PORTLAND, Ore. — Either you are obsessed with it, or you can’t stand it. But if you’ve eaten fresh tofu at a restaurant here in Portland, it likely came from Ota Tofu. In their shop off the corner of Southeast Stark and Sandy Boulevard there is more than 100 years of tradition at work.
Ota Tofu is the oldest tofu house in the country. The Ota family opened the Southeast Portland shop in 1911. While others tofu makers have gone automated, Ota remains deeply rooted in Japanese tradition and handmade techniques.
“The tradition piece is really important to really maintain this process – this high-quality tofu,” Ota Tofu Owner Jason Ogata said.
Ogata is and his family bought the tofu house in March 2019. For him and many around the region, it is a Portland institution and so too is the Ota family.
“I have people coming in every single week saying that they don’t make tofu like this anymore anywhere and they can’t find it anywhere [else],” Ogata said.
So, when Ogata heard the Ota family was thinking about selling the business, he did not hesitate.
“I thought, they cannot close these doors, right? And I’d be honored to take this over and keep this tradition,” he said.
In March 2019 the Otas passed the torch to the Ogatas, changing ownership, but not their methods or staff.
“It’s very labor intensive and we do it for a reason. Because we think that it is the best way to make tofu and it makes it taste the best,” Ogata said.
Ogata admits he didn’t have, really any, experience making tofu before buying the business, but the Ota family set him up for success by passing down their culinary customs.
A member of the Ota family is still working at the tofu house every day, to oversee operations and to continue to teach Ogata his methods.
“They’ve [the Ota family] really taught me every single step of the process so I can carry on this tradition,” Ogata said.
Most tofu makers have gone automated, producing tofu with the touch of a button, but not Ota.
“This process is different than any other tofu company around here, locally especially,” Ogata said. “A lot of our competitors make machine-made tofu, where really, it’s just a very automated process.”
From soft to extra firm, Ogata says they make about 3,000 pounds of tofu every day. Some of the tofu is packaged for local markets. The rest goes in buckets for more than 100 Portland restaurant and in Tupperware for local customers.
Steve Wright was there to pick up his batch for local vegan restaurant, The Vertical Diner. The tofu was made that morning to be served the same night.
“It’s just such a better product,” Wright said. “Any good restaurant in Portland right now that’s selling tofu dishes is using this product. The real stuff, you know.”
Other Ota faithful come in with their containers from home to get their soybean sustenance.
“We encourage them. So, they just bring their Tupperware in and we put the tofu blocks in their Tupperware and they go home and put it in their fridge and enjoy it, either that night or they can save it for the next couple of days,” Ogata said.
In taking over the business, Ogata is keeping traditions alive, but he also has a mission.
“I want as many people to eat tofu as possible. Tofu is very healthy,” he said. “High protein, high calcium, high fiber-based food and the more people that eat it, the healthier people are.”
Ota Tofu is a taste of tradition and that's a responsibility Ogata does not take likely. He says it's an honor to continue this century-old fixture in Portland cuisine.
“I am just very honored to take this on and feel a huge responsibility to take this on and then also grow it to make sure that as many people enjoy this tofu as possible,” he said.