Belly Up to Taiwanese Specialties
Formerly known as David's Taiwanese Gourmet, then Lin's Taiwanese Gourmet, the long-running Elmhurst restaurant with the green awning at the corner of Broadway and St. James, just two blocks south of the LIRR tracks, is now called Taiwanese Specialties. The nation officially dubbed the Republic of China boasts one of the world's great fusion cuisines, along with Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Sicily. What do they have in common? All are islands located along ancient trade routes. When I first wrote about the restaurant in 1998, it specialized in the Japanese aspects of Taiwanese cuisine and featured a décor that highlighted a sushi bar flaunting unusual nori rolls, an antique rice-polishing machine, and photos of kimono-clad women.
Those are all gone, and now the place takes a more evenhanded approach to the cooking, though at the end of the room, what looks like a Japanese suit of armor made from grass still hangs. Japanese elements remain on the menu, too, though udon noodles star in stir-fries rather than in soups, as they do in Tokyo. Taiwanese stir-fried udon ($10.95) highlights the puffy, anemic-looking tendrils sliding around the plate with napa cabbage, scallions, and pork in an agreeable brown sauce. Tempura is paired with slender, pungent Chinese celery, but here's the kicker: It's not the familiar panko-battered shrimp, but oblong squiggles of fish paste lightly coated with flour. "Tempura" is a Portuguese word, and the difference between the two styles might simply indicate contrasting ways the European recipe was adapted centuries ago, rather than a Japanese borrowing.
Taiwanese food is characterized by lots of seafood and pork poached in aromatic broths, with a flavor palate distinct from either Cantonese or Fujianese cooking, both of which are counted as major influences. The cuisine is especially heavy in organ meats. But don't be alarmed by the menu's fried intestines, kidney with sesame oil, stomach soup, or liver with scallions. There's plenty to be had besides offal. Nevertheless, for the variety meat enthusiast nothing beats x.o. with deduction fish sauce ($16.95). Like a CPA, you wonder what the deduction could be. In comes a plate heaped with a hundred rubbery, muscular fish stomachs tossed with sprouts, peppers, and light green swatches of loofah, conjuring images of fish butchery on a massive scale. Your jaw hasn't had such a workout in years.
Taiwanese dishes often sport playful names that distract the outsider from what they actually are. Take fly heads ($11.95). Rather than fishing out insect parts, you'll discover a brilliant green heap of chopped chives and finely ground pork mildly flavored with fermented black beans. The tiny meat nuggets look like bug heads. Neither does the appetizer called meat ball ($4.95) resemble anything made by an Italian or Turkish grandma. A giant "Huh?" went up from my party as it arrived, a massive dome of unexpectedly delicious quivering goo, shot with tidbits of pickle, pork, and dried bean curd in a sweet red gravy.
If you've ever had one of David Chang's pork belly sandwiches at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, you'll experience a déjà vu moment as the so-called Taiwanese hamburger arrives ($3.50). The name and general shape might have come from America, but the islanders have made it their own. A porcelain-white steamed bao folds over a filling of pickled mustard greens and braised pork belly. Chicken neck is another humorously named starter, identified in English by the more accurate name of pork roll ($6.95). But the menu's Taiwanese name proves a culinary metaphor, this time for a cylindrical length of yellowish tofu skin stuffed with gray sausage—it looks just like a chicken neck. As the story goes, when mainland Chinese refugees arrived in 1945, they encountered a shortage of poultry and were driven to manufacture faux parts.
One evening, I visited the restaurant with a friend from Queens and her Taiwanese-born parents. As you might expect, they were more critical of the food than I was. The fermented tofu wasn't stinky enough, according to her mother, and other selections were underseasoned, too. They also steered me toward dishes I hadn't noticed before and assisted me in ordering the legendary three-cup chicken, which is not on the menu but always available. (Ask for chicken with basil.)
When we first sat down, I'd pointed out the Japanese suit of armor at the end of the room and wondered aloud why it was still there. "It's not a suit of armor," the dad said with a broad smile, "that's an old-fashioned raincoat. I wore one like that back in Taiwan when I was a kid."
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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