Fast food, meet health food: Organic tofu comes to Chipotle

Local, artisanal, organic … tofu.

That’s right. The lowly, tasteless vegetarian block of blah has gotten a foodie makeover—and the spotlight. The better-tasting tofu is now appearing as part of a local test on the menu of the national chain Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The man who wants to convince you that you will love tofu is Minh Tsai, founder of Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, Calif.

The self-described tofu master said he’s not surprised meat eaters go running from the stuff. Even though tofu as a vegetarian staple has been around since the '70s, “People eat tofu because it’s healthy,” he said. “But you should eat it because it tastes damn good.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. We’re still talking about tofu, made from soybean. But the product in some variations looks nothing like tofu consumers have come to expect. The Yuba from Hodo Soy Beanery is long, paper-thin strips of tofu skin that find their way into salads or soups, for example. And the more conventional white blocks served as-is or cubed, fried and flavored are a fresher version of the typical fare.
A blogger from Food Curated is a believer. Liza de Guia, who has filmed close to 150 documentaries of food makers, wrote about her trip to the Hodo Soy Beanery, where she captured the tofu-making process. (See her video, below.) She said, “I eat everything.” But before her visit to the Beanery from Brooklyn, she hadn’t given tofu a thought. "For me, tofu was a nice ‘filler,'” she said, eaten as an alternative to meat or seafood, but otherwise unmemorable.

The foodie changed her mind with Hodo Soy. She told Yahoo News on the phone, “It was an awakening. Once you try it, you’re kind of like, ‘I get it. I get his point of view, what I’ve been missing out on.'”

De Guia described the firm tofu as “creamy and milky, a taste so present that it can stand alone and be appreciated without any added flavor.” About tofu master Tsai, she said, “He wants to spread the tofu love, preaching about what good tofu is. You see the joy when he talks bout it. He’s like a little kid.”

It’s not just foodies who have caught on to Tsai’s “tofu love.” It’s also fast-food chains. Hodo tofu made its debut in a tofu-filled burrito in seven Chipotle Mexican Grill locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The chain hasn’t made a decision about whether or when to expand the test.

The new vegetarian option, called sofritas, was introduced in the vegan-friendly region. It featured the non-GMO, organic shredded tofu from Hodo, braised with chipotle chili, roasted poblanos and a blend of spices. Something maybe even a bacon-consuming Homer Simpson could love. Maybe.

Chipotle spokesperson Danielle Winslow, who won’t reveal sales data, said the response has been “great.” She added that while naturally vegetarians give the offering a thumbs-up, meat eaters are also taking to the white stuff. Winslow said, “People are still getting that iconic chipotle taste, but it’s tofu.” She adds as if this is a good thing, “It doesn’t taste like tofu.”

As Tsai tells it, it’s all the other brands that don’t taste like tofu. He says the water-logged slabs would be unrecognizable to his Vietnamese ancestors, who made and consumed fresh tofu and soy milk daily—and still do.

He practically spits when asked about the fake meat variety, which he dismisses as “highly processed.” He said there’s “no fake nothing” with Hodo. The tofu whisperer describes his traditional recipe, which goes back 1,000 years: “Soybeans, soy milk, add a coagulant and it becomes a curd, done.” Make it right, and maybe you don't have to hide it in faux-meat flavor.

The artisanal approach to tofu has caught on in the Bay Area, where acclaimed restaurants like the Slanted Door, Mission Chinese and Boulevard serve it. Charles Phan, the executive chef of Slanted Door, a modern twist to Vietnamese cooking, always has tofu on the menu. Often, it’s Hodo Soy Beanery.
He chose Hodo because it was the only local tofu made with certified organic soybeans.

Speaking on the phone from Kentucky, where Phan was sourcing bourbon for his next venture, a bar called Hard Water, he explained, “San Francisco is pretty forward-thinking. It’s nothing new, not like Chipotle—you have people thinking it’s a new invention.”

Maybe this time around it's a re-invention: Besides restaurants, the tofu is also offered at grocery chains as varied as Whole Foods and Costco. That’s part of the plan. “We’re converting people, educating people,” Hodo’s head says.

Kate Voshell is a convert. A vegetarian, the San Francisco architect discovered giant packages of Hodo tofu at her local Costco. Now, it's pretty much all she eats.

The 43-year-old said she likes Hodo because, unlike other tofu, "It does have a flavor." Voshell says, "I still feel the absence of meat in my life. I need to feel like I’m eating something beefy, even if it is just soy." Voshell also feeds it to her two sons, ages 8 and 5, who eat it as long as the firm soy is covered in sauce.

Still, soy isn’t exactly a noncontroversial food—with plenty of accusations and health claims directed at the vegetarian option. Nutritionist Marion Nestle dismisses extreme views on either side of the tofu debate, writing in an email to Yahoo News, "I’ve got books on my shelf about soy as panacea and soy as poison. Take your pick. It’s a food. If you like it, eat it. If not, don’t. “

Hodo founder Tsai hopes you eat it. But he’s not rushing things. His factory was built to handle a steadily increasing demand over the next six to eight years.

Not surprisingly for someone who follows a thousand-year-old tradition, Tsai takes the long view for the tofu craze to set in. “In 10 years, people will know tofu like they know good sushi and good chocolate and good olive oil.”