REVIEW w/ pics: Taiwanese Street Food at Pa Pa Walk
Has it ever happened to you that while you're reading through a restaurant review that sometimes one dish will stand out to the point that the only reason you want to visit that restaurant is just to try that one dish? That's exactly what happened to me while reading Kevin Cheung's blog, 50 Meals, about his visit to Pa Pa Walk, a restaurant that specializes in Taiwanese street food.
According to Kevin, the words "Pa Pa" means "all over town" in Taiwanese. Taking that further, "Pa Pa Walk" means to "get out around town." Given the definition of the restaurant's name, it seems fitting that they serve food that you might normally order from a stall or cart on the streets of Taiwan, which means that food portions are more similar to tapas.
So what dish caught my interest? On the menu, it's referred to simply as "Cream Soup in Fried Toast", but when placed in front of you, it's reminiscent of clam chowder bread bowls. Kevin further translated that the name in Chinese sounds just like “coffin cover". Fellow blogger, Wandering Chopsticks, also was so entranced by Kevin's post that she paid a visit herself to try this dish and with further research learned that this soup/bread dish is referred to as coffin bread in Taiwan. In her words, "[it] hails from Tainan, the oldest city in Taiwan and the capital from 1663 to 1885. It was so named because of its coffin-like appearance." In my own research, I came upon the Primitive Culture blog, where the blogger wrote briefly about his experience with "coffin bread" in Taiwan with a brief mention from his dining companion about a possible American naval connection to this dish.
Basically, "coffin bread" is what first got me in the door of Pa Pa Walk, but what brought me back for a second visit was how good the food was in general. For my first visit, a friend and I shared 6 savory dishes, including the "coffin bread" and 1 dessert. The first three items that hit our table included the smoked duck, the bbq pork fried rice and the grilled Taiwanese sausage. The fried rice was good, if nothing special. I enjoyed both the duck with its crispy skin and the slight sweetness of the sausages, which when eaten with a piece of raw garlic, had a great savory component to them.
Following the sausages, came the broiled leafy greens and the leek pie, which was shaped more like an empanada. I liked how the greens still had a crunch to them and of course, being cooked with pork made this dish even more of a hit to my taste buds. The leek pie, which also had glass noodles as part of the filling, was my least favorite of the bunch. It was too greasy and the leek/noodle filling had an aftertaste that wasn't working for me at all.
At last, the "coffin bread" arrived and what a sight! The bread, which was golden brown, was hollowed out and filled with the creamy vegetable chowder. The top part of the bread that was cut off, served as the lid and you can see the soup dripping down the sides of the bread box itself. Of course, we devoured that bread lid first, which was crispy and toasted to perfection and it's where you can first get a hint of what the soup will taste like.
Finally, I took a spoonful of the soup and while there weren't any bold flavors, it was rich, thick, creamy and filling. As we ate into it more, we started breaking off pieces of the bread walls to eat as well. Amazingly enough, even as we ate towards the bottom of this bread box, the bread still retained is crispy, toasty qualities. Personally, I don't really like the "coffin bread" reference because to me, it's more of a comfort food, especially during those colder months of the year when you want and need some warmth going into all your nooks and crannies. Come on, how can you go wrong with toasted bread and soup?
I don't even know how we had room for dessert, but we did and ordered the strawberry slush, which basically is just condensed milk poured over shaved ice topped with sliced strawberries - simple ingredients that definitely took care of my sweet tooth. I only wish that they had smaller more individual orders because our order was huge and was really more for 4, maybe, even 6 people as opposed to just 2.
For my second visit, I brought my dining group and this time, we shared 10 savory dishes. Three of them were repeats from my first visit, the Taiwanese sausages, the cream soup in fried toast and the leek pie and my feelings about those dishes didn't change from my first visit. This time around, we ordered the following items: pork and leek dumplings, sole and cilantro dumplings, stir-fry rice noodles, stir-fry napa with dry fish, deep fried oysters, deep fried chicken roll, steamed mini pork buns and the Taiwanese meatballs.
Of the two dumplings, I favored the light and delicate flavors of the sole and cilantro dumplings. The leek in the leek and pork dumplings was a little overpowering, to the point that I couldn't even taste the pork. The rice noodles were good albeit not mind-boggling while the steamed mini pork buns were disappointing. The pork buns are supposed to be XLBs, but the soup inside these dumplings was quite minimal. You're better off going to J&J, Din Tai Fung or Mei Long Village.
I liked how the dry fish added just the right amount of saltiness to the stir-fry napa and both the deep fried oysters and chicken roll were wonderful. The batter for the oysters wasn't heavy or oily and I liked how the tofu wrapper for the chicken roll still had a little bit of a chew to it. The only dish I had difficulty with was the Taiwanese meat ball.
When we ordered this dish, I was expecting little round meatballs and what arrived was something I didn't recognize at all. It looked like a little mountain cut in quarters with some kind of meat filling inside the base. At first, I thought we had the wrong order, but checking with our waiter, it was the right order. Our waiter further told us that the covering was a kind of starch. I think he said it was made up of a rice starch.
I had a taste, but I couldn't get into it. First, I didn't really like the sauce and I can't even tell you why. I just didn't like it. The texture of that starch was also too glutinous for my taste and for the life of me, I couldn't identify the meat that was inside this starchy mountain. If anyone has been to Pa Pa Walk and have tried this dish dish before, I'd love to know more about what the ingredients actually are.
With around 100 food items on their menu and I'm not even counting the beverages or desserts, Pa Pa Walk definitely offers a variety of Taiwanese foods. In writing this blog entry, it reminds me that I've only covered 10% of their menu. Considering that I really enjoyed both meals, even with a couple of exceptions, perhaps it's time for a re-visit and it's a place you my consider checking out for the first time yourself.
Pa Pa Walk
227 W Valley Blvd # 148B
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Very cool that Southern Cal is even trying to introduce regional specific Taiwanese snacks.
Granted "coffin bread" is something that you can find all over Taiwanese night markets, even at Shihlin Night Market in Taipei.
But the original invention of Coffin Bread (or power and promotion bread) was in Tainan (the restaurant that claims to have invented it is currently in 3rd generation of family ownership), using chicken liver instead of meat that is seen elsewhere. The thick toast is first cut up, deep fried then cut up for pouring the thick soup mix in. Definitely good for those who need to shoot their cholestrol levels up.
You won't find much information on Coffin Bread on English Wikipedia, but the Chinese version of the page contains a bit more information for those who can read
I can't remember the exact story, and it was aired on Fei Fan Foodies Comcast Channel (also available as subscription in Southern Calfiornia) episode strictly on Tainan street food, that the Coffin Bread inventor's grandson said something along the lines of that one time his gramps was asked to cook something for a foreign diplomat, so quickly hashed something up together with what he had in the kitchen, and the coffin bread was born.