Venture into a mom-and-pop Taiwanese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley and first-timers will undoubtedly be intimidated. The menus read much like those of strictly Chinese restaurants, but it's the subtle and uniquely Formosan dishes that make the experience that much more authentic.
Fried tofu that reeks of sewage but tastes absolutely phenomenal? Omelets with a layer of goo and embedded oysters? Before you pass on these unconventional exotic appetizers, note that Taiwan is one of the culinary centers of East Asia. These guys know their food.
Now there's none of that bubble tea and shaved ice nonsense in our list. We stuck with the basics: traditional, homey dishes that are the favorites and staples of the local Taiwanese. Turn the page for our 10 Classic Taiwanese dishes, in alphabetical order.
10. Beef noodle soup:
Beef noodle soup, or niu rou mian, is the quintessential Taiwanese comfort food. A nice bowl of the stuff coupled with an icy boba green tea on the side is maybe the perfect way to end a long day of work. You can obtain a bowl of these at virtually any Taiwanese restaurant in the SGV. They are thick noodles (hand-shaved noodle options too if you find the right place) nestled in a spicy dark broth. Most places keep the spice to a minimal because the Taiwanese palette is not traditionally accustomed to the heat. But topped with heaps of beef shanks, assorted vegetables and pickled greens (zha cai), niu rou mian is one of those dishes that will always fill you up. Always. Noodle King, 1265 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra; (626) 281-4836.
9. Fatty Minced Pork on Rice:
Perhaps not the healthiest option on this list, but it's definitely the simplest. Called lu rou fan in Chinese, this dish is merely minced pork belly served over a bowl of white rice. What makes this particular dish especially epic is how the sauce from the pork seeps perfectly into the rice. Some places will add a tea egg on the side and perhaps a couple slices of daikon radishes. Old Country Café, 2 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra; (626) 284-4610.
8. Glutinous oil rice:
You fan, typically served in small portions, is a sticky rice snack mixed with mushrooms, dried shrimp, shallots, peanuts and pork slices. The literal translation for this dish is “oil rice.” The pork adds a salty addition to the earthy flavors of the mushroom and soy sauce-drenched rice. Topped with a chili sauce, the peanuts are a optional addition, but great for that extra crunch. Ay Chung Flour Rice Noodle, 140 W Valley Blvd, #208, San Gabriel.
7. Oyster pancakes:
When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of it, oya jians are fundamentally omelets. The concept is simple: fried eggs with sautéed veggies and various other ingredients kindly tucked in. But it's those other ingredients that make all the difference. Add oysters, a heaping of tapioca starch for the glutinous texture, a generous swath of sweet and savory red sauce and you're well on your way on creating a Formosa masterpiece. It is commonly served as a night market appetizer, but is filling enough to be an entire meal. The Taiwanese have stringent standards on what constituents a good oyster pancake: the bigger the oysters the better. But luckily for the American palate, the pancakes in Los Angeles tend to go light on the oysters. Lee's Garden, 1428 S Atlantic Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 284-0320.
6. Oyster Vermicelli:
Though not as common in the States, oya misua is a favorite Taiwanese street food staple. The starchy soup texture is reminiscent of sweet and sour soup, but we promise it's a hundred times better. Here's the breakdown. It's vermicelli served in a thickened soup with oysters and pig intestines, topped with a dash of cilantro. To finish it off: a swig of black vinegar and some minced garlic. Hao's Kitchen, 227 W Valley Blvd, San Gabriel; (626) 293-3369.
5. Pig intestines (chitterlings):
Unconventional, but don't let the anatomy of the dish deter you. They're extremely tasty and can be served fried or bubbling in sauce. Heck — you can even get them in soup. Chitterlings have a tender, chewy texture to them and the plain appetizer version usually comes accompanied by a hoisin-based dipping sauce with a side of ginger. Uncle Yu's Indian Theme Restaurant, 633 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 287-0688.
4. Scallion pancakes:
You don't even have to be a fan of Asian food to fall in love with this dish. Cong you bing is essentially a greasy plain tortilla. Made with unleavened flatbread, it's a common breakfast staple that is embedded with (a lot of) oil and scallions. Honestly, it makes for a great late night drunken snack. Odd and fun note: Unconfirmed legend has it that the pizza is an evolution of the scallion pancake, brought to Italy by Marco Polo. Liang's Kitchen, 227 W Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 281-1898.
3. Stinky Tofu:
Perhaps one of the most polarizing dishes of all time, stinky tofu can either come off as terribly repugnant or deliciously savory. Even how it's made is controversial. Cho dofu is created by soaking tofu cubes in a brine of fermented milk, vegetables and meat. Many unfamiliar with the delicacy tend to associate the aroma with sewage and are appalled to learn that, for the Taiwanese, the stronger the smell, the better it is. But don't be put off by its reputation. There's a reason thousands of people love the stuff. Try it before you judge. The tofu is commonly served with pickled vegetables (which add a nice crunch and sour contrast) and drizzled with a soy sauce-based condiment. 101 Hot Pot Café, 140 W Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 288-7088.
2. Taiwanese Beef Rolls:
Cannot go wrong with these. The roll is comprised of a crispy green onion pancake wrapped around braised beef slices with a handful of pickled greens and cilantro. One bite and you'll witness how the dark sweetish bean sauce is the perfect condiment to officiate the marriage of pancake, green onion, beef, and veggies. Though they may be a bit on the oily side, these beef rolls are finger food at it's finest. 101 Noodle Express, 1408 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra; (626) 300-8654.
1. Taiwanese Meatballs:
Ba wans are adorable glutinous dumpling-like balls wrapped around a fistful of minced meat, shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots. The skin is a combination of rice flour, starch and water — which gives it its translucent and thick sticky texture. Served with a generous heaping of a sweet and sour like sauce, they're portable snacks that are typically on the cheap end (no more than $5 at most joints). Sinbala, 651 W. Duarte Road, F; Arcadia; (626) 446-0886.
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