One of Heart & Soy's many noodle dishes. PHOTO: Ron Jasin

Heart & Soy gets to the heart of soy

Today let us consider the humble soybean. Those savvy Asians have been chowing down on them for 5,000 years, and making tofu for most of the last millennium. Soybeans became a major U.S. crop after World War II. We feed most of it to animals. Offer most people a bite of tofu, and they’ll go, “Eeuuww.”

Still, people who love tofu really love it, and some even make audacious claims, declaring it “superfood” or the ultimate food for health. Even the more discreet folks at the Mayo Clinic are bullish on soybeans, declaring soy “an excellent source of dietary protein, including all essential amino acids.” In other words, soy may be the only vegetable that can supply the body all the protein it needs. Just like meat.

If you already love tofu and soy-related products, you’re probably familiar with Heart & Soy and its sibling under the same roof, Roots. If you’re still in the “Eeuuww!” camp, you really ought to give this superfood, er, soy-based dish a try, and there’s no better place than Heart & Soy to do it.

If you think tofu is merely a bland white pudding, treat yourself to lunch here and be prepared to have your attitude and your palate recalibrated. They make their tofu and soy milk right on the premises in shiny metal machines tended by hard-working technicians toiling behind glass.

If Roots is an upscale vegetarian bistro with international dishes, Heart & Soy gets right down to Asian street food with a vegetarian twist. And who doesn’t like street food of any nationality, regardless of its meatfulness?

Heart & Soy’s 20-item menu is brief and affordable, ranging in price from $3 (for sizzling fried tofu) to $8 (for a variety of tofu, rice or noodle dishes). Most of the dishes are vegan; a few are vegetarian, mostly removed from “plant-based” status by the presence of eggs. You won’t find a speck of meat, poultry or seafood in the house, but even if you’re a hard-core omnivore, I doubt you’ll ever notice its absence in these high-flavor delights.

We started with a shared appetizer, fried tofu squares ($3). A half-dozen 1-inch cubes of just-made firm tofu were deep-fried until the insides were steaming and creamy within a gently crunchy, pale-tan crust. This is a great way to introduce yourself to tofu. Taste, enjoy the texture and the subtle “white bean” flavor of freshly made tofu, then dip one in a sweet-tart tamarind sauce to glimpse how tofu absorbs the flavor of whatever it’s served with.

The Vietnamese sandwich ($5) is a meatless take on the classic bánh mì sandwich that goes back to Vietnam’s French colonial heritage. It’s a mini-baguette filled with veggie alternatives to the usual combination of meats: pressed tofu, tofu “ham” smoked to a flavor that’s a lot like you-know-what, mushroom paté, lettuce, tomato, paper-thin jalapeño slices and a dab of mayo. Tastes like bánh mì!

Quang’s traditional yellow noodles ($7), a big, hearty bowl, is filled with golden, turmeric-flavored Vietnamese rice noodles. They’re tossed in a soup bowl with batons of plain and “ham” tofu, julienne carrots and onions, crispy rice-cracker crunchies, chopped peanuts and Vietnamese spices.

No wine, beer or liquor is served, but there’s an impressive collection of Asian teas, herbal teas and “bubble tea.” We enjoyed our lunch with Japanese kukicha, which is “stick tea” made from the stalks and twigs of green tea.

Tofu “pudding” was a billowy scoop of silken tofu as delicate as soft whipped cream, dressed with a sweet fresh ginger sauce. Light and refreshing, it was a fine wrap-up for a memorable street-food meal.

Lunch for two was $22.26, plus a $5 tip. We couldn’t resist a takeout cup of just-made soy milk and a block of still warm, fresh tofu, too. My heart’s in soy.

Heart & Soy
1216 Bardstown Road • 452-6678
Rating: 91


Heart & Soy’s Thanksgiving gift

As she has done for the past 11 years at Zen Garden in Clifton, Huong “CoCo” Tran, owner of Heart & Soy, Roots and Zen Garden, will offer her annual Thanksgiving gift to the community at all three restaurants all day on Thanksgiving Eve. Eat what you like, pay what you wish, and the restaurant’s entire proceeds for the day will go to four Louisville charities and one national Buddhist organization. It’s a gracious gift and an impressive gesture.