Taiwanese cuisine has been around for those looking for it, even if dishes have been buried on menus among Cantonese favorites. This is starting to change as more Taiwanese restaurants open in Flushing, Elmhurst and Sunset Park, with dishes that display regional flavors from Shanghai, Sichuan,Guangdong, and Beijing. These influences reflect Taiwan's history, reaching back to the Chinese Revolution — when it was flooded with refugees — and earlier. The island's culinary mix has also included Japanese, European, and American influences: a reminder of its occupation during the last World War and its location as a maritime crossroads.
Witness Taiwan's mouthwatering menu at Happy Stony Noodle in Elmhurst. The location is a block up Broadway from Taiwan Gourmet, an old-guard place that treats the historic bill of fare more ponderously, tendering whole fish, stir fries, and tempura, a Japanese import. By contrast, Happy Stony is a rollicking and lighthearted noodle shop offering contemporary fare like popcorn chicken and sweet-potato French fries, as well as noodles in soups and stir fries.
Whether the cryptic English name and slack-jawed happy face logo refer to cannabis or not, the Chinese name translates to Happy Beef Noodle, a place that caters to college students eager for a taste of home, extended families, and kids who dash in after school for a quick bite. The room is big and boxy and painted buff, with black-and-white photos of agrarian scenes that might make you think Taiwan is filled with farms, like some oceangoing Iowa.
Taiwan has its own dim sum tradition distinct from Cantonese dishes, which includes dishes like the wonderful oyster pancake ($7.95). Inside a flattened egg flapjack flecked with scallions lurk a plethora of freshly shucked oysters. This omelet may have inspired one of the first Chinese-American dishes created during the California Gold Rush and called Hangtown fry. But the contemporary Taiwanese rendition has globs of translucent sweet-potato starch, which play tag with the bivalves, creating a confusion as to what kind of goo you’re eating at the moment.
Among dim sum you'll also find tempura-style chicken cutlets, fluffy buns drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, fried squid balls (which the menu lists as calamari), and, tastiest of all, something called pork roll ($6.95). Tender pieces of pork are cradled inside a tube of fried tofu skin, making a crunchy and mellow snack that can be shared by several diners as an appetizer.
The central menu panel features full-meal soups, offering a choice of four kinds of noodles: wheat spaghetti, mung-bean vermicelli, and flat or round rice noodles. Of the many bowls I tried, my favorite, number 52, was beef stew and tendon with flat rice noodles ($7.50). In it, magnificent wobbly chunks of tendon vie with richly textured stew beef for the attention of your chopsticks. The broth is red and slightly spicy. Go for the pig feet if you'd like gluier noodles and head for the beef and hot pepper noodles ($8.50) for spicy noodles.
Holy basil makes an appearance in some dishes, such as the national dish of Taiwan, popularly known as "three cup chicken," which the menu lists as chicken with ginger and basil ($11.95), though it includes sesame oil, rice wine, and soy sauce that's cooked down to a sweet, basil-scented sludge here. A vegetarian version using eggplant is also quite agreeable.
The menu showcases organ meats like pig bowel, pig’s ears, and pork and beef stomachs, along with other surprising ingredients like pickled mustard greens paired with oblong rice cakes. Many dishes have playful names, often not listed on the English menu. One is fly heads ($11.95), listed in English as as minced pork with black beans. "Aw shucks," you may say, "no real fly heads?" Well, no, but the taste of ground pork, fermented black beans, and bales of garlic chives is awfully good, insects or not.
Cost: Dinner for two, including two “Taiwanese Cuisine” apps, a bowl of noodles, and a stir-fry or braise of beef, pork, or chicken, including tax but not tip, $35.
Sample dishes: Noodle soups featuring a choice of four noodles, pork roll, oyster pancake, chicken with ginger and basil (“three cup chicken”), minced pork with black bean (“fly heads”), beef with chives.
What to drink: Hot tea or water; Happy Stony is also BYOB, so buy beer, available at the bodega on the corner, or bring a white or red wine (light reds go surprisingly well with Taiwanese food).
Bonus tip: For a first visit, order the beef stew and tendon with wide rice noodles, and you’ll be very happy (and maybe stony, too).