For my money, 臭豆腐 (literally “stinky tofu”), has got to be the most flavor-packed vegan food item on the planet. That doesn’t mean that all vegans will enjoy it, just as not all non-vegans enjoy a blue Stilton cheese, let alone Nordic lutefisk. But vegan or carnivore, if you enjoy exploring new horizons of bold flavor, you’ll be happy to learn that this delicacy is now available here in Albuquerque—though it is only listed in Chinese on Fei’s menu.
Fei’s was originally located right across Central from UNM. I remember sharing vegan bento boxes with high school friends and sipping Fei’s very sweet strawberry smoothies in the early 2000s. Fei’s food was beloved, as was Fei herself, for providing such a cozy and hospitable space. Sadly, due to an illness in the family, Fei closed up her cafe and moved back to Taiwan in 2014. The old location now houses O Ramen and Curry House, and Fei’s rather inexplicable mural of anthropomorphic bees has long since been covered with a coat of black paint.
After four years on the Isla Formosa, Fei moved back to Albuquerque, where it slowly dawned on her how much people missed her delicious vegan Taiwanese street foods. The new Fei’s Café is located up on Eubank and Candelaria NE; it shares a strip mall with Keller’s Farm Store and a more standard Cantonese-American-style Chinese spot. But Fei’s still has plenty of character. Above a robin’s egg blue and crimson red sign, above writing in both Chinese and English, is a photo of Fei with her daughter, who used to help out at the old café between her classes at UNM. At the bottom it reads “OPEN!!!NOW.” This space is smaller than her previous location but is still inviting. Art and posters display the beauty and rich cultures of her homeland.
Full disclosure: After a post-college summertime dishwashing gig, I moved out to Taiwan for a year to teach English and explored the city of Taipei and the tropical island beyond by bike with both local and North American friends. I picked up a bit of a betel nut habit and a working knowledge of local culture and customs, but my Taiwanese and Mandarin never got beyond simple pleasantries and mumbled curses. Still, lots of time spent feasting in Taipei’s open air night markets means I can request some standard Taiwanese dishes—if the host can decipher my mispronounced tones. I started off my order at Fei’s confidently, asking for the “chou dofu” … and then resorted to English. I went far bigger than any one person ever needs, just so I could sample an array of items. Despite being vegan, Fei’s food is generally pretty heavy.
After Fei handed me a neat cardboard box full of Styrofoam take-out containers (one downside of this pandemic has got to be the massive increase in trash being produced), I headed outside (another downside of the pandemic) to sample the food. The stinky tofu was a heavenly assault on my olfactory system and taste buds. And yes, to be honest with you, stinky tofu is an acquired taste. At Taipei’s world-famous night markets, you can follow what many say resembles the smell of raw sewage to the stinky tofu stands. However, once the aged tofu has been fried, the offensive odor is tempered and the nuanced flavors unique to this dish develop.
Fei serving this dish—in Albuquerque—is no small feat. It requires patience and a deep understanding of fermentation. The cultures that are used, much like for an aged cheese, are often closely guarded family secrets. Fei’s version is topped with some fermented cabbage, much like Korean kimchi but with less spice and a bit of sweetness, and a sprinkling of both white and black peppers. If you are someone into the more fetid spectrum of flavors, such as cave-aged cheeses and preserved fish products, please consider sampling this dish—but do so while the cubes of tofu are still hot. Not even its fans tend to enjoy the taste of lukewarm chou dofu.
To wash the lingering funk in my mouth away, I took a few satisfying gulps of Fei’s soy milk, made in house. I went for the sweet version and found it to be both silky in consistency and rich in flavor. (On Sunday mornings Fei serves up her hot soy milk with a side of yo-tiaou, sort of less-sweet churro-like fried dough sticks that you dip in the milk. This is a favorite breakfast combo not just in Taiwan but across much of mainland China as well.) Next I bit into a mock-pork bao. The consistency of the stuffed bun was good, but it seemed rather bland. Perhaps I should not have started off the meal with the most pungent item?
Finally, I opened up the curry stew with “vegi-nuggets” over steamed rice. While mild in chile spice, this was not a bland dish. It had a deep richness from what I suspect is coconut cream, and many layers of spice elevated the potato and carrot chunks. While not exactly a traditional Taiwanese dish, it worked perfectly with Fei’s crunchy on the outside, and downright meaty inside, vegan nuggets. These sizeable morsels, available with the curry and also as a lunch special, are worth a trip to Fei’s all on their own. In terms of both flavor and texture, they easily beat out most nuggets and tenders made of actual chicken. I washed it all down with the last gulps of the sweetened soy milk and braced myself for a rapidly approaching food coma.
Even if you are not vegan, and even if you are not ready to brave Fei’s stinky tofu, I hope that you make it up to this wonderful Heights eatery to get acquainted with some of Fei’s takes on traditional Taiwanese favorites. Now if only she can find a way to replicate xiaolongbao (soup dumplings)!