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Busting Out

How come Manhattan's Chinatown has never had a Taiwanese restaurant? Hong Kong, Malaysian, Shanghai, and Fuzhou cuisines have become a formidable presence, but you have to go to Elmhurst or Flushing to get stinky bean curd or intestines with sour cabbage. Now, So Go has stepped forward to claim the honor of being the skinny island's first such establishment. As you might suspect, the menu is timid compared with its Queens counterparts, but definitely worth checking out. Not limited to Taiwanese, this new walk-down restaurant offers a broad range of Chinese regional styles adjusted for Taipei tastes.

The appetizer section of the menu features several dim sum surprises. Meat ball Taiwanese style ($2.50) is a dome of thick sweet-potato starch that quivers like a translucent jellyfish when you touch it, with disparate chunks of chewy beef visible deep inside like miniature internal organs. A thick red chile sauce with a salty kick smothers part of the sphere, while a sprig of cilantro provides color contrast. In the same transformational realm is the hamburger Taiwanese-style ($2.95), a catcher's mitt of soft white bao dough enfolding a thick slice of smoky braised pork belly dressed with pickled vegetables and crushed peanuts. Hey, I'd take this hamburger over McDonald's any day of the week.

More formidable Taiwanese standards include several permutations of the aforementioned smelly bean curd, a fermented product so skanky that fellow diners banished it from the table. Other arcana beloved of Formosans include a mellow dish of bean curd and loofah (the back-scrubbing vegetable sponge in its tender youthful state—$5.95); a whole promfret fried without breading so the skin is preternaturally crisp, engagingly accompanied by a little pile of commingled salt and MSG; and an amazing casserole of chicken cooked with wine, whole garlic cloves, basil, and ginger ($8.95), maybe inspired by Portuguese mariners of long ago.

So go figure: new taste thrills in Chinatown
photo: Tania Savayan
So go figure: new taste thrills in Chinatown

A pair of menu pages denoted "Szechuan Style" encompasses dishes inspired by that region, with some Shanghai standards thrown in for good measure. Typical of Taiwanese-style Sichuan is the incendiary "shredded beef with green hot pepper" ($8.50), a stunted Christmas tree of brown and dark green, with snippets of tiny pickled red chiles standing in for ornaments. Shanghai elements include vegetarian mock duck, braised pork shoulder in chocolate-colored gravy, and the now unavoidable soup dumplings.

Oh, and there's also a single page of Chef's Specialties that reproduces the Cantonese fare that has been standard up and down this stretch of Mott for 100 years. Avoid it, if only to let the management know that Manhattan really is ready for Taiwanese.




BITES

H.I.M. (2130 White Plains Road, Bronx, 718-239-7146) stands for His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, and this strictly vegan lunch counter is decorated with multiple likenesses. Pay $6.50 and get generous servings of five flavorful dishes. My choices on a recent weekday afternoon: a boil-up of lavender taro root and purple onions tasting of bay leaf; a stir fry of sweet plantain and orange bell peppers; a swirl of tofu, celery, and onions that looked just like scrambled eggs; African-tasting chopped kale; and, welcome mainly for its colorfulness, sliced boiled beets. Look Ma, no meat, no dairy, no wheat!

When the lights at Alva flickered out, KITCHEN 22 (36 East 22nd Street, 228-4399) quickly jumped into the breach, a concept restaurant offering only a $25 prix fixe menu—appetizer, entrée, and dessert, five choices in each category—and the eager customers flooded in. While a little rough around the edges, the food is satisfying and well prepared. Our favorites included beef carpaccio littered with finely chopped pickled vegetables looking like the aftermath of a tornado on a small town, and a pair of Spanish mackerel fillets perfectly sautéed. The plainish desserts are the biggest disappointment, especially a white chocolate pudding that tastes like it was poured from a can.
 
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