Fly Heads at the Island of Taiwan Restaurant
Judging from the evolving mix of restaurants and food courts, the Taiwanese are losing their grip on Flushing, and are being replaced by immigrants from a slew of northern and western Chinese provinces. Inevitably, the community will disperse throughout Queens, Brooklyn, and the Great Beyond. The good news is that Taiwanese restaurants may soon be popping up in neighborhoods where you never expected them.
But in Bay Ridge? Sporting a rather poetic name and festooned with colorful plastic streamers, the Island of Taiwan recently materialized directly opposite Greek stalwart Spartan Souvlaki on Eighth Avenue, a juxtaposition that suggests an animated film, with the ancient Spartans chucking spears as the opposing Formosans kickbox their way across the street. The restaurant emphatically turns its back on Sunset Park's Chinatown, which is located several blocks north. The vibe of the restaurant is casual, with none of the grandiose décor of Sunset Park seafood palaces—don't expect golden dragons with winking LED eyes, or waiters wearing dinner jackets.
Influenced by Japanese, American, and aboriginal Formosan fare, in addition to regional food from all over China, the menu at Island of Taiwan is amazing to behold. If you dare, start with "crispy smelly bean curd" ($5.99)—fermented and fried pillows of tofu in a sweet dark sauce, with some killer homemade pickles on the side. While it might smell of vomit, when it passes your lips, the curd turns mild and inoffensive. I swear.
The Taiwanese pork sausages are a little too sticky-sweet for me, while the fried tempura turns out to be merely finger-shaped fish cakes, quite unlike its Japanese inspiration, but nice and rubbery nonetheless. You might want to skip the curd and the cake, unless you have an intellectual curiosity. Instead, start with the vegetarian "radish and egg pancake" ($4.99), an omelet that arrives on a pretty blue platter, crisp on the edges and well-browned. It's a Taiwanese standard, but even more so is the oyster omelet, a dish that probably originated in 19th-century California, where it was known by the name of "hangtown fry." The omelet was popular among gold prospectors, whose numbers included many Chinese.
Our favorite starter was "pork geng thick soup" ($4.99), which, my friend Winnie noted, is laced with black vinegar, a favorite condiment on the disputed island. It also contained cumulous clouds of pork, beaten into fluffy lightness with cornstarch. Winnie was among a group of friends of Taiwanese ancestry that I invited to dine with me one evening, not because of their formidable language skills (the staff at Island of Taiwan speaks excellent English), but to find out how the cooking compared with that of their mothers.
Served in a crock, the legendary stew called "three cup chicken" ($10.99)—supposedly made with one cup of soy sauce, one cup of rice wine, and one cup of sesame oil—received high marks, though Jui noted that the duck tongue variation offered by the restaurant was not traditional. Cathy approved, too, explaining that the dish is really a very quick braise, rather than a stew or stir-fry. The top is crowned with a garland of bright green Thai basil, which adds an aromatic punch. Another home-style Taiwanese favorite not to be missed is "famous spicy beef noodles soup" ($5.99), which my pals oohed and aahed over when it arrived. It contained big gobbets of beef, dried red chilies, bean curd skin, and thick wheat noodles like soft spaghetti.
The Taiwanese are especially fond of vegetables, and these are often cooked refreshingly devoid of meat products. From a lengthy list, we chose the cryptically termed "A" vegetable ($8.99), wondering what the hell it was and why it had no English name or Chinese ideogram. The vegetable turned out to be especially leafy, with a firm spine going down the middle of each leaf. Dotted with garlic cloves, it was spectacular in a mellow sort of way. We guessed it was probably sweet-potato leaves, like the ones West Africans eat. Another great meatless dish was "assorted wild mushrooms" ($8.99), a light stir-fry of shiitakes, buttons, hens-of-the-woods, and enoki, which sprawled over the others like seaweed on a rock.
At one point, Jui burst into laughter as she looked at the menu. We were about to order a stir-fry called "spicy minced pork with dried radish & hot peppers" ($11.99). What's so funny?" I inquired. "Instead of 'minced pork,' the Chinese menu says 'fly heads,' " she smirked. Indeed, the pork specks did look like fly heads, and for a second, we could imagine compound eyes staring glassily up at us. We shrugged, and dug in anyway.
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