In the last few years, restaurants like Win Son, 886, Ho Foods, and Wenwen have popularized Taiwanese food in the city. These establishments introduced a wider audience to dishes like popcorn chicken, beef noodle soup, and fly’s heads — the facetiously named stir fry of ground pork, flowering garlic chives, chiles, and fermented black beans. But lurking behind these modern spots is an old guard of Taiwanese restaurants, many in Elmhurst and Flushing, that offer a broader menu of national specialties, including lesser known dishes that telegraph the island’s rich and complex culinary history.
Forty-year-old Taiwanese Gourmet is perhaps the foremost of these restaurants, and I recently decided to pay a return visit. I was lucky enough to assemble a table of seven avant garde musicians, two of whom were born in Taiwan. The restaurant’s distinctive green awning and its corner location make it visible from blocks away on a stretch of Broadway in Elmhurst that’s home to one of NYC’s Chinatowns. Inside, the space is utilitarian, with solid tables, red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, a tank filled with lively fish, and most prominently, a pair of what look like medieval suits of armor made of straw.
Two decades ago, I went with a friend’s parents, one of whom had grown up on a farm in Kinmen, a group of islands considered part of Taiwan only a few miles off the Chinese coast. He laughed as I pointed to the straw suits. “No, those aren’t armor, but the kind of raincoats I wore as a boy on my family’s taro farm,” he said. “They are really quite effective since the straw expands when it gets wet.”
Taiwanese Gourmet functions well as the sort of small-plates place that’s common today. (Indeed, you are welcome to bring your own wine, sake, or beer.) Taiwanese sausage ($8.25) is a modest plate of sliced pink links something like kielbasa in their garlicky flavor, only sweeter and tasting of cinnamon and star anise. A plate of raw garlic clove comes alongside, and one is invited to eat a shard of garlic with each slice of sausage.
Any dish labeled Taiwanese on the menu is recommended, including the Taiwanese meatball. When it arrives, it may make you wonder at the name: a mixture of minced pork and mushrooms are hidden beneath a giant and translucent ball with a gooey texture of mochi. Yam flour is the main component of this textural tour-de-force, which wears a single sprig of cilantro bravely like a battle medal.
Many Taiwanese dishes besides fly’s heads (so named because of the black beans that speckle the dish) have humorous names. This is also seen in the pork roll ($9.75). With an appearance similar to a giant Vietnamese spring roll, it sports an outer shell made from tofu skins that function like phyllo, and a mildly spiced pork forcemeat that’s especially moist because the meat has been frugally mixed with daikon. One bite and you’ll see why kids love it. One of my musical friends pointed out that the name in Taiwanese on the menu means “chicken leg,” suggesting that the recipe has been made to mimic a poultry appendage.
We pranced around the menu like show horses, sampling some splendid deep-fried pork chops, bone-in and sliced into slabs, with a deeply concentrated porky flavor beneath its breading; stinky tofu, a fermented and fried bean curd with a slightly funky flavor that actually smells more pungent than it tastes; and a stir fry of beef and yellow chives that was beautiful to look at, even before enjoying the assertive flavor of the allium.
We eventually arrived at what is sometimes considered Taiwan’s national dish: three-cup chicken ($13.25). Pieces of the bird come jammed in a metal pot in a midnight-dark sauce strewn with basil leaves. It’s an unexpected feature of Taiwanese cooking that it uses holy basil, which is so common in Southeast Asian cooking; it adds a licorice-y pungency to three-cup-chicken not usually found in Chinese food. Why is it called three-cup chicken, though? By legend, the dish is made with a cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine, though amounts of these ingredients are highly variable, and usually less than a cup each. Whatever the recipe, the three-cup chicken here is delicious with its herbal sweetness.
Yes, we did try the beef noodle soup, the dish most likely to be offered in modern Taiwanese restaurants (it’s the centerpiece of the menu at Ho Foods, for example). The version at Taiwanese Gourmet is appropriately beefy, with plenty of chubby wheat noodles — though nourishing and tasty, it’s not as delicious as East Village and Brooklyn versions I’ve tasted, which have been more extensively labored over by chefs seemingly intent on making the dish a New York City classic.
Just as our modern Taiwanese restaurants with their enthusiastic and innovative outlook are indispensable to our understanding of the cuisine as it is today, older players like Taiwanese Gourmet show us Taiwanese cooking as it was. Many of its historic dishes, some now obscure, retain their ability to inspire and excite.
And this belt-busting meal (as usual, we ordered too many dishes) demonstrated the appeal and breadth of the Taiwanese kitchen, its distinction from Chinese regional cuisines, and the continued excellence of Taiwanese Gourmet.
Taiwanese Gourmet is located 84-02 Broadway, at St. James Avenue, Elmhurst