Our House, a new Taiwanese restaurant in Monrovia, is anything but conventional. The place doesn't have a sign or even a regular restaurant storefront. It's located in the back of Momo Bistro and Bakery — which has a sign inside that says that it's a crab house. Our House doesn't serve crab.
"This place used to be a crab house, we just didn't change the name," was the explanation our server gave us on a recent visit. Our House’s most prized dish, a fiery, drunken Taiwanese chicken soup, isn't even on the menu. “You have to order it a day ahead and we have limited availability," the server says.
The food is good, though, which makes up for all the strangeness. The aforementioned dish is called shaojiu ji in Mandarin, which translates to "burning wine chicken." The chicken is marinated in an elixir of rice wine (specifically the Taiwanese brand Hong Biao) and herbs for at least 24 hours before being cooked. You get the entire chicken served cut up — feet and head included — in a pot on top of a burner. If you look closely, you’ll see the carcass of the bird floating about amidst chunks of dates, multiple types of ginseng, Chinese wolfberry, Sichuan lovage root and licorice.
The dish has a heavy rice-wine taste darkened by the chicken meat and made more complex by all the herbs. It’s boldly medicinal, like bitter tea mixed with alcohol; an acquired taste, to be sure.
A server will light the contents of the pot on fire right on the table, bringing a new, more literal meaning to the term "hot pot." Embers dance on the surface and eventually burn out, and as the meal marches on, a guy will come over and pour in water to dilute the mixture. It’s quite a show — an especially odd one in the context of an Asian bakery, with its florescent lights and white walls.
Shaojiu ji is traditionally a Formosan dish with strong herbal undertones, usually served during cold nights because of its yang properties. The Taiwanese are big believers in the yin and yang properties of foods. Generally speaking, when it comes to edibles, yin means cold and yang means hot. Yang foods (such as lamb, garlic, shellfish and spices) warm the body; yin foods (like most leafy greens and fruit) cool it.
The chicken, with the alcohol and all the herbs, is strictly a yang dish. Believe what you may about Chinese food philosophy, but at the end of the meal, it is guaranteed that you will be sweaty — or at least comfortably warm. This entire experience does not come cheap either: $60.
Flaming chicken aside, the rest of Our House's menu is a balanced selection of Taiwanese staples. The folks behind Our House are experienced in this realm. Peppy Judy Huang and her husband, who doesn’t have an English name, have been in the Los Angeles restaurant business for three decades. The Huangs used to own the now-shuttered Wan Chun Taiwanese Food in San Gabriel. Also involved is Jason Sun, the former owner of Bin Bin Konjac in Arcadia, which closed because it became impossible to import konjac jelly from Taiwan. Together, Sun and the Huangs make a stellar team, whipping out Taiwanese classics including stinky tofu, fried rice noodles, sautéed cuttlefish, pig intestines and simmered bamboo.
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Like the flaming chicken, these dishes aren’t for everyone. Our House does Taiwanese food for people from Taiwan. What that means: Its best dishes aren’t the carb-heavy ones like fried rice or noodles. It’s the intestines, it’s the pig ears, it’s the cuttlefish, it’s the stinky tofu, it’s the sliced lamb. It’s the sort of food that Taiwanese folks eat at home on a daily basis, paired simply with a bowl of white rice.
Our House, inside Momo Bistro and Bakery, 941 W. Duarte Road, Monrovia; 626-538-4211.