You're doubtlessly already familiar with Cantonese dim sum after countless weekend excursions to Chinatowns in Manhattan, Sunset Park, and Flushing: the fluffy, pork-filled char siu bao; the rice-noodle rolls bulging with shrimp or cilantro-scented beef; the chicken feet braised to a pleasing and yielding brownness; the steaming bowls of ginger-laced congee; and plates of miniature pork ribs flavored with fermented black beans. But there are other dim sum traditions in China, too, such as the one some friends and I encountered in the southern reaches of Flushing's Main Street this past weekend.
While the city's Taiwanese restaurants in Elmhurst and Flushing may also present the usual types of dim sum wheeled around on carts, some have a special menu of dim sum that display Formosan flourishes. Long-running Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet (aka C & L Imperial) is a small Taiwanese coffee shop that includes a special section called "Snacks" on its folded paper menu, but not on the plastic-wrapped formal menu. Where once you could get these delicacies only on Saturday afternoons, in addition to a half-dozen other Taiwanese dim sum selections, now they're available all day and all week long.
Sometimes facetiously known as meatball mochi, ba wan ("pork basil," $3.50) is a delightful ball of goo that fills up the depression in a Delft-blue bowl. The main ingredient is sweet potato starch, with a similar texture to Japanese mochi, making a kind of bouncy translucent pudding in the shape and size of a softball; the inside is filled with savory tidbits of soy-braised pork shoulder. Over all a red gravy is poured, which adds a touch of sweetness. Was this sauce party inspired by ketchup? Who knows?
Bearing a suspicious resemblance to the Gold Rush dish called Hangtown fry (named after the town now called Placerville, California), the Taiwanese oyster omelet (o ah jian, $5.95) probably originated in nearby Fujian on the mainland. Like the meatball mochi, it also depends on sweet potato starch for its supremely viscous and elastic texture. Eggs and fresh baby oysters form the underpinnings for its rich and briny flavor. Underneath find a wad of steamed baby spinach. Could the dish have originated in California and been brought back by frustrated returning miners? It's a distinct possibility, but then due to the island's position as a trading crossroads, Taiwanese food has enjoyed European and American influences for hundreds of years.
Called Tainan rice cake on the menu, tong zai mi gao ($4.25) is a compressed mesa of sticky rice studded with mushrooms and various pig parts, including gluey skin. Like many of the selections, a reddish clear sauce pools on top, this one more savory than sweet. As we ate, three employees emerged from the kitchen, commandeered a round table, and began cleaning the leaves from a mountain of thin-stemmed Chinese celery. It was so pungent, my friends and I could smell the celery from across the room.
Last and perhaps tastiest of all was "minced pork over rice" ($3.25), a dish that fits in the fried rice canon, this one bursting with porcine and herbal flavors, dense and sticky with very flavorful soy sauce. Note the Japanese-style yellow daikon pickle on the edge of the bowl. The dish disappeared immediately as three of us rapidly poked in our chopsticks, vowing to return to explore more of the Main Street Imperial's fascinating Taiwanese menu. 59-14A Main Street, Flushing, (718) 886-8788.