Taipan is one of those Chinese restaurants that you could walk by a hundred times without slowing down, a nice, clean-lined cafe plopped down among the convenience stores and fast-food outlets in an Arcadia mini-mall. The restaurant‘s name, and even the typeface on the sign, is identical to that of a chain of generic Chinese restaurants that have popped up in places like Pasadena and Hollywood in the last few years. The look of the dining room, while attractive in a store-bought deco sort of way, is prototypically suburban Chinese. And while the commercial district south of the Santa Anita racetrack is gradually becoming dominated by Chinese businesses, there are still enough holdouts from the old days, enough faded beauty parlors and chicken-pie shops, to dull the odds that Taipan will be anything but a redoubt of General Tso’s chicken and sweet ‘n’ sour pork five quick freeway minutes from Pasadena.
My first lunch at Taipan included clams with basil that actually tasted like clams with basil, barely sauced but somehow saturated with the gentle flavor of the herb, and a plate of sauteed pea tendrils with garlic that accentuated the delicate nuttiness of the green. There was a pretty wonderful (if bony) hot pot of catfish cooked with garlic. The spicy tofu, salty, crisp cubes of bean curd deep-fried in clean oil, was crusted with the salt-and-pepper mix familiar from a thousand orders of fried squid, tossed with chiles and minced scallions, and collapsed into vaporous, vaguely sweet-scented custard in the mouth, as insubstantial as a sigh — a spectacular version of a dish that is usually pretty great even when it is badly done. I had been expecting, you know, mall food.
But behind the bland facade, past the bubbling fish tanks and the insistence of the wait staff on offering non-Chinese customers orange-flavored beef and chicken with broccoli, Taipan is a serious if casual Hong Kong–style restaurant, with congee in the morning and bargain-priced lunches, a wide range of clay-pot dishes and a decent selection of seafood, plenty of vegetarian dishes, great noodles, steamed pork flavored with fresh anchovies, and enough exotic innards to fill a small edition of Gray‘s Anatomy. Some of the stir-fries have been clumsy here, and the leaden salt-and-pepper squid, more batter than cephalopod, was positively disastrous, but most of the dishes are swell.
Chow fun, the thick, soft rice noodles most often served in a cornstarch-thickened glop, was a revelation, slightly charred from a brief trip through a superheated wok, pliable, but still somewhere halfway between a solid and a gel, practically singing with the flavor of the beef with which it had been cooked. Ong choy, a peppery, hollow-stemmed green that is sometimes translated as Chinese watercress, was great sauteed with slightly tangy fermented bean curd and a bit of hot chile. Separate, Chinese-only specials menus are one of my pet peeves, but a friend one night, rehearsing a rusty command of Chinese characters that hadn’t come up much since high school, managed to tease out dishes mostly on the order of Beijing pork chops and three-kinds kung pao, and while the little dish of gray, braised pigskin in gravy that we managed to order from that menu was actually rather delicious, it was also the only dish on the table that night that we didn‘t reduce to crumbs.
It is, after all, difficult to feel deprived when you are confronted with great, steaming bowls of anise-scented Cantonese beef stew with turnips, with crunchy pork chops, or best of all with a clay pot full of barbecue rice, fragrant, fluffy and toasted at the edges, that has been cooked with Chinese sausage, cured duck and Chinese bacon. (It is worth seeking out practically anything made with the restaurant’s house-made bacon, fat — black, streaky slabs of cured belly pork that add a magical touch of smoky sweetness to whatever they touch.)
While Taipan may offer few dishes you haven‘t seen at a dozen Hong Kong–style dives in the San Gabriel Valley — I tend to visit the Monterey Park noodle shop Luk Yue for this kind of food, especially at 2 in the morning — what it does do is usually pretty great. If this is the future of neighborhood Chinese cooking, I want in.
1025 Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 294-9228. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$24. No credit cards accepted. Recommended dishes: spicy fried tofu; ong choy with fermented tofu; clams with basil; clay-pot rice with barbecue; chow fun.