The humble soybean has an immense number of many culinary applications. Soy “milk,” slabs of varying firmness, dried bean curd wrappers, and boiled milk skimmings called yuba have all proven indispensable to cultures like China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Of course tofu’s usefulness is now evident well beyond those borders, joining the repertoire of Asian chefs the world over, plus many non-Asian chefs. It’s up to the imagination of these cooks as to how to implement all these tofu ingredients. Preparations are practically endless, from the preferred cut to the cooking method: deep-frying, grilling, smoking, and more.
Taiwanese-style stinky tofu, a funky fermented preparation that is available at restaurants like Tofu King and Uncle Yu’s Indian Theme Restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, is not on this list, but still notable. The preparation is popular at Taiwan’s famed night markets, drawing (or repelling) potential diners with a pungent odor.
The best tofu preparations in L.A. range from high-end presentations Downtown and West Hollywood, to humbler, but still impactful plates, at beloved restaurants in Chinatown and Koreatown.
At Aburiya Raku, the high-end West Hollywood izakaya from Las Vegas based chef Mitsuo Endo, house-made tofu is an art form. Firm, cream-colored tofu stars in four preparations. Raku’s tofu is featured with bonito shavings, ginger, chives and green tea salt. Oyaji tofu comes with chile garlic sauce and Japanese mustard greens. Tofu salad joins tomato and Japanese seaweed. Still, agedashi tofu reigns supreme.
A deep-fried tofu pancake that’s crispy outside and creamy inside arrives submerged in bonito and soy broth bobbing with tiny nameko mushrooms. Toppings consist of bursting salmon roe (ikura), clipped chives and savory nori strips. A spicy-tangy smear on the bowl incorporates soy sauce, yuzu, and red Japanese pepper, if you prefer tofu with a kick. 521 N La Cienega Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90048
Beverly Soon Tofu
Beverly Soon Tofu, a restaurant from Monica Lee that dates to 1986, resembles a woodsy mountain cabin and specializes in bubbling tofu stew. Soontofu is available in 10 iterations starring proteins like squid, “seafood combo,” and fish egg. Vegetable features onion, mushroom, and zucchini. Choose hot, medium, mild, or plain. Soft tofu debris disperses in bright red broth. Each order comes with one raw egg to crack into the pot and a plate of silky tofu dressed with nori, scallions, sesame oil and soy sauce. Accept both. 2717 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006
When Gabriel Fowlkes and Jordan Weiss opened their Echo Park arcade bar in Sunset Market Plaza, they complemented games with pan-Asian food from Thi Tran and showman/husband Nguyen of Starry Kitchen fame. Play The Walking Dead pinball machine or Mortal Kombat II between bites of crispy tofu balls. This Starry Kitchen classic features creamy deep-fried orbs studded with fresh corn, coated with green onions and glutinous rice krispies, and served with creamy house-made Sriracha aioli for spice. 1391 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026
Erven, the Santa Monica restaurant from chef Nick Erven, Eric Greenspan, Jim Hustead, and James Moon, has earned acclaim for their progressive plant-based comfort food. They keep plenty of sandwiches on the counter to grab-and-go, but none of them can compete with the made-to-order, beer-battered tofu sandwich. A creamy tofu slab with crispy crust joins crunchy cole slaw, pickled cucumbers, and tangy mancha manteles, a fruit-based mole, on a soft pretzel bun. Pickled turnips complete the plate. 514-516 Santa Monica Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Jade Wok, a side street café with a green façade, has been a Chinatown institution for over two decades. Their best dish just may be house special bean curd. Twin slabs sport puffy coats, with creamy centers, and come slathered in umami-rich brown sauce crafted with mushrooms, ground pork, black beans and assorted secrets. Definitely eat with rice. 625 W College St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Lao Tao Taiwanese Street Food
David Wang named Lao Tao Taiwanese Street Food on the second floor of Chinatown’s Far East Plaza for a mythical creature with a large appetite. He previously worked in design and grew up in a restaurant family, resulting in a stylish restaurant. Century egg tofu salad features firm slabs of tofu and slices of hard-boiled egg that’s marinated until dark and jiggly. The “salad” comes dressed with house-made hong you (chile oil) sauce, scallions, and rousoung (pork floss) that crosses the meat line, but is easy to omit. 727 N Broadway #207, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Chef Neal Fraser and wife/partner Amy Knoll Fraser have transformed the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana rectory into an airy downtown dining destination. The food is just a tick below fine dining, but still includes deluxe presentation. Firm slices of smoked and grilled tofu arrive on a bed of earthy Beluga lentils with Swiss chard and a colorful purple red wine truffle nage that simultaneously dials up the plate’s luxury and appearance. 114 E 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Ring Baked Tofu Donuts
Mitsu Kagei, who grew up near Osaka, opened a donut shop and tea parlor with Aya Maeda to start 2015 at the base of a Canoga Park office building. Donuts are crafted with Meiji Tofu and Koda Farms rice flour, come in creative flavors like tea-flecked Earl Grey, earthy matcha, and sticky soy sauce, and are displayed in individual packages on a reclaimed wood counter. Eggs, yogurt, and butter come into play, meaning the rings aren’t dry in the least and display a pleasantly spongy bounce. 6800 Owensmonth Ave #130, Canoga Park, CA 91303
Siam Sunset is a humble Thai-Chinese restaurant with blue awning and decorative Thai memorabilia that adjoins Value Inn in east Hollywood. Their bowl of silky tofu pudding with subtly spicy ginger and brown sugar syrup is best at breakfast, but is also available at dinner. To add textural contrast, toss on batons of crispy fried dough. 5265 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Vinh Loi Tofu
Vinh Loi Tofu, Kevin Tran’s vegan Vietnamese restaurant in Reseda’s Kafco Plaza, debuted in 2002. He’s since racked up running medals, celebrity photos, and accolades. Tran considers his “house special” soup your best bet, for good reason. Rice noodles arrive in a spicy peanut, jicama and daikon broth with an array of vegan “meats.” Tofu and nori mimic “fish.” Molded tapioca powder mirrors “shrimp.” Tofu gives form to “chicken.” Each bowl comes with bean sprouts, jalapeno and lime. Dress as you see fit. 18625 Sherman Way #101, Reseda, CA 91335
Winsome, a stylish diner from The Spare Room owners Marc Rose and Med Abrous occupies the base of an Echo Park condo tower called The Elysian. Grab a seat at the long counter, a cushioned booth, or on the sunny patio. Crispy tofu features deep-fried squares of Meiji Tofu, crafted at a family-run Gardena shop that makes products from organic Ohio soybeans. Winsome dresses springy cubes with minced raw bell peppers for crunch and color, chilies, Thai basil, and puffed red wheat berries. 1115 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90012