Located just above a Chinese medicine store and down the alley from my frequent barber shop, Taiwan Cafe is a casual Taiwanese restaurant tucked neatly on the corner of Beach St. and Oxford St. in Boston’s Chinatown. With a mostly Taiwanese staff, this place seems to be one of the most authentic Taiwanese restaurants in Boston. The restaurant is quite busy during the prime lunch and dinner hours. The staff is constantly bustling from one table to the next with a sense of urgency. Small-numbered dinner parties are forced to share a 12-person table with other small-numbered dinner parties when there are no 4-person tables available.
Taiwan Cafe definitely has a lively atmosphere. Customers range from young college students to full traditional families. Although some may be uncomfortable with the wait staff’s lack of smile and no-nonsense request for orders, I find the service excellent simply because I can always waive a waiter down and get what I want. Upon opening my tea pot lid for a refill, it took a mere 20 seconds for a waitress to notice and refill it [See Doing Dim Sum Right — Tea if you don’t understand why this happens]!
You don’t come to Taiwan Cafe to chat up the waitress, but rather a casual atmosphere, good company, and great food. Among the few times I visited Taiwan Cafe, that is what I got.
I had the pleasure of dining with friends that enjoyed authentic Taiwanese cuisine and so we stuffed ourselves with the dishes below. Please note that if you are looking for good General Gau’s Chicken, this isn’t the place to have it (even though it’s on the menu). Instead, I encourage everyone to try something here they might not otherwise find in other Asian restaurants in Boston.
Stinky Tofu with Paou Tsai – This is an interesting appetizer that is very popular in Taiwan night markets. In the Taiwanese-style, stinky tofu is deep-fried tofu that has been brined in fermented milk, meat, and vegetables. The tofu has a crispy outside and a soft, silky smooth inside. As its name suggests, the tofu also has a strong, pungent smell that may, from afar, be comparable to garbage or manure. Some say the taste is similar to pungent blue cheese, while others suggest rotten meat. Really, it’s a love-or-hate kind of dish. Ideally, the more it smells, the better the flavor. However, Taiwan Cafe does not make it all that smelly (most indoor restaurants avoid stinking up the place for other customers) and the dish was a bit too dry for my taste, requiring me dunk it in seafood soy sauce. Paou Tsai is the transliteration for 泡菜, better known as pickled cabbage or in Korea, kimchi. The sharp, sour taste/smell of pickled cabbage pairs well with the musky taste/smell of stinky tofu.
Chilled Sponge Tofu with Mushroom and Bamboo shoot – A delicious tofu dish that uses tender spongy tofu, which carries the texture of a sponge. Braised and then chilled along with sliced mushrooms and bamboo shoots in a sweet soy-based sauce, this delicious appetizer was consumed before a picture could be taken.
Oyster Omelette- Another original dish popular in Taiwan night markets, the oyster omelette is an egg omelette mixed with tapioca starch and whole oysters over Chinese vegetables. It has a very thick, gooey consistency and a fragrant oyster-egg aroma. The real kicker is that the omelette is drenched in an addicting sweet ketchup/soy paste sauce. This is an extremely welcoming dish and I find it a great comfort food choice.
Mini-Steamed Buns with Pork — Better known as ShaoLongBao, or Soup Dumplings, this Taiwanese version of a Shanghai favorite must be eaten hot. Unlike a regular dumpling or bun, these dumplings carry a mouthful of hot broth and must be picked up carefully. The typical way to eat this dish would be to: fill a spoon with a ginger/black vinegar sauce, lift the dumpling onto the spoon with chopsticks, take a bite of the skin to suck up the broth, and finally consume the dumpling with the sauce.