Food writer Carolyn Wyman wrote a feature for Philadelphia City Paper that probed the stories behind some of Philadelphia's most popular dishes. Alas, City Paper ceased publication. We're proud to continue Carolyn's fine work here at philly.com/food.
It would be easy to walk right on by Fu-Wah Mini Market on 47th Street in West Philly thinking it's just another cookie-cutter convenience store. But it would be a big mistake - especially if you're a vegetarian: This nondescript place is home to Philly's most celebrated tofu hoagie.
"We called it a hoagie because that's kind of what it translates to in English," Fu-Wah owner David Lai, 41, explains. "It's really a banh mi," with all the ingredients traditional to that Vietnamese sandwich, including daikon, cilantro, jalapeno, pickled carrot, a homemade mayonnaise-y spread, a lightly toasted roll and, in this case, tofu dressed with a shot of sriracha.
A Fu-Wah tofu hoagie newbie is immediately impressed with the freshness of the roll and the veggie toppings, the heftiness of the tofu and the way its savory soy seasoning contrasts with the sourness of the vinegar in the carrots and the heat of the hot sauce and the chili.
"It tastes good and it's satisfying," says Lai, when asked to explain the sandwich's success. That satisfaction comes cheap: $4.30 - or $1 to $2 less than the typical 6-inch Philadelphia hoagie.
Today chain restaurants mainly focused on meatless meals line Walnut Street serving students and staff of the neighborhood's resident universities, and even non-Asians have heard of banh mi. But to debut a sandwich menu with tofu during Philly's salami-and soppressata-heavy early aughts must have required real vision.
No, Lai says, it actually was just a consequence of looking around Fu-Wah's Baltimore Avenue neighborhood and realizing that it was surrounded by vegetarians - "more than anywhere else in the in the whole city," Lai believes. Introducing this sandwich back then did require patience and flexibility in dealing with traditional hoagie expectations, however.
"At first a lot of people would ask, 'Can you put lettuce and onion on them?' Now the banh mi is a lot more known." Also of help: a menu board listing all the ingredients.
Though Chinese in heritage, Lai and his family lived in Vietnam before moving to America in 1980, opening the market (named for their hoped-for "good luck") two years later. Although the sandwiches are assembled onsite, the tofu has always been cooked at one of the family's restaurants (originally at Vietnam Restaurant in Chinatown; since 2008, at its Vietnam Cafe next door to the market).
Lai says they tried a dozen tofu preparations before settling on a light fry followed by a 30 to 45-minute simmer in a blend of vegetable broth, lemongrass, garlic powder and other (secret) ingredients. The Lais use Aversa's Italian hoagie rolls instead of the traditional French baguette in deference to their customers' gums.
Tofu hoagie enthusiasts can round out their sandwich lunch with Fu-Wah's eclectic selection of drinks (real-sugar Mexican Coke, Reed's, Jarritos and Boylan sodas, San Pellegrino flavored waters) and snacks (Dirty and Garden of Eatin' chips, Pocky sticks, single-serve Tate's chocolate chip cookies) that Lai also does not take credit for.
"I buy what they want. Not what I want," he says. And having lived on the upper floors of this building since 1982 and worked at the market full time since he was 19, he knows his customers well.
Indeed, an interview to talk tofu is frequently interrupted by people seeking his help in finding specific products or just saying hello. The neighborhood's changing demographics led him to add pork with pork pate, shredded chicken, roast pork and grilled pork to the banh mi menu about five years back.
The grilled pork banh mi has actually developed its own Yelp fan base. But the tofu remains the best-seller.