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Taiwan Cafe - a little funky...?

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We stopped in late on Friday night to Taiwan Cafe based on what I perceived as near-universal acclaim on the board.

Ordered:

Oyster pancake
House-style noodles with eel
Sauteed pea greens

Maybe poor choices, but we struggled to enjoy the food.

The oyster pancake was just too funky...runny eggy "pancake" with unidentifiable gelatinous bits and lots of oysters, which I am guessing were canned? Slathered in redish-brown gravy. Did not look particularly appetizing. I guess I was thinking, "Cool...scallion pancake with oysters..." but this was rather different.

The noodles were good (flat variety) but the eel was in slivers and tasted just slightly...off...somehow, as in from a can, rather than unagi-style eel, which I guess is what I was expecting.

The pea greens were delish! Thoroughly enjoyed them, simple preparation with chicken-based broth (I think) and garlic.

Based on the other reviews, I am guessing that the food must have been all very authentic Taiwanese, properly prepared and so forth, which so happened to be just a little too unexpected for my Sino-Americanized palate. Thoughts? Other ordering recommendations? I mean, let me be clear that when I say off, it was to a degree that made me think it was my experience level that was being tested, rather than food that was spoiled. Although I thought for the bounty of oysters and eel that was in each dish respectively, I thought it had to come from a pre-packaged source and was not fresh. Perhaps also the time had something to do with it? It was midnight when we rolled in. Oh, and cash only...? Bother.

Anyway, I welcome your feedback.

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  1. I remember getting the eel dish on 1 of my first trips to TC..None of us went nuts for it and I haven't had it since so that says something. I much prefer the eel/black bean or maggei prep of the eel at other Chinatown favorites.

    I occassionally get the oyster pancake, but Ms 9 agrees with you..too runny. Ther recent version at Potluck Cafe is far better..and worth trying if you like that dish.

    My "always order" TC dishes are the poblano beef, basil eggplant..often the soup dumplings or pan fried ravioli. They also have a pork belly/taro root..that's on the lunch menu or specials page that I like a lot..also a seafood clay pot..good sliced kidney dish. Soft shell crabs are good..not quite PFS. I'm probably forgetting a few more of my favorite; but I'm sure others will weigh in.

    1. I have eaten there twice. My impressions were the food ranged from fair to awful. Can't agree with Chowhound consensus all the time.

      Edit: It's possible I just don't appreciate authentic Taiwanese food, because I also disliked Mulan. If so, this would be the first cuisine I can think of I really don't like. But I love Shangri La and it's supposedly Taiwanese, so...?

      1 Reply
      1. re: aventinus

        Shangri La is run by Taiwanese, but they feature a lot of Sichuan dishes even the menu draws from multiple regions.

      2. Oyster pancake means oyster omelet, at least every time I've ever had one. I've never had it at TC.

        Eating at TC makes me feel like eating in someone's kitchen- the food is simple in flavor, often unbalanced, often a little funky. Taiwanese food generally makes me feel like that. It's also sweeter than most Americans are used to.

        I think you can't go wrong with the salt and pepper pork chop bits, the greens, the eggplant with basil (although this is one of those super-sweet dishes), and the beef with peppers (which is sometimes a little bland).

        I think TC gets a lot of points here for being different, since there aren't that many Taiwanese places around, and they tend to be equally hit-or-miss (MuLan, May's Cafe).

        1. If you're interested, I've had a series of good meals at Wisteria House, though I am no expert on authentic Taiwanese. Fantastic yellow chive and leek/pork dumplings.

          1. I will say that my first visit to Taiwan Cafe was not a success. That was about 10 years ago, and thank heavens we gave it a second try, as I've probably been there on average once a month now for the past 8 - 9 years.

            All I remember from my first visit was thinking that the clams with basil were way too garlicky and salty.

            What I can tell you from the 100 or so subsequent visits is that I have never been anything less than thrilled with:

            "mini steamed buns with pork" - a.k.a. soup dumplings, xiao long bao, or xlb. larger than those I've had anywhere else, but very tasty.
            salt & pepper fried pork
            Taiwanese style pan fried dumplings
            Taiwanese fried rice with chicken
            Noodles with ground pork and broad bean sauce
            Noodles with beef and sa cha sauce
            Homestyle braised eggplant with basil
            Beef with poblano peppers (sometimes listed as longhorn peppers)
            Beef with sa cha sauce
            Pork or beef with bamboo shoots
            Pork with mustard greens

            I guess we lean towards non-seafood items, but I've seen many a fish come out of that kitchen, so don't take my experience as gospel. Just don't give up!

            :)
            BK

            1. never been disappointed or noted anything but top-notch stuff here at TC. as others have posted the Beef w/Longhorn peppers, eggplant w/basil etc are very very good.

              i've also had their eel with yellow chive (yum) pork with bamboo tip (also yum), stinky tofu and mao po tofu (extra spicy please!). all wicked good.

              i have never been that late at night, so that may of had something to do with your less than stellar experience. i'd give it another try.

              3 Replies
              1. re: ScubaSteve

                Thank you everyone for the advice and encouragement. From the recs, it sounds like I indeed missed out on the favorite dishes, so I will give it another shot.

                1. re: Bob Dobalina

                  Also, a number of Chinatown restaurants are cash only. The real pain is the lack of ATMs in the area. There is one back in the Chinatown garage and then the large Fleet location on Kneeland. Other than that ...

                  I also really like the oysters in black bean, plus a scallion pancake for dipping into the bean/oyster sauce. Probably are canned oysters but I like the taste with all of the basil.

                  1. re: Dax

                    There's a CVS at Essex and Washington where you can get cash back. Much better than paying an ATM fee.

              2. I'm not really that big a fan of TC - food is often overseasoned and not very consistent in quality. Have tried several dishes - beef with tomatoes, three cup chicken, braised tofu, various veggies etc. I highly recommend the tofu (hong2 shao1 dou4 fu3). I think they used egg tofu, which added a great deal of flavor. Everything else was just so-so. My friends used to eat at TC a whole lot, but only ever ordered their stewed pork belly over rice.

                1. Like others, I'd say give it another try. TC is one of my faves in Chinatown, but I didn't know those dishes had universal acclaim on the board. ; ) Except for the pea greens, I've had the oyster pancake and eel only once, and went back to my favorites. As 9Lives mentioned above, the eel was on one of my first visits about 5 years ago and I wasn't a fan; like you I thought the eel tasted 'off'. I love eel, but I've had that happen to me one other time, maybe Peach Farm or Noodle Alcove. I have a hard time straying from my favorites:

                  Beef with poblano/longhorn peppers (plenty spicy last time), julienned pork with bamboo shoots, eggplant and basil, minced pork roll in tofu silk, edamame with mustard greens and bean curd, soft shell crabs in season, big pan-fried dumplings, and the scallion pancakes which, unfortunately are inconsistent - when they're done right, they're some of the best in the city.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Rubee

                    Acclaim was for TC in general, not for those dishes in particular. Tho' I seem to remember people waxing poetic about the oyster pancake from time to time...

                    1. re: Bob Dobalina

                      Yes, you're right. I think I'm just not a huge fan of the oyster pancake in general. Most times it's too "soggy" to me.

                      1. re: Bob Dobalina

                        If there was any waxing, it was likely for the scallion pancake.

                        1. re: Bob Dobalina

                          There HAS been waxing about the oyster pancake, but it seems to be a prime victim of the inconsistancy problem. When it's on, it's full of juicy oysters, cripey(in an eggy way) pancake, spicy sauce. When it's off, the rice flour(or rice stach,or something like that; I looked up a recipe once) doesn't seem incorporated, the sauce tastes like ketchup, and it is, to quote Tony Bourdain, (speaking about natto), "Like drinking out of the spit cup at the dentist"....But I've only had the bad one once....And for next time, get the seafood in Claypot, or as Dave MC once cristened it, "Death by Seafood in clay pot"....

                          1. re: galleygirl

                            What's that wry comment from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the evil guy drinks from the gold chalice and turns to ash?

                            "He chose...poorly..." Clearly...

                            Thank goodness the oyster pancake and eel weren't quite THAT bad! ;)

                        2. re: Rubee

                          I think I order exactly the same things at TC as Rubee. Yum. I'm also a huge fan of the shrimp (or beef) with yellow chives.

                          In fact, lately I've been in a rut ordering the beef/poblano, the eggplant/basil, and the shrimp/chives.Not a bad rut.

                        3. Taiwan Cafe is one of my favorite places in Chinatown. Never had the oyster pancake or the eel, but I like the eggplant & basil and all of their soups that I've tried. They also prepare vegetables well (as you saw), and do well with pork - think it was a braised bacon dish I had once that was so good. I'm also a fan of their Taiwanese brunch, but that's mostly for the fried dough & beef sandwiches they serve. I'm one of the few that doesn't like the XLB - really unwieldy and a poor broth. I think they do approachable Chinese food and their staff has always been really sweet and helpful with the menu.

                          Maybe you caught them on an off night or had poor dishes. Or maybe they had food to use up at the end of the night and you got stuck. Anyway, I do hope you try them again and have a better experience.

                          1. Has anyone else ever experianced tea cups sliding across the table at TC?

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: CapeCodChowHound

                              Yeah! It's like a Ouija board.

                            2. TC's a rather inconsistent place. I've had the eel noodles a few times and it's been quite variable, fishy sometimes, just right at other times.

                              The quality of the cooking at TC is generally very rough and homey; Mulan's cooking is a bit tighter.

                              The oyster omelette is supposed to have gooey bits of tapioca flour in it -- you'll see that in renditions from Fujian and Chaozhou. The reddish sweet sauce is likely a sweet bean sauce, a Taiwanese touch. But I've had perfectly "authentic" dishes that are poorly rendered, and considering TC's variability, it doesn't surprise me too much.

                              Do try the oyster pancake at Rainbow Cafe next door -- it was very good, and more of a pancake than an omelette.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: limster

                                Ah, limster buddy, thanks for the info. Sounds right on the money...

                                1. re: limster

                                  I love the oyster omelette at Penang--is this evidence of my shoddy knowledge of Malaysian cuisine or do others agree?

                                  1. re: tatamagouche

                                    The oyster omelette in Malaysia and Singapore are essentially Fujian or Chaozhou, won't be too dissimilar from the ones at Potluck Cafe etc.... I've had it before and agree it's pretty good.

                                2. excellent pork belly dishes

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: galangatron

                                    TC's whole steamed fish is a revelation....served with a light ginger/soy/scallion sauce, we devour it every time. I'm an eel lover but I didn't love the eel/noodle dish, either.

                                  2. went yesterday (7/4/07) around 4pm with the kid. had beef w/LH peppers, mao po tofu, pea stems and the eggplant with basil.

                                    the tofu was excellent. asked for it to be prepared extra hot and it came with a nice bit of chopped tiny green peppers that really lit it up.

                                    the pea stems were really good as was everything else.