Vegetarian Barbecue 'Spare Ribs' and Fried Rice
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
I had a memory of Sunday night dinners at Ruby Foo's in Montreal in the 1970s. Sunday was the casual family night, but seeing other kids there did not detract from the mystery and excitement of Ruby Foo's, which transported me to a location I could not find on a map, hovering somewhere over airspace between Hong Kong and Hawaii. There was that thrill of turning off Decarie Blvd and seeing the towering neon sign glowing in the Montreal winter dark, spelling out Ruby Foo's and mets chinois. The interior decor was dark and grown up. And the menu was so exotic. First of all, there were topless hula girls on the cover. The fake Chinese lettering of the menu told me it was a Chinese restaurant, but I already knew that it didn't serve Chinese food. And yet, everything was greasy sweet deliciousness.
What made Ruby Foo's even more fantastic was that I was allowed to order the pu-pu platter, which arrived on the table with its own miniature fire pit that kept the appetizers warm over a tiny blue sterno flame. Of course just telling the waiter you wanted the "pu-pu platter" was extremely fun. And the highlight of the pu-pu platter were those little spare ribs. Most people ordered them. Ruby Foo's had a predominantly Jewish clientele, and many of our fellow diners were friends, neighbors, or my father's patients. My parents were always amused to learn who was only kosher in the house.
Ruby Foo's was at the bleeding edge of what we call tiki. which now I know is offensive. We used to think it was just making fun of a kitschy, imaginary Polynesia, as well as anyone who believed that such a place was real. Ruby Foo's did not self-identify as "tiki." So at the very least it was not profaning someone's religion.
I do have fond memories of other fake Polynesian beach bars over the years, some of which had the misfortune of being named or decorated with tiki, notably Tiki Ted Ciral's, in the Kenwood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Tiki Ted's was the place to go after 2 am, when the other bars closed. There were many nights that ended with "It's Tiki Time!" Ted kept a giant antique lab jar behind the bar labeled MSG. Not sure whether it was a joke or not. People claimed it was real, and used like a sugar bowl. I avoided the food, and stuck to the Zombies.
I also loved the Hu Ke Lau, in Chicopee, Massachusetts, which had a floor show with hula dancers and featured Duke Ely and his Samoans. My husband remembers being taken as a small boy to the Hawaii Kai in midtown Manhattan. And I loved Trader Vic's at the Plaza, a victim of the hotel's "upgrade" in the early 1990s. All these places are closed now.
I wondered whether Polynesian Chinese food could be delicious separated from the problematic eidos of tiki, and tried to replicate those little pu-pu platter ribs. We are not pork eaters at my house, and I have been making a lot of spicy sauce tofu over rice recently. This dish could deliver the flavors of spare ribs without the ribs.
Homemade fried rice was a revelation. It is much better than take-out, and doesn't have that smoky, reused oil aftertaste that take-out fried rice often has. If you use fresh rice and lay off the soy sauce, it becomes a delicious accompaniment to any Asian fusion dish you might want to make.
1/2 cup Hoisin sauce
1/4 cup of soy sauce
1 tbsp of sugar
1/2 tsp Chinese five spice powder (if you have a decent spice collection, you can make your own by mixing equal amounts of Szechuan peppercorns, cinnamon and clove along with fennel and star anise and grind in a spice grinder)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp ginger
red food coloring (if you want the full retro experience)
Whisk together all the ingredients in a small saucepan and heat until everything is dissolved and mixed thoroughly. If you like, you can add food coloring until the sauce achieves a mid-century motor lodge red. Set aside.
1 box extra firm tofu, sliced
toasted sesame oil
Take tofu out of box and wrap in paper towels and then a dishcloth. Place a plate, weighted with something heavy, on top of the block of tofu, and let sit for about 15 minutes. This removes any excess water.
Heat oil in a wok or non-stick skillet. When oil is hot, slip tofu into the pan and fry until underside is golden, then flip and do the same. Remove from pan and set aside.
2 cups left over white rice (you can use a pot of fresh rice, but left over gets a bit dried out and gets nice and crispy when fried).
1 carrot, diced
1 scallion, sliced, white and green parts divided
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. peeled and minced ginger (from a 1" piece)
1/2 cup frozen peas
soy sauce to taste
Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat until very hot. You can use the pan used to fry tofu.
Add more sesame oil if needed. (Recommend not substituting sesame oil, which gives the fried rice its ineffable fried rice flavor).
Beat egg with 1 teaspoon water and a large pinch salt and add to skillet. Cook just until it's no longer wet. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
Return skillet to high heat and add more oil if needed, then carrots, and whites of the green onions. Cook until lightly golden, about 2 minutes.
Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 minute.
Add rice, peas, and cooked eggs and fry.
Add soy sauce (recommend adding very small amounts gradually- it's better with not much at all). Cook, stirring until heated through, 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste and top with a few more scallion bits.
Return the tofu to a hot pan and reheat together with the sauce.
Plate the fried rice and top with tofu.