I-Tea Cafe in Irvine serves stinky tofu, that maldorous deep-fried treat that smells as though someone purposely dipped a sweaty gym sock in the sewer, stuck it under your nose, and then farted in your face. That's how bad stinky tofu stinks.
But what's curious about the I-Tea is that despite the fact it serves stinky tofu, the rooms actually smells like pizza. Anywhere you sit inside the brightly lit restaurant, but especially underneath one of the main air vents, you get whiffs of doughy bread baking with marinara and cheese.
After a few visits, I realized it wasn't my imagination--it was
pizza I was smelling. A Papa John's is right next door and apparently the ventilation systems are connected. And so when I actually ordered the stinky tofu, my nose was fooled into thinking I was eating pepperoni pizza while my mouth enjoyed the slightly bitter, slightly tangy, slighty spongy tofu cubes in a sweet-and-sour soy sauce slurry and topped with pickled veggies.
Don't get me wrong: it still reeks if you encounter a particularly ripe one, as though something died on your plate and started decomposing. But if you can stand Gruyere, you shouldn't be afraid of stinky tofu--it's just another wonderful product of fermentation. Besides that, it's the most Taiwanese thing you can order in a restaurant that, in my opinion, is one of the best Taiwanese joints in a town full of Taiwanese joints.
Yes, you can conceivably just drop in to have a milky slush (which is a boba drink that forgets the pretense that you need anything having to do with tea in a boba drink). You can even have the pork chop rice (which is as fine an example as any, and served in portions enough for two people). But what you should do is order from the snack menu, which has the stinky tofu and the gigantic plate of popcorn chicken, morsels of lightly battered chunks of dark meat sprinkled with a flurry of spicy-salt and crispy fried basil leaves.
As a palate cleanser, I always order some of the really great brined cucumbers with bits of raw garlic. And I never go to I-Tea without asking for the pidan tofu--blocks of chilled silken tofu doused with a sugary sauce and topped with a thousand-year-old egg, pork rousong and scallions--one of my all-time favorite things.
I ate it all together and wondered: if it smells like pizza in here, does it smell like stinky tofu at the Papa John's?
15435 Jeffrey Road
Irvine, CA 92618
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