Finding Taiwanese food in Chinatown can prove to be a daunting task. After all, they call it Chinatown, not Taiwantown. You have to dig deep in the neighborhood to uncover Taiwanese favorites. I’ll be first to admit, I know absolutely nothing about Asian food, so I brought someone with who does. Accompanying me on my adventure was the lovely Rhonda Mix of Bamboo Butterfly. Rhonda spent two years teaching English as a second language in Taiwan. It was there that she fell absolutely in love with Asian culture and food – especially baozi.
First stop was the Chiu Quon Bakery. Amongst the many foods she was familiar with at the bakery, we decided to go with red bean paste hot buns with a grass jelly tea. As I bit into the hot bun, I noticed two very familiar but different tastes. The dough tasted just like a fresh but very lean and unsweetened doughnut. The red bean taste was very similar to refried beans, but with a much sweeter flavor. Although Rhonda advised me against trying grass jelly tea, I thought I would try it anyway. It wasn’t bad despite how gross it sounds. It was like a cool green tea with a strong earthiness to it. My only complaint is the little bits of jelly made it a bit unpleasant on the palate, but the taste was good.
Next up was a place I will definitely be frequenting from now on – Saint’s Alp Tea House. Being a tea house, we had to have her favorite drink – bubble tea. Bubble tea is available at many Asian restaurants, but it is native to Taiwanese cuisine. Sometimes it is made with milk, and sometimes comes in the form of a slushie or smoothie. It’s basically a different preparation than normal green tea, and is served cold with tapioca balls at the bottom. Be careful not to choke on the tapioca balls! They fly through the oversized straw, and will cling to the back of your throat, causing an immediate choking reflex. Hey, give me a break, I’m an amateur.
Of course, the spicy fried tofu is also worth mentioning. If you’ve never tried tofu or haven’t had very many positive experiences with it, this dish is a great way to introduce yourself or others to the wonderful world of tofu. I’ll admit, I have never been a big fan of tofu. I can honestly say I’ve only had two tofu dishes ever that I would get again, but this one will definitely be a must-have any time I go to Saint’s Alp. Instead of just liking tofu, I now love it.
Another great dish offered at Saint’s Alp, which is very common in Taiwan is tea eggs. Their preparation doesn’t create the spectacular marbling effect most tea eggs have, and they slice them up, but they are still very delicious. The eggs take on a strong tea flavor with a hint of star anise. These will probably quickly become one of my favorite snacks.
After that, it was time for some dim sum. Although dim sum is more of a Chinese thing, the two cuisines are closely related, so many foods common in Taiwan can be found at dim sum restaurants. Three Happiness just happened to have a few of them. I’ll start with my least-favorite – the vegetable dumplings. The vegetable dumplings smelled like a stinky foot and tasted like a dirty sock. Although I have had many good vegetable dumplings before, this one made my stomach turn.
However, they did have a vegetable shrimp dumpling that was excellent. It was a little on the greasy side, but who says I don’t like greasy? Hey, I did manage to tackle the pizza puff at Albano’s Pizzeria. This particular dumpling was very well balanced. Very simple and basic, but delicious. I could have eaten ten of these if I wasn’t full already.
Ahh yes… the chicken feet. After being coerced by Rhonda into eating this appalling treasure, I gave in. After all, I am a food blogger and I do eat lots of weird stuff. After failing miserably at eating them with chop sticks, I gave up and went for the fingers. While attempting to lift the feet, the skin kept sliding off. Finally I was able to lift them to my mouth, but had no idea how to eat it. I pinched it a little bit to figure out how the chicken feet worked only to learn there is no meat inside. It’s just skin and bone. I discovered you have to scrape the skin off with teeth. The texture was almost unbearable. I felt like I stuck sewer slime on my tongue. However, it had a very powerful, spicy sauce and a strong poultry flavor. It wasn’t bad at all. I actually remotely liked it, but I would never eat it again.
Following a few drinks of plum wine and walk around Chinatown seeking out Rhonda’s beloved bao, we finally found what we were looking for at Lao Shanghai. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Rhonda really REALLY loves her bao. Finding bao in Chinatown was our overall mission, even if it was just a WOW Bao food truck, we had to at least find something. As a former Taiwan resident, she knows all about bao. Get it yet? She is obsessed with it!
And for good reason too, it’s amazing! Just look at how happy she was in this otherwise embarrassing photo (Sorry Rhonda) when we finally found her beloved bao – at a real restaurant too. Several other bakeries and restaurants in Chinatown do have bao, but it isn’t the Taiwanese style, which trumps the rest in taste. Lao Shanghai is the place to go for Taiwanese-style bao.