This article appears in the December 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com. **use this link https://www.loumag.com/subscribe.aspx 
I used to think I was too familiar with tofu. For years I’ve mopped up mapo tofu at my local Szechuan, had it on a hoagie at health-food stores, even made it as mock chicken or pork in my own kitchen. This familiarity was breeding, if not contempt, at least a bit of tofu tedium. But recently at Roots, owner Coco Tran’s latest vegetarian culinary venture, I discovered an entirely new appreciation for the stuff.
Kentucky’s only tofu-manufacturing machine is a few steps away from Roots, through a passageway connecting the restaurant to what Tran says is its “more street-food” sister, Heart and Soy. In a recent phone conversation, Tran told me that Roots is “more international,” while Heart and Soy is “more Asian.” The two share a kitchen and many of the same menu items, though Heart and Soy’s side of the building seems geared toward takeout, while Roots invites you in for a more leisurely and refined experience.
The front dining area is spare yet sophisticated, featuring colorful vegetable photography; simple wood tables, chairs and banquettes; and floor-to-ceiling windows that keep out street noise while providing an expansive view of Bardstown Road. (You may, as I did, choose to season your Roots dishes with a dash of irony by contemplating the McDonald’s located almost directly across the street.) The restaurant’s rear has low, Japanese-style tables and floor pillows, though the raised platform does offer under-table cutouts for those uncomfortable with crossed-leg dining. I visited Roots for both lunch and dinner and each time gained another insight into what tofu can do.
The place is strictly vegetarian, with many dishes that can be turned vegan on demand. Drink choices are limited to water and a wide selection of teas, which are grouped into several categories — blacks, greens, oolongs and even the digestion-enhancing “bird’s nest” Pu-erh ($5 per pot). Your server will be happy to explain the varieties before bringing an hourglass timer to ensure you get an optimal brew for your choice. (They’ll also bring more hot water for a second steep, should you require it.)
Tran says she opens vegetarian restaurants “because I want to help people be healthy.” Her tofu machine — a stainless-steel, computerized system about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle — grinds soybeans into milk, coagulates it into curds, then presses the curds into tofu. She buys her beans from London, Ohio, and at least once a week churns out about 1,000 pounds of tofu. “I found out the soy grown in Kentucky has too many chemicals and is only good for animals,” she told me. “I don’t want chemicals. We sell fresh, organic tofu.” At the time of our conversation, Tran had tofu for retail sale at Heart and Soy, each package preserved only in fresh water, which the sales staff pointedly advised buyers to change every day for home storage.
My first taste of Tran’s tofu was in Roots’ revelatory won ton soup ($5, $8 large bowl). Firm slices, lightly fried and lemongrass-kissed, floated in a clean and bright broth, sweet with caramelized shallots and spiked with scallions, chile and vinegar. More tofu helped tame a lovely and fiery green curry ($5, $8 large bowl). But a small serving of fried tofu squares with tamarind sauce ($4) really demonstrated the difference in Tran’s cooking. Outside, the tofu was crispy and brittle, holding a hot, creamy and almost-liquid interior, with a grassy-fresh sweetness brought out by the mild tamarind.
But not everything at Roots is about the tofu. While Asian ideas predominate, the menu also shows French, Italian and other influences, especially those of Michael Ton, Tran’s nephew and creative force behind such successes as the Vietnamese restaurant Basa. “My experience is with Asian dishes,” says Tran, who has owned and operated restaurants such as Cafe Mimosa, the Eggroll Machine, Zen Garden and Zen Teahouse since 1981, building Roots out of the ashes of the former Cafe Mimosa property that burned down. “Michael helped me come up with more Western ideas,” she says.
Dishes such as smoked Caprese salad with lapsang-souchong-infused balsamic vinaigrette ($7) and ginger poached pear with marinated feta, mint and citrus vinaigrette ($6) tempted me, but with all the tofu I was eating, I settled for a lighter salad of red grapefruit with avocado and fennel ($6), which had an interesting, non-tofu interplay of bitter, sweet, spicy and buttery. I also enjoyed, yes, the tofu in my green papaya salad ($6), but the sesame-toast garnishes — fluffy crisps that put shrimp chips to shame — were the dish’s real stars. Fried oyster mushrooms with a crisp tempura batter ($8) were — dare I say about a vegetarian dish? — almost chicken-like, their meaty texture crying out for a slightly spicier basil and wasabi aioli.
Unfortunately, on a later visit, during a somewhat busy dinner hour, the restaurant’s shared kitchen suffered some slowdowns and quality issues, meaning the tempura batter on my fried seasonal vegetables ($7), which I waited almost an hour for, was tough and rubbery. On that same night, however, my crispy potato “nest” ($9) proved worth the wait. Crisp-tender carrots, bok choy, broccoli, mushrooms and other vegetables, as well as more of Tran’s tofu, crunched along with the shattered potato nest, each bite enhanced with a light-brown soy-sesame sauce.
Roots had been open a few months at the time of my visits, and Tran told me she might change the menu by the time you read this review. I’m hopeful the won ton soup will still be there because I’ll keep stopping by for the occasional bowl — and an opportunity to buy a pound or two of Tran’s transformational tofu.
Photos: Courtesy John Nation