REMEMBER THE 1990S, when no one was mad at soy? Tofu, made from soy milk, was the herbivore's go-to protein for everything from burritos to burgers. Love it or hate it, tofu is still a versatile staple for budget-minded vegetarians. I say here's to you, tofu.
If you've never had freshly made tofu, still warm off the press, you're missing out on one of life's great pleasures. So skip the plastic tub and make your way to these fine shops. Lucky us: We have three tofu makers right here in town.
812 SE Stark
Mon-Sat 9 am-5 pm
Fun fact: Ota Tofu is the oldest tofu company in America. It originally opened on NW 5th and Everett in 1911, right in the heart of Portland's Nihonmachi (Japantown). They operated in that location until the Ota family, like every other Japanese American family on the West Coast, was shipped off to internment camps for the duration of World War II. When they returned to Portland after the war, they were able to resume making tofu thanks to a sympathetic neighbor who'd kept an eye on their shop and equipment. They still make traditional-style Japanese tofu, which has a soft texture, even the firm varieties.
If you're the kind of person who frets about GMOs, take heart: Ota is 100 percent GMO-free (it says so right on the package!). You can buy it in grocery stores around town—it has the kawaii smiling soybeans on the label—but you really should mosey on down to their "new" shop on SE 8th and Stark, where they moved in 1981. If you bring your own container, not only will you get a discount on the tofu, but you can have okara (soy pulp, a tofu-making byproduct) for free. It can be used to make homemade tempeh or veggie burgers, or you can feed it to your backyard chickens to give them a protein boost.
Bui's Natural Tofu
520 NE 76th
Mon-Sat 9 am-6 pm, Sun 10 am-4 pm
Operating out of a cute little Montavilla storefront, Bui's Natural Tofu is your one-stop shop for an impressive array of GMO-free tofu products at low prices. Their fresh tofu is made in the Southeast Asian style, so it's a bit firmer and easier to stir-fry, making it an ideal choice for Vietnamese and Thai recipes. You can pick it up in Asian grocery stores around town, but if you pop into the shop, fresh tofu will run you a mere 60 cents a slab, or 70 cents for the fried stuff. From there, your choices are myriad: For just a few bucks, you can take home a tray of fragrant scallion fried tofu or lemongrass-chili fried tofu, still warm from the fryer. Either one makes a superb vegetarian banh mi with the simple addition of cilantro, pickles, and sriracha mayo.
You can also pick up trays of salad rolls, banh tet, and other savory, sticky, rice-based lunchables to eat at the two-top inside, but Bui's real secret sauce is their meat tofu. These are chubby little cubes of tofu stuffed with juicy meatballs of ground pork, finely minced Chinese wood ear mushrooms, and bean thread noodles, seasoned with shallots and garlic chives. The traditional way to eat it is Vietnamese mom-style, where the little umami-bombs are simmered in tomato sauce, but one shop employee said kids come in after school and just eat them straight from the little styrofoam trays, which confirms my belief that meat tofu is basically Vietnamese Hot Pockets.
103 NE 82nd
Mon-Sat 9 am-6 pm
Sitting in a gritty corner on NE 82nd is a little gem. Thanh Son might not look shiny—they have random boxes stacked somewhat haphazardly all over the place, giving you the impression that you've stumbled into a store room—but manager Long Nguyen is so warm and welcoming that you'll feel at home instantly. Like Ota, Thanh Son has soy pulp/okara in tubs in the refrigerator case. Like Bui's, Thanh Son is Vietnamese, so their tofu is on the firm side, and it's available steaming hot from the press (in fact, even if you try to help yourself from the self-service station, Nguyen will insist that you sit tight while he runs to the back for a fresh block).
Thanh Son also sells their tofu deep-fried to chewy, golden-brown perfection, with or without scallions or lemongrass and chili. You'll have to ignore the menu boards that still hang over the out-of-commission refrigerator cases; tragically, they no longer offer banh mi or any of the other tempting lunch specials. That half of the store is a relic of their earlier days as a Vietnamese lunch counter, and the tables and counters are now covered in boxes. You can, however, buy warm sesame mochi balls filled with sweet mung bean paste, tofu pudding, and a variety of other soy products from some of the nicest folks in town.