The classic Sichuan dish mapo tofu is unlike anything else: A sort of stew or ragù in which the base is chile oil; thick with cubes of preferably silky tofu, ground pork, or beef (most often the former, in New York); and fermented black-bean paste or doubanjiang (broad-bean-chile paste) or both; and heady with mala, the numbing spiciness imparted by a combination of ground Sichuan pepper and chile peppers. Most versions also include trapezoids of bright-green sautéed leeks, and sometimes snips of scallion. And there’s even an intriguing origin story. “Mapo” can be translated to mean “crater-faced old lady,” and the dish is supposedly named after the woman who invented it over a century ago at a roadside stall in Chengdu; her face is said to have been pockmarked with scars from a childhood episode of smallpox. It’s bewitchingly addictive, holds up well as leftovers, and is so popular that you can get it at countless restaurants throughout the city. Here, the very best iterations of mapo tofu in New York.
2. Szechuan Gourmet
Many a New York City mapo lover has been won over to the dish after trying Szechuan Gourmet’s version of it, which is on the less-saucy side, with a rather thick, concentrated, dark-red oil (probably the result of a generous amount of corn starch) that suspends rectangles of slippery tofu and comes close to mimicking their texture: It’s unctuous, veering toward gelatinous. There’s also ground pork, black beans, big chunks of garlic, and leeks. Plus, it’s a real trip to Flavor Town, to appropriate Guy Fieri’s term: The coarsely ground Sichuan peppercorn will have your mouth vibrating, and it’s satisfyingly spicy, and even a little bit sweet.
3. Szechuan Mountain Kitchen
39-16 Prince St., Ste. G03, Flushing; 718-888-7893
The silky tofu at this super-classy, relative newcomer in a fancy Flushing mall-of-sorts is about as flavorful as tofu can be — same goes for the pork, which is just, well, especially porky. Both play beautifully off the chile-oil base, which strikes a good balance of spicy and tingly, and contains broad beans but no black beans, and fresh scallions but no leeks, plus plenty of garlic and bracing, coarsely chopped ginger. To top it all off, it’s extra elegantly presented, served in a black enamel bowl that sits in a matching tray with a built-in spoon rest. A tad too much salt is the dish’s only flaw.
4. Mission Chinese Food
171 E. Broadway, nr. Rutgers St.; no phone
As documented by Lucky Peach, the recipe for Danny Bowien and Angela Dimayuga’s version of this dish, which Danny Bowien is obsessed with, has gone through many changes and tweaks. Recently, it has been, we can report, very good, made with all sorts of surprise ingredients — including aged beef fat (though the ground meat is high-quality pork), chicken broth, fish sauce, Thai chiles, and mushroom powder — in addition to the black beans and broad-bean-chile paste, and firm tofu that they blanch to turn it ideally soft. Though it can be a bit on the sweet side, it does Bowien’s obsession very proud; it’s topped with cilantro and chives, and best paired with his ingenious salt-cod fried rice.
5. Spicy & Tasty
39-07 Prince St., Flushing; 718-359-1601
This version’s tofu is so custardy that it almost quivers, and what it lacks (doubanjiang), it makes up for with a high proportion of ground pork, black beans, leeks, and a lot of garlic. As the restaurant’s name would suggest, it’s both spicy (the chile oil offers a nice, slow burn) and tasty, striking a perfect balance between that heat and the mala from the peppercorns.
Grand Sichuan House
8701 Fifth Ave., nr. 87th St., Bay Ridge; 718-680-8887
The best mapo in Brooklyn, a borough not known for it, may be at this spot, where it’s not particularly spicy (in fact, the oil is more brown than red), but boasts the requisite jiggly bean curd, juicy ground pork, and a nice mala flavor from a hefty sprinkling of fresh ground peppercorn.
The Philadelphia-born Sichuan mini-chain makes its very good interpretation with hoisin, black bean, and doubanjiang, plus the Korean red-pepper flakes known as gochugaru.
A version so thick, it’s almost like a Bolognese, oozing spicy, orange chile oil from the ground-pork-black-bean-garlic concoction that coats the creamy tofu, studded with leeks and dusted modestly with ground peppercorn.
Lao Cheng Du
37-17 Prince St., Flushing; 718-886-5595
Another on the ragù-end of the spectrum, with a deep, slow-cooked umami flavor to match its texture, which makes up for a relative lack of heat.