one of those vegetarians who loads down his backpack with PETA patches or plasters his Corolla with bumper stickers that read: beef: it’s what’s rotting in your colon. I can admit that bacon gives joy.
But having been a vegetarian for 15 years, I will admit to some pretty joyless outings. I’m not counting all those local fairs selling giant turkey legs. No, I’m counting all those times when I’ve had to settle for a night of hot cheese. Or been forced to utter the words “vegetable toss.” Those words are the devil’s words. And in D.C., they’re pretty standard.
Outside of District boundaries—way outside—I’ve been able to find a tofu paradise. It just happens to be in Knoxville, Tenn.
When a friend who I was visiting there assured me that the Tomato Head, our dinner spot for the evening, would have something for me to eat, I figured that was code for cheese or salad.
But then I scanned the menu, extensive and complicated, and found something that wasn’t grilled cheese, salad, or happy black bean anything. I found the tofu sandwich.
It was designed like a meat sandwich. Fresh spinach. Roasted onion. Cheddar. Mustard and mayo. Tomato. And organic baked tofu. It was called the “Cheddar Head.”
After taking one bite, I turned to my friend and exclaimed something to the effect of, “Holy shit, this sandwich is the best ever!” My eyes lit up like a mall at Christmas. Years later, I continued to obsess over that sandwich, so simple and yet quietly revolutionary to my veg world. The tofu didn’t get fried up, distilled into goo. It was just a simple piece of bean curd, rubbed and then baked into a thin fillet. Can I say fillet? Do I get to? The only bitter aftertaste was the long ride back to D.C.
Why did I have to travel to the Bible Belt to get a tofu sandwich? Why hasn’t tofu completely crossed over from the Asian-bean-curd-family-style ghetto? Why aren’t local cafes and diners serving tofu? Why hasn’t someone figured out how to sell it?
“Really because most people don’t really like it. It’s a tough sell,” says Peter Smith, owner and chef of PS 7’s in Chinatown. Smith has prepared tofu dishes upon request. But there’s still not enough demand to keep tofu on the menu. “To have it sit there and go bad, what’s the point?” he says.
“I guess we haven’t gotten there yet,” says Jesse Hamilton, general manager of the Diner in Adams Morgan. “[W]e haven’t mastered anything enough to put it on the menu.”
Great. Meanwhile, we’re left with the same old menu options: the portobello mushroom sandwich, hummus with sprouts, or the overpriced veggie burger. I’m tired of mushrooms shaped like hairy satellite dishes dipped in balsamic vinegar. Hummus is baby food. And the veggie burgers resemble either cardboard or wet mushy cardboard and taste like it, too.
Yes, good tofu dishes and mock meats can be found in Chinatown. The salted tofu dish at Eat First on H Street is transcendent. It is simply the best tofu in the city, resembling something close to deep-fried salt that’s then flecked with hot-pepper confetti. I can eat these salt squares any time.
Java Green does a pretty good sandwich—the soy cheese even approximates flavor, which is no small feat.
At Thanh Son Tofu in the Eden Center, you can buy fried tofu squares to go. Five bucks gets you a 20-piece nuggets flavored with either bits of mushroom and onion or hot pepper and lemongrass. It’s enough to make me sit in the parking lot and chow down like a drunk with a jumbo slice.
But basically, if tofu has made its way into Western hands, it’s in boutique shops that smell like cumin or prissy places like Vegetate, the Shaw restaurant that only manages to exoticize vegetables. Before you can taste tofu, you have to go through the nut cave or storm the veg tower!
Food for Thought’s tofu dishes work, but that place isn’t why most people go to the Black Cat. (Bring back the old Food for Thought, and we’re getting somewhere.) There are only two places in the District that get it right: Sticky Fingers Bakery in Columbia Heights and Soul Vegetarian in Shaw. D.C. can do better.
You can taste failure all over town. Dos Gringos’ wretched tofu-salad sandwich does failure quite well. The Mount Pleasant cafe’s tasteless staple resembles a wet futon mattress: lumpy and cottony. In Adams Morgan, Asylum’s vegan brunch isn’t worth the long waits for service. The only thing you’ll remember about your tofu breakfast is the Texas toast and home fries. Logan @ the Heights on 14th Street NW offers up a tofu stir fry that turns the main ingredient into soggy, soft bags of protein. They make this Asian dish the same way I rocked the Wok Station in college—it’s a thousand flavors drowning one another out. All you end up tasting is salt.
So here’s the challenge to all you chefs: Make us vegetarians a great tofu dish that’s neither Asian-based nor overpriced novelty. Make it resemble the tofu in Athens, Ga., Harrisonburg, Va., and Knoxville. I promise I won’t sick PETA on you or bumper-sticker your storefront. I’m patient. If you need further inspiration, may I suggest hitting the Bible Belt?