To outsiders, Taiwanese food can be challenging—which is why most Taiwanese-owned restaurants in Flushing serve food from other parts of China. And why not? Mainland migration to the island over the past century has furnished Taiwan with cooks well-versed in the cuisines of nearly every region. Though the Taiwanese have dominated Flushing since the ’80s, now their grip is loosening due to a massive influx of northern Chinese immigrants. This has pushed newer Taiwanese restaurants to the fringes of the neighborhood. Since most patrons are now former islanders—rather than downtown Flushing’s pan-Asian mix—it has also freed them to focus on their own home-style cooking. But if you’re an outsider, it may be difficult convincing a Taiwanese waitress to let you try her favorite dishes.
With a name more prepossessing than the small, spare premises would indicate, Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet lies just north of the Long Island Expressway, a mile south of downtown Flushing. At a recent meal, my crew and I had trouble getting our waitress to serve us “stinky tofu” ($5.95). She insisted, “No more, no more,” sounding like the raven in the Edgar Allan Poe poem. The tofu’s intense odor is traditionally the result of soaking curd for weeks in a solution of dried shrimp, vegetables, and fermented milk—one of many unexpected ingredients you’ll find in Taiwanese cooking.
By our second visit—with an adept at Chinese dialects in tow—we were able to convince the waitress to serve us some. The pile of fried cubes looked like an abandoned limestone quarry, and the kimchi garnish intrigued us. The curd smelled discouragingly like a mixture of poop and vomit, but had a surprisingly mild, earthy taste. Hold your nose, and you might be chewing cauliflower. Still, the stench kept all but two of us from trying it—unfortunately confirming the waitress’s opinion that no non-Taiwanese person could dig stinky tofu.
As we plowed through dozens of other dishes, we experienced unique and delectable Taiwanese fare. Most famous is “three-cup chicken” ($8.95), a braised bird served in a ceramic crock. The recipe famously contains one cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce, and the Japanese rice wine called mirin. (Nipponese influences are rife throughout Taiwan, partly as a result of the military occupation by Japan during World War II.) But the thing that impressed us most about this comfort-food concoction was the taste of Thai basil, an herb virtually never encountered in Chinese food.
It also sings in many of the best dishes we encountered at Main Street, including “clams with basil” ($9.95), a soupy bowl of bivalves in a rich, fragrant broth, looking like something you might find at a French bistro. Seafood is always a good bet in Taiwanese restaurants, and we sat expectantly waiting for a dish we’d ordered because of its hilarious name: “putz fish” ($13.95). The good-size porgy came heaped with green onions and ginger, surrounded by little green ovoids that we misidentified as green olives. They turned out to be berries of the manjack bush (you can’t make this sort of thing up), a tart fruit that’s often found pickled in Taiwanese dishes.
The best time to eat at the café is between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the Taiwanese dim sum menu kicks in. This includes oyster omelets mantled with gooey, transparent sweet-potato starch; floppy steamed bao made into something called “steam sandwiches” with pork and pickled veggies, making us wonder if this dish was the inspiration for David Chang’s ssams; and a strange-sounding “rice tube pudding” that proved to be a compressed cylinder of dark mushroom rice decorated with a sprig of cilantro. While many dishes were intensely spicy, fishy, or pickle-y (the latter probably traceable to ancient migration from coastal Fujian), we also located dishes of surpassing subtlety, including a pallid pork-bone soup floating enough lily shoots that it reminded us of a pond at the Queens Botanical Garden, a few blocks north.
For offal enthusiasts, Taiwanese restaurants are a sure source of variety meats, and Main Street is no exception. Poking among the intestines of various species, duck tongues, pig’s-blood soups, and liver offered by the menu, we picked kidneys with sesame oil ($8.25), one of three entrées featuring the porcine organ. The swatches arrived cross-hatched, simply flavored with green onion and ginger, and completely deskankified.
Funny that the Taiwanese like their organs mild, we mused, but their tofu reeking to high heaven.