Food writers rarely strike the same place twice. There are always new restaurants, food carts, and pop-ups to try, even when the siren song of the ideal mac ‘n’ cheese or taco calls them back to a restaurant for a repeat visit. Returning to the same place several times—or making it a weekly part of your routine—is a big deal. So I have to show some love for one of my weekly haunts: Bui Natural Tofu. This unassuming spot on 76th and Glisan is always buzzing with activity, cars coming and going from its two parking lots and an ever-present yet fast-moving line inside.
“It’s a Portland institution,” says Thuy Pham, the chef-owner of Mama Dút. She’s been visiting Bui Tofu since the late ‘90s, ever since her family moved to Montavilla from Southern California—and it's still a part of her weekly rotation today. After high school let out, Pham's mom would send her to Bui Tofu—which then operated out of a Montavilla home—to pick up tofu and fresh soy milk twice a week. Her mom would cook it in soups, stews, and stir-fry dishes.
“They were offering and making tofu in the Vietnamese style when really nothing like that was available,” says Pham. “And so they really supplied and helped feed a lot of working class Portland families at the time.”
Thuha Bui opened Bui Tofu in 1998 out of a garage, along with her parents and siblings. Her family owned a tofu shop in Vietnam, and her extended family still does to this day. Her family never thought they’d make tofu when they came to the United States—but after tasting the local tofu available at the time and finding it not up to their standards, they saw a business opportunity. After a few years, business in the garage was so bustling that neighbors began to complain. Bui Tofu moved to its current space in 2005, where a bigger kitchen space allowed the menu to expand to include salad rolls, sticky rice, desserts, and more.
Bui is a grab-and-go place, part deli and part grocery store. To the right is a self-serve refrigerator full of housemade soy milk (sweet or plain), three-color desserts, and coconut and three-layer jello, plus a shelf with various dry groceries. In the back is a cooler with canned bubble tea and fermented rice. To the left are baked goods from An Xuyen Bakery—Swiss roll cakes, sponge cakes, and buns. And behind the counter, with photos and short descriptions and items of all the items printed and taped onto the glass barrier, is where all the delightful tofu lives.
At Bui, you’ll find tofu, of course—just soft, medium, or firm, but also fried. Or try the version made with green onions and glass noodles, available fresh or fried. One of my favorite types of tofu is the meat tofu—fried triangles of tofu that are stuffed with an onion-laden ground pork mixture. They’re subtly flavored if you snack on them right out of the package, but after I Googled what I was supposed to do with meat tofu, I’ve been making this easy recipe for meat tofu in tomato sauce (skipping the tofu-stuffing and frying steps) and serving it over rice with some stir-fried garlic veggies on the side for a super-quick dinner. Vegetarians can sub out the meat tofu for onion tofu—though Bui likes to make the onion tofu in a mushroom-veggie stir-fry. (She also likes to eat the lemongrass tofu straight from the package.)
And then there’s the real MVP: the tofu salad rolls, which are made with super-thick, bouncy rice vermicelli, crunchy lettuce and herbs, flavorful fried tofu, a perfectly moist and chewy rice paper wrapper, and the best peanut sauce I’ve tried in Portland. These make my list anytime I need a quick workday lunch, or something to pack for a picnic or a hike.
But Bui Tofu is about much more than tofu. Lately, I’ve been loving the orange sticky rice, flavored with coconut and jackfruit with a salty undertone. It pairs well with slices of the banana leaf-wrapped Vietnamese ham that they also sell behind the counter. My favorite dish, though, is the banh cuon: silky rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms, complete with a tiny bag of dried garlic, plenty of sprouts and herbs on top, and a container of fish sauce.
And then there are the desserts. Pandan lovers: you need the green cake in your life, a delight of chewy green rice flour pandan cake layered with frosting-like, subtly sweet coconut-mung bean paste. In the fridge, you’ll also find a firm, crunchy three-layered jello with pandan on top, coconut in the middle, and coffee on the bottom. The sesame balls also feature more of that delightful coconut-mung bean mixture inside. I love the banana pudding, a melánge of sago, coconut jellies, coconut milk, salty coconut cream, and fresh banana.
I've only found the ever-elusive steamed banana cake with coconut cream, sesame seeds, and crushed peanuts once in my dozen or so visits to Bui, but the bouncy, chewy, tropical treat is well worth searching out. Meanwhile, Pham and her mom’s favorite ever since her high school days is the tofu pudding: soft tofu drizzled with caramel-ginger syrup, dolloped with coconut cream.
Many of our Portland food makers tend to obsess over one particular dish, whether it’s chicken and rice, the perfect pizza crust, or a loaf of bread. And at Bui Tofu, which started out of a home and now serves several of these dishes that rise to that obsessive level? That’s a Portland institution.
Bui Natural Tofu, 520 NE 76th Ave, 503-254-6132, buinaturaltofu.com