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Martin Gee / For The Times

18 mapo tofu spots guaranteed to numb your tongue

Tofu as an ingredient often takes on the characteristics of whatever sauce or preparation is being used to dress it. In the case of mapo tofu, those soft, placid blocks of tofu guard a scorching secret: blazing heat and a tongue-tingling numbness imparted by Sichuan peppercorn.

The numbness, while maybe puzzling to the uninitiated, acts almost like a trail guide, pushing you further and further into the dish. In a way, it makes the spiciness more tolerable.

Mapo tofu was created in the 19th century by a woman known as Chen Ma Po (she was nicknamed “Ma Po” because of the mazi, or pockmarks, on her face). The dish was very much a creation for the working class and local laborers — mapo tofu wasn’t a highfalutin dish for the emperor and his lackeys.

One of my favorite dishes, mapo tofu ticks nearly every box for me. It is both provocative and numbing; salty and a little sweet; hearty and delicate; it’s got a fermented earthiness and also a sleek oiliness.

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The Hollywood Bowl’s BYO-meal policy offers a unique opportunity to explore the venue’s surrounding restaurants and build a delicious picnic.

This list is meant as a place to begin exploring. Most of the time, you’re going to want to go to the San Gabriel Valley, but that’s not always possible. Some of the places I’ve included are in other neighborhoods, like in the San Fernando Valley. I’ve graded on a little bit of a curve. I’m fine with that, and I hope you are too.

Spice and numbness ratings are on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the high end. Because my ultimate goal is to get more people eating mapo tofu, you might also want to read my piece on Sichuan chef Yu Bo’s wonderful mapo tofu recipe. We are sliding into hot tofu summer. Get ready.

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A mapo tofu dish from Chengdu House.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Chengdu House

Valley Village Chinese
One of my first apartments in L.A. was in the Valley, about five minutes from Studio City’s Chengdu House — I wish I’d known it was there at the time. The dish at Chengdu House (Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, FYI) has respectable heat and lots of good doubanjiang flavor. If you don’t know what doubanjiang is, think of it as the foundation of mapo tofu and, indeed, of a lot of Sichuan cooking. It’s the Chinese version of New Orleans’ onion-celery-bell pepper trinity. Without it, there’s very little there there.

The mapo at Chengdu House is a bit on the sticky side, but I won’t complain given the great price — just $11.99 for the lunch special, which includes soup and an egg roll.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅
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A mapo tofu dish from Chengdu Taste.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Chengdu Taste

Alhambra Chinese
You will not go wrong, ever, with a meal at Chengdu Taste. And so it stands to reason that its mapo tofu is a winner too. It’s spicy, oily, funky and has enough Sichuan peppercorn powder to act as a decent local anesthetic during dental surgery. (When I’ve eaten a lot of Sichuan peppercorn, cold drinks taste sweet and almost metallic to me, like how I imagine electricity would taste.)

Each spoonful is a combination of heat and numbness that acts as a kind of muted fireball. And it’s a pain you willingly go back to, shoveling it into your mouth despite the growing beads of moistness around your temples and hairline.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅👅
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A mapo tofu dish from Chinese Friends Fresh Szechuan Kitchen
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Chinese Friends Fresh Szechuan Kitchen

Hawthorne Chinese
The mapo tofu has a surprising level of heat and is generous with the pork and green onion. My favorite detail is that the rice is presented in one of those classic red plastic serving containers. Hey, it’s the little things, right?

An absolutely serviceable mapo tofu option if you’re in the South Bay. The fast-food vibes at Chinese Friends Fresh Szechuan Kitchen belies the good service and friendliness of the employees; nearly everyone who came in while I was eating was greeted warmly and by name. Not that many restaurants seem like neighborhood joints anymore, but this one does.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅
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A mapo tofu dish from Cui Hua Lou.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Cui Hua Lou

Monterey Park Chinese
Cui Hua Lou might be in Monterey Park but it feels like a restaurant somewhere in China. The small, sparse dining room has little decor save for some framed pictures of food on the wall, explained in Chinese characters. Men sit cross-legged at outdoor tables, talking loudly over empty plates and cans of beer. There’s a whiff of cigarette smoke in the air. The last time I went in, I was told by a server to come back in 20 minutes — the chef hadn’t shown up yet.

Can you tell how much I love this place? The mapo tofu, which is very good by the way, is almost beside the point. Cui Hua Lou provided the most balanced mapo among those I tried — it wasn’t novelty-level spicy, nor did the numbness ever veer into uncomfortable territory. Instead, I ate bite after bite of slick, spicy chunks of soft tofu. Cash only.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅
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The Mapo Tots from Bopomofo Cafe.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Bopomofo Cafe

San Gabriel Valley Chinese
A nontraditional entry for the list. On one hand, it was deeply upsetting to see melted cheese with mapo tofu. On the other hand, why can’t a dish evolve? This interpretation — mapo tofu served over tater tots and melted cheese — turns it into a stewy, chili-like condiment. Think of it as a Chinese version of Tommy’s chili cheese fries.

We’ve seen this treatment of mapo in L.A. dining before, most recently to great effect with Mei Lin’s mapo lasagna at the now-closed Nightshade. At Bopomofo, there’s not as much depth or strong soybean flavor as in a typical mapo — it’s more like a spicy meat sauce. Sacrilege? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good over fried potatoes.

Spice rating : 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅
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A mapo tofu dish from GuYi Restaurant
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

GuYi Restaurant

Brentwood Chinese
The Brentwood area is a bit of a no man’s land as far as good Chinese food — it’s more of an A.O.C. crowd — which is why it’s all the more important for residents to patronize GuYi, located on the top level of a nondescript mall on San Vicente. It’s legit Sichuan food and vastly underappreciated. The mapo tofu is a dank, spicy bowl of numbness. There’s almost a hint of sweetness to it as well, which provides a welcoming counterbalance to the spice. The peppercorn oil will make you feel like you’ve been chewing on a 9-volt battery (in a good way, of course).

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅👅
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A mapo tofu dish from Lin's Club
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Lin's Club

Monrovia Chinese
This tiny, four-table Monrovia restaurant belies the big heat and flavor that comes from the kitchen. Plenty of chile flakes dot the mapo, which is generous of pork and spiciness. Lin’s Club brings the spice more than the tingle and will cause the sweat to bead on your brow more than it will numb your tongue.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅
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A mapo tofu dish from Lunasia Dim Sum House
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Lunasia Dim Sum House

Alhambra Chinese
Yes, we all know Lunasia as an easy place to take your parents when they want to visit the San Gabriel Valley. But you may not have known it does more than dim sum — it has added a whole Sichuan section to its menu at the Alhambra location. And the mapo tofu is excellent. Lighter on the oil than some versions, this mapo has a kick but won’t sear your palate. There are layers of deep, broad bean flavor and a belt of numbness that will remind you you’re eating Sichuan food, not a plate of har gow. Certainly worth ordering next time you meet up with the grandparents for a celebratory brunch.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅
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A mapo tofu dish from Meizhou Dongpo.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Meizhou Dongpo

Century City Chinese
At $19.99, this was the most expensive bowl of mapo tofu I ate and that, as it turned out, was for a good reason. The mapo at Meizhou Dongpo, a China-based restaurant group with a handful of Southern California locations, was my overall favorite on the list. The dish tingles the tongue but doesn’t overdo it. You’ll break a light sweat from the spice but won’t go full three-alarm fire in your mouth.

The ginger in this rendition is stronger than most (some will like that more than others), but where Meizhou Dongpo really excels is with the meat that complements the tofu chunks. The ground beef (make sure to request beef) is cooked down into tiny, chewy, flavor-packed nuggets. It most closely resembles the technique favored by revered Sichuan chef Yu Bo. Twenty bucks isn’t the cheapest mapo around but it’s worth its weight in chile oil.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅
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Mapo tofu from Pearl River Deli.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Pearl River Deli

Chinatown Chinese
L.A.’s Chinatown is not going to be your go-to neighborhood for mapo, as there aren’t many Sichuan specialists. But if you’re there and having a craving, you certainly could do worse than Pearl River Deli, which recently changed addresses to a roomier space on Mei Ling Way.

This vegan entry to the list isn’t that numbing but has craveable flavor and a steady, building heat. The plant-based meat is satisfying too — I don’t find myself wishing for the real thing. The large, silky tofu chunks fall apart a bit, but that’s being picky.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅
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Mapo tofu from Qin West Noodle.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Qin West Noodle

Chinatown Chinese
The move at Qin West Noodle is to get some kind of noodle soup, not necessarily the mapo tofu, but this still does this trick. While the meatless version at the Chinatown location (there are a handful in the L.A. area) has a pleasing chile oiliness that creates a certain amount of pizzazz in the initial bites, there isn’t quite that structure and depth of a truly great mapo. The tofu chunks are a lot firmer here than at all of the other places I tried.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅
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A maps tofu dish from Shaanxi Garden.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Shaanxi Garden

San Gabriel Valley Chinese
In the corner of a mall on Valley Boulevard is where your taste buds go to get flogged by Sichuan peppercorn. The mapo tofu from Shaanxi Garden is moderately spicy but quite salty and with a significant numbing sensation — my lips are humming like an electrical transformer just thinking about it. This version leans a little more toward meat than soybean — it has an almost Bolognese quality. I recommend eating it with a healthy portion of white rice.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅👅👅
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A mapo tofu dish from Sichuan Impression
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Sichuan Impression

Chinese
Color me Sichuan impressed! If this were chili, it would be a Texas-style bowl of red: very pared down with few bells and whistles. It’s not as bean-paste-forward, and there’s little happening as far as green onion or other vegetation. It’s just a glistening lake of fire and tofu. It’s numbing and salty, with a heat that strikes early, and sustains. One of the few mapos I tried that contains beef, which is the superior meat to use in this dish. Two locations in L.A. and one in Orange County.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅👅
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Mapo tofu from Spicy Chinese Restaurant
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Spicy Chinese Restaurant

Chinese
And they say there’s no truth in advertising. Spicy Chinese Restaurant is, as promised, exactly that. And the mapo tofu, while a little on the oily side, is quite good. Expect a generous wallop of numbness and spice. Juicy pork bits play nicely with the occasional reedy sliver of leek. This goes well with a cold can of the sweet Wanglaoji herbal tea that’s on the menu.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅👅
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Mapo tofu from Szechuan Place
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Szechuan Place

Northridge Chinese
While I’ve long loved some of the Cantonese BBQ places in the Valley, I’ll admit to not expecting to find this good of a Sichuan place in the middle of Northridge — shame on me, I suppose. The mapo tofu at Szechuan Place holds its own against almost any you’d find in San Gabriel. While not the spiciest mapo you’ll ever try, there’s an earthy funk that gives this version umami and depth. The peppercorns are potent but do not overpower. This is a worthwhile stop if you’re in the area.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅
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A mapo tofu dish from Szechwan Garden.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Szechwan Garden

Artesia Chinese
The heat in this dish sneaks up on you quietly, like a Tesla on a dark side street. Artesia might be better known for its Indian than its Chinese food, but the mapo at Szechwan Garden (note the spelling) has fantastic flavor and is a great option if you’re in the area. There’s a strong fermented soybean flavor and powerful peppercorn presence. A minor complaint: The sauce is a bit thick.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅👅
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A photo of the mapo tofu from WeChat Cafe.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

WeChat Cafe

El Monte Chinese
For variation, I’m including one Hong Kong cafe (a diner-style place with plenty of Cantonese offerings). This isn’t your standard mapo tofu, but I’m giving it a thumbs up because it still tastes quite good. Again: It’s not what you’d expect from a typical Sichuan kitchen. Are the pork pieces, as big as you’d find in a sweet-and-sour dish, supposed to be that size? Is the sauce supposed to be that glowing, tawny orange of a new bottle of motor oil? Are all those green slivers of pepper, not usually found in a mapo, supposed to be there?

With portions this big, the answer to these questions are, sure, why not? At WeChat Cafe, named after the ubiquitous Chinese messaging app, the mapo isn’t that spicy but it has a fair amount of numbing pepper. This could be a good way to go if you like the effects of the Sichuan peppercorn but are spice-averse.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅
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A Mapo tofu dish from Xiang La Hui.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)

Xiang La Hui

Alhambra Chinese
Eating a spoonful of the mapo tofu at Xiang La Hui in Alhambra is a little like biting your tongue. A jolt, a slight wince, a little bit of pain followed by a very sensitive tongue. In the case of this dish, however, you’ll return for a few more bites. This meatless variety is spicy, gingery and garlicky, and the peppercorn punch will leave your tongue as dazed and confused as a Richard Linklater movie.

Spice rating: 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Numbness rating: 👅👅👅👅👅
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