Wheatsville may be many things to many people, but for a lot of folks, it’s all about the Popcorn Tofu. Scroll through our Yelp! page, and you’ll see people from all over the country waxing rhapsodic over these deep-fried nuggets of goodness, using words like “stupendous” and “divine.” One enthusiastic fan raves, “It is so good I look like a crazy woman when I eat it, because I have to talk to it and let it know how much I love it.” So how did this magical stuff come to be a Wheatsville staple?
Popcorn tofu originated about ten years ago, when Wheatsville was still one store with one tiny kitchen. The cooks were struggling to meet the demand for another iconic Wheatsville dish, the Southern Fried Tofu, which calls for slices of frozen, thawed, and pressed tofu to be dunked in a marinade, then breaded with a dry mixture of flour, cornmeal, nutritional yeast, and spices. In order to streamline this process, one of the cooks came up with the idea to combine the wet and dry ingredients to create a batter for the tofu, and Wonko’s Popcorn Tofu was born (the name was quickly abbreviated to just Popcorn Tofu, or PCT in Wheatsville-speak—apparently Wonko was a shy guy).
The new dish was an immediate hit, so much so that frying batches in a cast-iron skillet on the stovetop quickly became unsustainable. Fresh Manager Dana Tomlin (then kitchen manager) took matters into her own hands and bought a tabletop deep fryer at Target, then the largest commercial fryer that could fit in the kitchen, and still the deli ran through batches of PCT in a matter of hours. By then, plans for the renovation of the Guadalupe store were in progress. Dana says, “I like to think we did it for the sake of the PCT lovers of the world! But, honestly, most of the store was having this same thing happen—we were all busting out of our seams and the need for space, larger equipment, and more storage was increasing.”
I began my Wheatsville career at around this time, in the spring of 2008, as a baker and a deli counter clerk. I have vivid memories of Dennis, a former cook, making the popcorn tofu at the end of his shift, around 2 pm. Customers would start to trickle in at this time, asking, “Is the popcorn ready yet?” We counter clerks would dash to the kitchen to pull portions of freshly fried PCT from the cooling rack to make po’boys, and by the time it was cool enough to put in the display case, half of the batch would be gone. I don’t ever recall a batch lasting past 7 pm.
One of the deli’s main priorities for the renovation, then, was to ensure that we NEVER AGAIN run out of popcorn tofu! We built our kitchen, with a giant hood vent and electrical capacity, to support a full-sized commercial fryer, doubled our batch size to 40 pounds of tofu, and the rest is Wheatsville history! The freezing, thawing, and pressing process still takes several days but is essential to the success of the dish, since it helps the batter cling to the tofu, so we’ve created a walk-in and freezer storage system that revolves around the process. Our suppliers fortunately adapted to our continuously growing demand for tofu—we buy more tofu from our distributor than anyone else in Texas!
With the PCT system honed to this fine edge, we were able to introduce another flavor a few years back. The Spicy Buffalo Popcorn Tofu (BPCT) made its debut for Super Bowl 2012 and rapidly became part of our daily routine, along with its companion sauce, the Vegan Blue Cheez Dressing. When we rolled out our pizza program not long after, Chad Peters, one of our longest-tenured cooks and a popcorn tofu master, suggested using the small crumbles that are the inevitable by-product of the frying process as a topping. I admit I scoffed, but of course he was right—the PCT and BPCT pizzas with vegan Daiya cheese are among our top sellers.
Over the years, we have shared these recipes and the tips and tricks that make them successful with over 20 other co-ops around the country. We like to think that we are helping to grow the co-op Economy nationwide, right in line with our BIG direction, by demystifying the magic that is popcorn tofu!