If tofu for breakfast sounds terrible, I can sympathize. Americans like myself have a distaste for the stuff that we know mostly as the curiously spongy, cube-shaped meat replacement found in waterlogged plastic packaging in the part of the grocery store also reserved for equally detestable meatless creations such as Tofurky (though Soyrizo, the chorizo alternative made with soy, is surprisingly great). Miya Shay, KTRK reporter and fill-in anchor, has the opposite problem. As a Chinese native, Shay could never understand why Americans hated tofu so much—that is, until she tasted the stuff we make.
"They make their tofu fresh here," Shay said as she ordered two variants of tofu for breakfast during a recent Saturday morning meal at Golden Panda with family and friends. This makes all the difference, she says—and it's a revelation indeed for anyone who's never had the real stuff. "This tofu has the texture of panna cotta," she noted as bowls full of softly jiggling, off-white mounds arrived at our table.
One, listed on the menu as "sweet jellied tofu," was topped with a ginger syrup with salty-sweet peanuts and tasted like delicate, decadent flan; the other, called "salted jellied tofu," far surpassed its unpleasant-sounding name. Mixed in with the creamy tofu—which makes up for an absent flavor profile with its melt-in-your-mouth texture—was barely spicy ground beef in a red chile sauce, topped with fresh sprigs of cilantro. "We don't eat the sweet tofu very often," Shay said. "We ordered it for you." And though the sweet version was good, I could see why the meat-topped tofu was far more popular.
Golden Panda isn't the only joint in Chinatown that serves breakfast. You can also find Chinese breakfast standards like youtiao—the fried cruller-like dough you dip in sweet soy milk—and green onion pancakes at Classic Kitchen, an old favorite, though Shay says most Chinese breakfast-seekers are heading to Dun Huang Plaza to eat at Golden Panda instead these days, and for an important reason: the chef from Classic Kitchen is now working at Golden Panda. He makes more than just his tofu fresh; he's also known for his hand-cut noodles, another popular breakfast item.
Shay's husband, Texas State Representative Gene Wu, piped up from across the table: "The noodles are my favorite." Noodles are a traditional breakfast item in northern China, where wheat is traditionally grown, but Golden Panda serves breakfast dishes from all over the country, including Cantonese congee and Taiwanese pancakes in varieties from green bean to pumpkin (the latter being one of my favorite dishes at Golden Panda). "The Chinese take their food very seriously," Wu intoned. But meals themselves, he continued, aren't as much. "You can burp," laughed Wu. "It's a sign that you're having a good time. And feel free to use your hands. Just dig in."
The best part about breakfasting at Golden Panda isn't just the revelatory tofu or the freshly made noodles or the contagiously fun dining atmosphere that does encourage you to dig in—and burp, maybe, if you're feeling up to it—but the combination of all of these things, especially when you note the low, low price tag. Those big, beautiful bowls of tofu are $2 each and can feed two to four people. The youtiao—which taste like beignets minus all the fussy powdered sugar and syrup—are $1.50 per plate. The scallion pancakes are $2.50. The most expensive item on the menu is $7.95 for a plate of steamed pork dumplings with chives, eggs, and shrimp. You can feed an army of your own friends and family at Golden Panda for two $20 bills.
Today marks the first day of Chinese New Year, the year of the goat (or the sheep, depending on who you ask), a year which some are predicting will be full of opportunities to change for the better. Why not celebrate by trying something different for breakfast at Golden Panda—you may find a few new favorite foods while you expand your cultural horizons, which is definitely a change for the better in our books.
Golden Panda, 9889 Bellaire Blvd., Ste. 309, 832-831-4998