Olfactory Adventures at Andy's Seafood & Grill
I have great respect for people who enjoy stinky tofu—but I'd rather be elsewhere while they're enjoying it. The fermented delicacy is made by soaking the tofu in a broth that often includes unlovely ingredients like sour milk and meat. It's one of those foods that reward the elite few whose stomachs are not easily turned—a pungent delight like durian, époisses, and Thai stinky beans, all of which I love.
But stinky tofu, no—even when done well, as it is at Andy's Seafood & Grill, a shiny new Taiwanese spot in Rego Park. The fat, odiferous puffs were deep-fried but not greasy, with a crisp, golden outer crust, served with delicious pickled daikon and cabbage. This dry style of stinky tofu is a very popular snack in Taiwan, but the smell—like a New York dump on a hot day crossed with a rotting carcass—did me in. We all grinned enthusiastically and asked to take the nearly full plate to go—We loved it! But we were so full! To which our server wrinkled her nose and proclaimed that she couldn't stand the stuff. Alas, the takeout container met its demise in an unlucky garbage bin on the corner of Queens Boulevard and 62nd Avenue.
Beyond the stinky tofu, there are many easily enjoyed traditional Taiwanese dishes at Andy's, located on Queens Boulevard not far from the intriguingly named Wiggles gentlemen's club. Sit down at one of the restaurant's cushy vinyl booths, and Andy himself—a loquacious, bespectacled Taiwanese man—will probably come over to talk to you. If you're not Taiwanese or Chinese, you'll most likely be given the English menu, which buries the good stuff under copious amounts of sweet-and-sour chicken. Ask for the Taiwanese menu, which is mostly in English and features an encyclopedic list of Taiwanese and Sichuan dishes. When Andy moseyed over for his first of many chats, I asked him why he included so many Sichuan items. He replied that there are two chefs in the back—one Taiwanese, one Sichuan—and the menu is a compilation of their specialties.
Taiwanese food has been shaped by the kaleidoscope of cultures that settled or occupied the island. The first people to land there were of Malay-Polynesian descent, but most modern Taiwanese are descended from migrants from the southern Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, which lie just across the Taiwan Strait. The island has been occupied by the Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese; the Japanese influence can be seen in the Taiwanese fondness for seaweed and a tempura-like frying technique. And, obviously, any island nation eats a lot of seafood, which is what Andy's specializes in—along with the many small, snack-like plates so popular in Taiwan.
At Andy's, oysters fit into both categories—snacks or seafood—and figure prominently on the menu. The oyster pancake—a plate-sized, jiggly disk made of egg, water spinach, oysters, and translucent sweet potato starch, all doused in a sweet chile sauce—is a good place to start. It's a strangely appealing combination of textures: The goopiness of the sweet potato starch mirrors that of the oysters, and the egg gets crisp around the edges. As we ate the pancake, Andy came over and excitedly told us how popular a snack it is in Taipei. He also exclaimed over our adventurous palates—apparently, most non-Chinese who frequent Andy's stick to the sweet-and-sour chicken.
That wobbly sweet potato starch also shows up in the meatball dumpling, which is simply written as "meatball" on the English menu, or can be asked for in Taiwanese: "ba-wan." This bulbous snack, about the size of my fist, is a popular street food in Taiwan. Bite down, and find the bits of beef and shiitake mushrooms embedded inside.
But back to oysters, the bivalves that are ubiquitous at Andy's. An order of fried baby oysters nets you about a dozen small, but juicy, specimens, topped with aromatic fried basil—for $6, a steal. The thin, crispy breading gives way to gushy, ultra-fresh oyster. A traditional Taiwanese oyster soup arrives in a big bowl filled with thick, beige broth and a generous twirl of noodles, harboring oysters and chewy bits of pork intestine. It's mildly briny and comforting.
In fact, there are many Taiwanese noodle soups on the menu, all made for sharing, many featuring seafood, pork, and/or offal. We also particularly liked the Taiwanese noodle soup with pork, a warming and mellow pork broth with al dente egg noodles, garnished with slabs of pork belly.
Also worth snacking on is the gua bao, identified on the menu as a "Taiwanese hamburger." It's actually the mantou-wrapped pork bun that many people might recognize from Momofuku (but which was certainly not invented there). The steamy, sweetish mantou is folded around a braised slab of pork belly, with crushed peanuts and pickled cucumber.
Gua bao don't much resemble hamburgers, and there are a few other charmingly eccentric translations on the menu. Three-cup chicken—a quintessential Taiwanese dish that gets its name because it's cooked in equal parts sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine—is dubbed "chunked chicken with basil" on the menu. No matter what you call it, it's lovely. It arrives in a clay braising pot, and the lid is opened to reveal chunks of chicken lacquered in a concentrated, sweetish, salty sauce, seasoned with lavish amounts of ginger and garlic and topped with basil.
Many diners get the twin lobster special, which is a deal at $18. We tried the sautéed crab with ginger and scallions, but the meat was scanty. We also delved into the Sichuan side of the menu, with the whole braised fish in chile sauce, which was delicious, but mild. In fact, though I focused on the Taiwanese specialties, there is an entire other review to be written about Andy's Sichuan offerings. This is a restaurant that will be a pleasure to get to know over months—and even years.
So, too, Andy himself, who is happy to share his encyclopedic knowledge of Taiwanese food. I was relieved that he didn't catch me nearly gagging on the stinky tofu—or perhaps he would have relegated me to sweet-and-sour chicken for life.
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