Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Honga's Blackened Tofu

by Jill Donenfeld

My family has been vacationing in Telluride, Colorado since 1989 and for about that long, we’ve also been devouring Honga’s Blackened Tofu. Honga Im Hopgood began dishing her pan-Asian specialties from a food cart in the late eighties on Telluride’s main drag. For those unfamiliar with Telluride, it is a small town located in the San Miguel Valley. What was once a modest mining town, Telluride is best known now for its spectacular skiing in the winter and its gorgeous climbs, hikes, and mountain biking opportunities in the summer.

It is very difficult to get to—we usually fly into Albuquerque and drive up through Sante Fe—and, because of this fact, it tends to not get as crowded as the other Colorado resorts (Vail, Aspen, Beaver Creek). Much of the small town vibe remains, even in the high season. Honga’s, although it’s grown and expanded to accommodate the season traffic, has maintained much of its charm.

I was skeptical of the continuous evolution of the restaurant, going from a humble cart, then moving to a modest set-back space, subsequently relocating to a charming town house and finally landing smack in the middle of Colorado Avenue, in a bi-level space that combined what had previously been two storefronts and a downstairs bar. What would this expanded space do to the atmosphere? The food quality? The affable nature of each and every waiter?

I was even more worried when I opened the travel section of the New York Times a few months ago and discovered that Honga’s, after moving to its newest and snazziest location, had been written up! Of course, I was proud and happy for Honga, but her restaurant is always packed and there isn’t really this need for publicity so much in Telluride. The article served only to “alert the masses,” and potentially shove us long-time Telluride-goers onto a waiting list.

So, my Holiday 2007 Ski Trip would be the test if Honga’s had succumbed to the throngs of hungry vacationers. Honga’s menu is a blend of Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese influences. Her selection of pot stickers, which change nightly, have always been a favorite of mine and my family. We love the Pad Thai; we love the Panang Curry and we love the Vietnamese beef soup, Pho.

Honga and friends
However, the crowning jewel for us, and what we dream about as we make that six-hour drive from Albuquerque, is the Blackened Tofu. The tofu is crispy and flavorful and arrives in a shallow bowl crowded with freshly sautéed vegetables. The dish is doused in a sweet, tangy soy-honey glaze that sticks to your ribs after a solid day of skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing, hiking, or biking.

This vacation, though we’d called weeks in advance for a reservation (a first!), we could only get in at 5:45. Luckily, Honga was there to greet us and show us to our table after only a little wait. She was as pleasant and personable as always, making her rounds in the dining room, pouring water and making sure her guests were enjoying themselves. Our waitress was equally as accommodating. And, our favorite dish remained the same.
Carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, zucchini, snow peas, and celery ... on our way to completing the Blackened Tofu recipe.
Even as the prices of other dishes have slightly increased, the Blackened Tofu, which easily feeds two people, rests at a practical $17. Honga also offers sushi that is both inventive and miraculously fresh, considering Telluride is burrowed amidst a massive mountain range. The Kantmakem Roll, named after one of the toughest mogul runs on the mountain, is an ingenious fusion of tuna, jalapeño, cilantro, and ginger. The A.S.A Roll is always gobbled up before anyone at the table can even reach for seconds: asparagus, salmon, and avocado.

We were all thrilled that Honga’s magic has been left in tact, despite the many external changes. And, as a result, we returned twice more during our family vacation. Each dinner was flawless and spectacular, but maintained its homey, comfortable zen.

About ten years ago, my mother purchased Honga’s first cookbook, which contains in it the Blackened Tofu recipe. We’ve made it many times and this most recent visit inspired us to make it a few nights later. The recipe is not difficult and yields a satisfying portion. If you can’t make it out to Telluride to grab a seat at Honga’s, you can easily make this dish at home.
Blackened Tofu, plated.
RECIPE, taken from Honga’s Lotus Petal Cookbook

½ cup cornstarch
1 tbsp black pepper
14 ounces tofu, well drained, patted dry and cut into ¾-inch cubes
¼ cup canola oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp minced ginger
¼ cup soy sauce
3 tbsps honey
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 cup broccoli florets
½ cup diced bell peppers
½ cup sliced zucchini
½ cup snow peas
1/8 cup sliced celery
2 cups packed raw spinach

Click to order.
Mix the cornstarch and black pepper together in a medium-size bowl. Dredge the tofu in the cornstarch mixture.

Preheat a wok or cast-iron skillet over high heat until it just begins to smoke. Drizzle the oil down the sides of the wok and allow a minute or two for it to get hot.

Shake the excess cornstarch from the tofu and place tofu into the hot oil. Sauté until the exterior of the tofu is hardened and crispy, and you hear the tofu “clink” against the sides f the wok when stirring (approximately 2 minutes).

Add the garlic, ginger, and 1/8 cup soy sauce to tofu and stir. It will begin to steam.

Add the remaining soy sauce, honey, carrot, broccoli, bell peppers, zucchini, snow peas, and celery. Allow the vegetables to caramelize before stirring. When steam rises, stir the vegetables for approximately 2 more minutes.

Serve over a bed of raw spinach with rice.

Makes 2 servings.

When not scooping the latest for NYSD, Jill Donenfeld heads up The Dish's Dishes, a personal chef and catering company founded for those who crave delicious food without the hassle of making reservations, ordering in, or turning on the oven. For more information on how to get your first DISH, check out www.TheDishsDishes.com.