Two Taiwanese Breakfasts, One Taiwanese Afternoon Snack: Huge Tree Pastry, Four Sea (Si Hai), and Old Country Cafe
Two Taiwanese Breakfasts, and One Taiwanese Afternoon Snack: Huge Tree Pastry, Four Sea (Si Hai), and Old Country Cafe
I’m still gathering my thoughts for the entire weekend, but I thought I’d start with a review of the three Taiwanese restaurants I went to yesterday as part of the Sunday leg of my food tour (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/854334).
First Stop: Huge Tree Pastry
I had a late start Sunday morning and left about an hour after schedule (9:30 AM instead of 8:30 AM). Luckily traffic was clear, and I arrived at Huge Tree Pastry in half an hour. The interior of the restaurant was not very big and not very new, but very clean, so fairly authentic for a Taiwanese restaurant.
Those of you non-Chinese speakers worried about any language barriers at HTP should be relieved, as the young waitress taking most of the orders and serving the tables yesterday was obviously Americanized and spoke perfect English in addition to Mandarin and Taiwanese. Still, I used my poor Chinese language skills to order mi jiang (peanut/rice milk) hot, you tiao (fried crueller), and ô-á-chian (Taiwanese oyster omelette/pancake).
The mi jiang and you tiao arrived at my table within minutes. Said waitress warned that the mi jiang was very hot. I haven’t had mi jiang in a while, but HTP’s was delicious. It wasn’t as heavy as I was anticipating, nor as sweet, and it was indeed extremely hot. The you tiao was nicely fried, crisp without being overly oily. Naturally I tried dipping it into the mi jiang, and it made for a hearty combination, though the flavor of the mi jiang did overpower the you tiao in a way that dou jiang (soy milk) does not.
The ô-á-chian arrived ten minutes later. It was a larger portion than I anticipated, cut into four pieces. It can definitely be split between two people. The pancake was appropriately glutinous, and the sauce was tangy and mildly spicy. The amount of oysters in the dish were not generous but sufficient. One egg and some bean sprouts and cabbage made up the rest of the filling. I’m not used to this dish having a lot of vegetables in it, but they did round the dish out nicely.
I finished the you tiao and ô-á-chian and took about half the mi jiang to-go. The total bill was just under $10, so I left $12. I spent about 30 minutes there, leaving around 10:30 AM.
Second Stop: Si Hai (Four Sea)
I had an appointment in Pomona and needed to arrive between 11:15 AM and 11:30 AM. That unfortunately meant I had to cut out my stop at Elite, but I decided to keep my stop at Si Hai. I arrived there in about 15 minutes.
Si Hai has a cleaner, Taiwanese bakery, feel. It was air-conditioned, which was nice, as the temperature in SGV started rising. There were a half dozen people in line, and unlike HTP, it seemed much less English-speaker friendly. While the various pastries in the cases had English on the labels, the large menu on the back wall did not have any English.
Somewhat intimidated, I accidentally ordered just a suan cai fan tuan (salty rice roll with pickled vegetables) instead of the lu dan suan cai fan tuan (rice roll with marinated egg and pickled vegetables). I also ordered a cold dou jiang and a gua bao (marinated pork sandwich bun), which was in the cold case. The cashier asked if I wanted it warmed up, to which I said yes. The total cost was around $12.
They seemed to be doing a healthy amount of take-out business, so there were several of us sitting at one of the larger tables waiting for our order. Mine came out in less than 5 minutes, but I was already running late, so I just started driving toward Pomona.
I had the dou jiang on the drive. It was pleasantly mildly sweet, and very cold, which I appreciated as the temperature just got hotter as I drove further inland, and the A/C in my car does not work. I tried to eat some of the food while driving, but I could not safely unwrap the plastic around the fan tuan or gua bao, so instead I took a few minutes after I arrived to take a few bites.
The fan tuan was very good. The individual grains of rice formed a nice structure without being a sticky mess. The filling was plentiful, with you tiao and rousong (meat floss--better than it sounds; think machaca) providing the base and generous amounts of suan cai. The gua bao was also very good, though the trip in plastic wrap made the bun a little little gummy, but the single slice of stewed pork was nice and thick, the vegetables were savory, and the bun adding a bit of necessary sweetness.
After my appointment was over, around 2:15 PM, I scored a cup of ice and mixed it with the mi jiang (still piping hot in my car) and the dou jiang (lukewarm) for a refreshing drink in the now-oppressive heat. I then started heading back to SGV to continue my tour. I decided to head toward Happy Garden, as it closed at 3 PM.
Third Stop: Old Country Cafe
L.A. traffic, however, had other plans for me. Though the distance between Pomona and the 10/605 interchange was only 15 miles, it took me over 45 minutes to travel that distance. Of course, the 10 cleared up completely after I got past the 605, and I made it to New Ave in less than 15 minutes. Unfortunately, that was still minutes too late to be able to try Happy Garden, as the restaurant (and Mama Lu’s, another stop I had planned) is closed between 3 PM and 5 PM.
Dejected, I went down the street to Old Country Cafe. If HTP reminded me of a typical Taiwanese breakfast place, and Si Hai reminded me of a typical Taiwanese bakery, OCC reminded me of those tiny shacks in Taiwan with a window into a kitchen right on the street and a few tables to eat at. The was very small and kitchy, dominated by a bar that probably seated 10, and a flatscreen TV on a Chinese-language station. The kitchen was partially visible behind the old, dingy teddy-bear noren (the cloth room dividers commonly found in Japanese restaurants). I ordered a zhu xue gao (pig blood cake) and a chou dou fu (stinky tofu, listed as “Special Fried Bean Curd” in English).
The zhu xue gao came out first. It was very glutinous, as the “cake” is formed by mixing the blood with sticky rice. The taste was surprisingly mild. I could not really tell that it was cooked pig’s blood I was eating. The sauce on it was both a little too sweet and a little too spicy for the dish, overpowering the already mild taste of the the cake.
The chou dou fu, as soon as it left the threshold of the kitchen, immediately attacked my nose. This was a good sign, I thought. The cubes of tofu were small but plentiful, and expertly fried. The pickled vegetables were not as tangy nor as spicy as I’ve had, nor was the dipping sauce. The tofu pieces held the pungency well, but did not have a very strong fermented flavor.
I ordered a passion fruit juice to go, and the total bill was, like the other two stops, right around $12.
Granted, I only tried two dishes at each location, but based on my impression of what I had, I would definitely go back to HTP and Si Hai again and try other dishes for Taiwanese breakfast. I am not so sure about OCC. I wouldn’t render final judgement based on just the two dishes I had, but with Happy Garden around the corner beckoning me, I’d definitely try a different restaurant before going back to OCC.
I like the xian dou jiang a bit better at Si Hai but the xian dou hua a little better at Huge Tree. The dou hua at Si Hai tends to be a bit thicker, and I like the toppings better at Huge Tree (which still aren't quite as good to me as I remember Yi Mei on Atlantic being before the fire and before they opened Huge Tree) - a bit more sour and smokey tasting. I could be wrong, but I also kind of feel like the Rowland Heights Si Hai is a tiny bit more consistent (I go to the other one much more often, though, since it's very close to my house).
So far, none of the places here seems to have caught on to the 'spicy' fan tuan option that streetcarts in Taipei had a couple years ago -- basically, they'll ask if you want to 'jia la' (you do).... it's a dry chili (and peanut?) powder that they put on the outside of the roll. Let me know if there's somewhere in LA that has this option.
This style of breakfast doesn't come from, nor is it unique to, Taiwan. Fan tuan is originally from Shanghai, and you tiao and sweet or salty dou jiang / dou hua is popular for breakfast across a lot of mainland China.