Like gender and visible light, great mapo tofu exists on a spectrum. Some versions of this Szechuan soft tofu dish are served in a thick, dark sauce with heaps of pork and garlic, and others come in runny pools of bright, red oil topped exclusively with lip-numbing mala spices. But all of the city’s 11 best mapo tofu dishes below nail the balance of doubanjiang (fermented broad bean paste), hot chili oil, Szechuan peppercorns, and tofu so silky it deserves its own thread count. These are the dishes worth planning an afternoon around. And, if you’re not looking to dine out right now, know that mapo tofu travels exceedingly well for delivery, and often tastes even better heated up the next day.
Guan Fu in Flushing single-handedly raised the bar for the places included on this guide. You’ll taste just as much distinct spice in their mapo tofu from the dish’s chili oil as you will from the tingling Szechuan peppercorns. There’s not a ton of pork visually present, but still enough meaty flavor to inspire an image of two happy pigs smoking cigars on a couple of lounge chairs. Fish around for the occasional salty explosion from fermented black beans, our favorite aspect of the dish.
If there were a mapo tofu award show (why isn’t there?), this Sunset Park spot that opened in 2018 would win the category of Most Viscous Sauce. There’s not as much of a lasting tingle in this shimmering, chunky sauce as you’ll find at places like Szechuan Absolute or Han Dynasty, but the tofu cubes look like they’d happily take a few minutes onstage to shout out their hair and makeup team. They break apart perfectly in half, just like we did at home when we realized our leftover bag was still sitting at the restaurant.
When we last ate Hwa Yuan’s mapo tofu, we pretty much stopped paying attention to everything else in front of us (including our own mother visiting from Maryland, and the glorious Peking duck being carved tableside on the East Broadway sidewalk). This dish has its own narrative arc. It introduces itself with mouth-vibrating mala heat, and then transitions to an emotional second act with overwhelming funk from the fermented broad bean paste and garlicky pork. We’re not saying there should be a tofu-themed opera based on Hwa Yuan’s dish, but we’re not not saying it either.
About ten seconds after you take your first bite of this thick-style Flushing spot’s mapo tofu, a buzz of mala spice will creep through your upper body, as if you’ve swallowed a bluetooth speaker. But the difference between this mapo tofu and other versions that also blackmail your senses for thirty minutes, is that there’s plenty of salt, garlic, and ground pork to cut the heat. Szechuan Absolute is located right above Szechuan Mountain House and Guan Fu in Flushing’s One Fulton Square - in case you’re planning a mapo tofu crawl.
Szechuan Mountain House’s bright, oil-heavy mapo sent us into a deep, late-night internet hole. There we were, sitting in the glow of our phone at 1am searching “why is Szechuan peppercorn so spicy,” “reason for mala spice numb,” and even “mapo is tingle town.” We’ll save you the Googling. It turns out that Szechuan peppers have a small percentage of hydroxy alpha sanshool - a molecule in plants that numbs human nerves. Isn’t science terrific? Now that you know the facts, it’ll only improve the incredible, stomach-vibrating sensation of eating Szechuan Mountain House’s long-rectangular shaped tofu. Both of their locations (in Flushing and on St. Marks in the East Village) are open for outdoor dining.
While mapo tofu is historically made with minced beef, most Sichuan restaurants in New York City use pork. Spicy Moon is one exception, since they omit meat entirely. This vegan Chinese restaurant with locations in the East Village and West Village makes mapo tofu that will certainly not make you miss meat. What this mapo lacks in intense numbing spice (even if you request spicy), it makes up for in fermented funk and garlic. Make sure to get an order of scallion pancakes too, they’re notably thin and crispy.
Flushing has its fair share of great Szechuan restaurants (some of which you’ll find mentioned on this list) but Szechuan House is the oldest in the area. It’s been around since 1985, and produces mapo tofu so intensely seasoned with peppercorns and mala spices that it’ll make even your water taste sour. This dish is served in a pool of thin red oil with a heavy dusting of ground Szechuan peppercorns on top. If you like your mapo tofu on the extra tingly side, you’ll love this one.
If eating Szechuan House’s mapo tofu is like going to a (pleasant and cathartic) heavy metal show, then you can think of eating Han Dynasty’s version as listening to hair metal. It’s slightly less alarming to your senses, but still numbing and peppery enough to get you amped up. Han Dynasty has a few different locations around the city, and the bright red, oil-heavy mapo tofu - along with their dan dan noodles - should be heavily involved in your delivery rotation.
Another excellent vegetarian mapo tofu to know about. Cafe China’s version comes in a thickened, dark sauce with braised tofu and a ton of garlic. People often ask us about finding a Midtown restaurant that’s ideal for an impressive group dinner. The first thing we usually say is “Cafe China,” and the second thing we say is “get the mapo tofu.”
This College Point Sichuan restaurant is currently only offering takeout and delivery, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to try their spicy mapo tofu. There’s less thin, oily sauce to coat the tofu than we’ve seen in other versions, and minimal pork at the party. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’ll be mild or subtle. To say this mapo has heat is an understatement.
This Long Island City restaurant’s mapo tofu stands out partly because of its accessories. For instance, Hupo tops its mapo tofu with a small handful of ground Szechuan peppercorns, like a dollop of whipped cream on a sundae. We suggest thoroughly mixing in the peppercorns and digging for bites involving scallions. Also, Hupo’s excessively thick-cut scallions add a brightness that’s so often missing in sub-par mapo tofu.