Xiao Tan Douhua (小谭豆花, Dianping) is a celebrated snack shop in Sichuan, churning out many of the classic Sichuan small plates, like red-oil dumplings (抄手) and dan dan noodles (担担面), that you’ll see on even more traditional sit-down restaurants’ menus. The specialty here is their extra-soft tofu (豆花), which is featured either as soupy dishes both sweet and savory, or as meaningful additions to noodles.
There were three of us, so we were able to take down the most of the menu. In essence, everything was simple, a lot of starch and chili oil, unhealthy amounts of MSG, silken tofu in a tasteless broth thickened with corn starch, and various delectable (often crispy) toppings. Many of these are classics of Sichuan snackery, like 甜水面 (literally translated as sweet water noodles), 钟水饺 (clock dumplings, a simpler counterpart to 红油抄手, red-oil chaoshou dumplings), dan dan noodles, mung bean jelly (煮凉粉), and steamed beef (蒸牛肉) laced with the infamously numbing peppercorn.
I love the dynamics going on in a bowl of thick noodles, the chewiness of a drier version of udon, plus the combination of chili oil, soy sauce, and sesame oil that sits innocently at the bottom of the bowl until you start tossing the noodles and then it rises into the air and pulls you in by the nosehairs, facefirst. Same with Xiao Tan’s dan dan noodles: somewhat unremarkable until you get the minced pork mixed into the peanut-y chili oil, combined with the absorptive powers and easy slurpability of the soft, fettucine-shaped noodles.
The dumplings were quite tasty, with a fatty mildness that balanced out the havoc that the red-oil, across our various dishes, was collectively wreaking on our taste buds and sweat glands. Mung bean jelly to me is more a summer thing (I don’t know if that’s traditionally true at all), but the tough part about this version was that there was just so much damn MSG that we had to literally dust off our bowl before mixing it. The steamed beef was our least favorite; it was like a poor man’s version of 麻香排骨, sticky-rice-wrapped steamed spare ribs perfumed with peppercorn oil, but in somewhat unappealing baby-food form. Then there were Xiao Tan’s own specialty dishes featuring silken tofu. In particular, the silken tofu noodles (豆花面), with a haphazard scattering of ground beef atop an island of white noodles with a shallow red-oil moat swimming with peanuts and green onions, and below all that a glutinous lagoon of silken tofu pieces. The combination is surprising in that it makes the experience of eating spicy noodles a soothing one, the heat tempered by the slippery noodles and soupy tofu. The wonton crisp tofu (撒子豆花) was the opposite, where the douceur of the silken tofu required the crunch of the fried strips to lend an interesting interruption. These were quite good, and new experiences as far as savory silken tofu went for me.
For dessert, the silken tofu was reincarnated into two simple forms, one with fermented rice (and a stray wolfberry or two) called cold drunken tofu (冰醉豆花) and with brown sugar syrup. Both were good but not revelatory, about what one would expect with the dishes’ names. Xiao Tan Silken Tofu / 小谭豆花
86-13 Xi Da Street / 西大街86附13号