Make a Splash at Neverland

Equal parts spring cleaning ritual and biggest water fight on earth, Songkran marks the Thai New Year with a splash. Tradition mandated trips to the local monasteries to pray, present offerings, and to wash the Buddhas residing within. Water was being thrown well before that, of course, symbolizing sufficient rain for the crops as part of the springtime rites. Now kids (and kids at heart) simply take this opportunity to make a splash and douse one another with Super Soakers, water balloons, and the long-reaching spray of hoses. These antics may sound mean-spirited, but given the sweltering temperatures of mid-April, it would actually be a relief to get nailed with a bucket of ice water!

Even when I visited in late January, the midday heat was astonishing. Stepping out from an air conditioned building onto the hectic, humid streets could knock the air right out of your lungs. While friends back home donned puffer jackets and knit scarves, even a light jacket was unthinkable in this climate. More mind-boggling was the notion that just around the corner, a pack of three dozen huskies, clad in thick fur coats, lay waiting for visitors bearing cool ice to crunch on. Though Songkran is going on right now, from April 13th – 15th, it very well could have been on the day of my visit from the looks of things, too.

Everyday seems like a water festival at TrueLove Cafe at Neverland, a quirky cafe in Bangkok drawing dog lovers from around the globe. Cooling humans and canines alike, all take refuge underneath the giant humming propellers of fans spinning throughout the property. Crunching contentedly on frozen cubes while gamely posing for selfies with tourists, it’s a surreal scene that defies explanation, despite the cute introductory video shown before letting visitors in for playtime.

Neither a zoo or an exhibit, Neverland seems to have grown from one woman’s love of huskies and her inability to let any suffer the heat of Bangkok alone. To keep these majestic beasts impeccably groomed, well-fed, and healthy, tickets could easily be considered a charitable donation, if you feel as silly as I did waiting over an hour to play with the pups, while a line stretched out behind me.

Surrounded by such a friendly herd of fluffy goofballs, it’s hard not to revert to childhood for at least a few minutes. Do I look happy here, maybe just a little? Perhaps the promise of finding true love is more than just a quirky cafe name…

As with the Songkran celebration, food is certainly never far from reach at the cafe, but there are no specific dishes that mark this occasion. Most memorable are the drinks, particularly the shocking aquamarine blue soda, though it tastes mostly of sugar with a hint of citrus. Go for the dogs, stay for the selfies, and not for the cafe. Just be kind and share that ice water with the dogs, no matter how tempting it may be to jump into a bucket solo.

World Renowned, Locally Loved

How many chain restaurants can draw lines everyday, from opening to closing, numbering well into the dozens on a “slow” day? What about an outpost that can claim a Michelin star? If you haven’t already heard of Din Tai Fung, there’s a good chance you’ve felt its impact on the overall culinary landscape whether you realize it or not. Born in Taiwan originally as a cooking oil purveyor, Din Tai Fung transitioned into the restaurant business in 1972 and has taken the world by storm ever since. Based primarily in Asia, the west coast has been blessed with a handful of these hallowed outposts, each one drawing rave reviews at a fevered pitch typically reserved for rarefied fine dining. Making a taste of the extraordinary accessible on a mainstream level is just one of their many triumphs.

It’s been said that their xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings, are the absolute pinnacle of perfection; the very best example of the art, executed with the exact same mastery every single time despite being made by hand, in volumes that would boggle the sober mind. Unfortunately, that’s not a debate I can weigh in on, as vegan soup dumplings are about as common as three-legged unicorns. Why bother with the wait, which can range from a minimum of  one to three hours, then? Well, there’s a whole lot more to this menu than just dough-encased parcels of pork.

Keenly aware of their local audience, Americans are treated to clearly labeled options for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes. Even without modification, overwhelming choices unfold with the turn of the page, particularly for vegetable-lovers with a penchant for spice.

Vegetable and Mushroom Dumplings surely can’t compare to their plump, porky brethren, but offer a highly competent, crowd-pleasing combination of springy wonton wrappers and tender umami fillings. The same can be said for the Vegetable and Mushroom Bun, which simply replaces that thin and chewy exterior with a puffy, fluffy cloud of steamed white bread. Essential for enjoyment is the DIY dip you’ll concoct from slivers of fresh ginger and black vinegar, mixed to taste.

No, that alone would not bring me running back to the Westfield Valley Fair mall where this Santa Clara locale has set up shop, of all places. It’s the starters and sides that make this meal. Like Thanksgiving dinner, side dishes are the stars of this show.

Go with a crowd and order every single plant-based appetizer because I can’t imagine leaving without just a bite of each transcendent taste lingering on my tongue. Soy Noodle Salad, a cold composition of shredded bean curd, is an absolute necessity. Deceptively simple on the surface, masterfully balanced flavors play on every delicate strand, sparkling with gently salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory notes in such perfect harmony that one can’t be fully separated from another. The Cucumber Salad arrives at the table like a statuesque work of edible art. Columns of stacked cylinders are crowned with a single clove of marinated garlic, which is a prize you’ll want to fight for, by the way. Wood Ear Mushrooms in Vinegar Dressing may not resonate as universally, but for fungus fiends, this is slippery plateful of earthy bliss.

Flip over to the section on greens and dig in deep. Every single dish here is completely vegan! Picking here comes down to personal preference, but don’t sleep on the Sauteed String Beans, lightly blistered from the kiss of the wok and dripping with sizeable garlic chunks. Taiwanese Cabbage gets a similar treatment, providing one of the few great examples of the concept this side of the seas.

Dessert buns stuffed with red bean paste or taro also tempt for a sweet plant-based finish, but I can’t personally vouch for these treats. Undone by an unreasonable attempt to eat through the full range of vegan specialties, I left feeling quite like an overstuffed dumpling myself.

Though you may go for the dumplings, you’ll inevitably come back for the vegetables.

Raise a Stink

With a name like “stinky tofu,” the deck is already stacked against this polarizing snack. Granted, the title is entirely well-earned, accurate if somewhat blunt, and not merely a result of cultural misunderstanding. The aroma will hit you a block away, wafting through night markets like a pungent homing beacon for those in the know. Tenaciously clinging to hair and clothing, the distinctive perfume follows you home, infused simply through proximity, whether or not you chose to partake. To the uninitiated or unadventurous, the scent is not exactly one you’d want to bottle and put in a diffuser. Rotting garbage, overflowing toilets, and decaying fish are sometimes cited as less favorable comparisons, yet fervent fans will travel an hour or more to reach their favorite hawker, slinging only the most odoriferous options imaginable.

Verified vegan stinky tofu  from 家湘涼麵 in Shilin Night Market

Do you like kombucha? Okay, then what about blue cheese? If you can stomach that, how do you feel about durian? Funky, fermented cubes of tofu is an acquired taste that may not be for everyone, particularly for western palates unaccustomed to such ripe stank. Though most flavor is discerned through our olfactory experience rather than our taste buds, the best renditions taste relatively mild in contrast to the assertive, pervasive stench.

Before sniffing out this controversial staple, be forewarned that most stinky tofu (written as 臭豆腐 or chòu dòufu) is not vegan. Traditionally fermented in a brine made with spoiled milk, fish innards, and/or dried shrimp, this “secret sauce” tends to be a closely guarded family secret, never to be disclosed under threat of death (or disownment.) In Asia, if you don’t speak the language fluently, your best bet is to start at dedicated veggie or Buddhist establishments. In the US, where dietary restrictions are the norm rather than the exception, you should be able to discern if there are any dairy or seafood additions, if not a full list of ingredients.

Texture is almost as critical as the infamously musty, gamey taste. Preparations run the gamut from practically raw to fried within an inch of their lives, but my favorite sort is deep fried, resoundingly crunchy on the outside, firm and meaty yet almost silky on the inside. The softer the tofu, the funkier the flavor, so it takes a bold eater to spring for those barely steamed squares instead.

Eating stinky tofu in Taipei, as is typically served in a plastic bag with wooden sticks

Condiments play an essential role in taming this tofu, each seasoned with an equally heavy hand to provide sufficient contrast. Fiery hot sauce and kimchi, sharp black vinegar, sweet and salty pickled vegetables, and crunchy garlic are all common and all highly recommended. Intense, bold flavors envelop your entire consciousness, punching harder with every subsequent bite, demanding your full attention from start to finish. It’s no passive grab-and-go snack, but a noteworthy event, even if it becomes a daily indulgence. .

In China and Taiwan, stinky tofu is classic comfort food, cheap and satisfying, great with (or after) a few drinks, and readily available all day, any day.

Stinky tofu from Dragon Gate Bar & Grille in Oakland, CA

Close your eyes, take a big bite, and breathe it all in. You may love it, you may hate it, but everyone should try stinky tofu at least once.