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April 29, 2011

Taiwan Food Express

Fried Chicken with Salt & Pepper Dominic Armato

Hokay... all of this navel-gazing and gushing like Sally Field (thanks, Howard!) has been fun, but it's time to get back to it!

One of the places I've been meaning to write about for quite a while is Taiwan Food Express down in Mekong Plaza. After a flurry of visits late last year, I kind of put it on the shelf until a call from an old friend a few days ago brought it to mind. But more on that in a bit. Taiwan Food Express holds the distinction of being the only Taiwanese restaurant to be found in the Phoenix area, which naturally makes it of immediate interest to the local foodnerdia, and particular interest to me. I'm chasing a childhood memory, you see... but again, I'm getting ahead of myself. Taiwanese is still a cuisine with which I have limited experience. It'll be mostly familiar, for obvious reasons, to anybody who's spent time with the foods of mainland China, but with Taiwanese there are enough variations and other influences to keep you on your toes. Taiwan Food Express is an extremely casual joint that seems to do as much business with boba as with the food, yet they offer a big menu with only a few items that strike me as uniquely Taiwanese. Of course, squishy translations often have a way of obscuring unique dishes, but the walls are mercifully plastered with photos, making it a little easier to order familiar Taiwanese dishes with nondescript names like House Special Chicken.

Chinese Chive BoxDominic Armato

Dim sum and "appetizers" take up a huge chunk of the menu, and somehow that's where I ended up spending the most time. Fried Chicken with Salt & Pepper almost hits, a big plate of chaotically-shaped nuggets of chicken, breaded and fried with salt and pepper and crispy herb -- mint, I think? I say it almost hits because while it's extremely crisp and hot, you have to work your way through an awful lot of breading to get to a little bit of chicken. Perhaps a bigger problem is that it could use three times as much salt, though given a couple of other experiences I wonder if the Gwailo effect might be at play here, since Americans seem to mostly enjoy salt simply as seasoning rather than a distinct flavor. But still, it's a hot, crisp and tasty dish and the fried mint is a very nice addition. Less compelling, though certainly inoffensive, is what's listed on the menu as Chinese Chive Box, a folded and fried pancake stuffed with sautéed chives that's a little on the greasy and uninteresting side.

Oyster OmeletDominic Armato

Much better is the oyster pancake, which is a dish I can never pass on in a Taiwanese restaurant. Though this version lacks the magic of the truly excellent oyster pancake I had back in Boston not too long ago, the pieces are in place and they scratch the itch. Eggs mixed with greens and potato starch make for a highly variable and often gelatinous mix of textures that work better, I think, when there are lightly crisped edges, which this iteration lacks. But it's kind of comforting in its own gooey way, with briny oysters (if not enough of them), sufficient greens to add a little vegetal texture and that nearly ketchupy sauce, tomato and soy and just a hint of spice. I wouldn't by any stretch hold this up as a model version of the dish, but it's enough to make me happy and give those who've never enjoyed one the general idea.

Spicy WontonsDominic Armato

Though they're not distinctly Taiwanese, a couple of dumplings managed to reach my table. Can't help myself, apparently. But Taiwanese involves enough regional Chinese influences that something like their spicy wontons aren't really out of place. It's a Sichuan dish at heart, pork dumplings swimming in an oily ma la sauce that's a dead giveaway for the region. The dumplings leave something to be desired. The balance on the filling is passable, but the wrapper is weak -- wet and threatening to fall apart. Still, while I wouldn't want to put the sauce toe-to-toe with a good Sichuan restaurant, it has the requisite spicy, numbing zip in spades and makes for an enjoyable plate of dumplings.

Xiao Long Bao (Steamed Pork Dumplings)Dominic Armato

I'll try xiao long bao at any place that's brave enough to serve them, even though I know disappointment is almost certain. Xiao long bao are an old favorite, and one of those culinary holy grails that food nerds in the States are always seeking and rarely finding. AKA soup dumplings, they're a technical challenge, a Shanghaiese specialty that ideally should marry a delicate but strong wrapper with a primarily liquid pork filling that, if you eat it in a decidedly non-traditional manner like me, comes gushing forth and threatens to scald your tongue when you take a bite. Here, they leave much to be desired. The dough's too thick, with no sag at all, the filling is overly sweet, and while they're not completely dry, there isn't much in the way of soup. Moreover, if you don't look the part, you'll be served a potsticker dipping sauce rather than the traditional black vinegar with slivered ginger. This is quickly amended upon request, but know that you might need to ask. This is definitely a restaurant that attempts to protect Western diners from themselves. In any case, these steamy fellows may be acceptable as an unusually juicy dumpling, but as a soup-filled bun they're a big miss. Unfortunate, but not unexpected.

Beef Noodle SoupDominic Armato

Beef noodle soup is Taiwanese comfort food. Though it shouldn't come as a surprise -- what's more comforting than soup? -- I'm always amazed by the number of Taiwanese expats who name this as the dish they crave when they've been away for too long. It's the anti-Pho, very clean and clear like its Vietnamese analogue, but extremely deep, dark and intense. A little too intense, actually. Though I always hesitate to make such suggestions without knowing for a fact, its extreme beefiness comes alongside what strikes me as a very distinct artificial flavor, as though it's fortified with bouillon or somebody's getting a little frisky with the MSG. But though it's not bad, brimming with thick noodles, delightfully gelatinous chunks of beef, some stewed bok choy and a touch of mustardy, preserved vegetable, I don't think it's going to be curing any Taiwanese natives of their homesickness.

Three Cups Chicken (House Style)Dominic Armato

I feel like I'm painting a somewhat bleaker picture here than I intend, so let me say that there have definitely been a few very good dishes that give me hope and have kept me coming back. The three cups chicken, for instance, is an offering that's not only quite tasty but, to me at least, pleasantly unconventional. The classic mix of soy, sesame oil and shaoxing, Taiwan Food Express' version hits those savory, mellow notes. What they add are thick slabs of ginger and chicken that is fried to a crisp before being introduced to the sauce, making for an atypical texture that I found very enjoyable. I'm uncertain whether this is what's inspired them to call it their house special rather than plan old three cups chicken, or if this is a perfectly traditional variant with which I'm simply unfamiliar, but I know that I like it.

Xiangchang (Taiwanese Sausage)Dominic Armato

The xiangchang, however, pretty much ensures that I'll be stopping in at least on occasion. I could write an entire 4000 word post about this Taiwanese sausage, and I probably will at some point. One of my roommates from my boarding school days -- the one who called just a few days back -- came from a Taiwanese family, and the highlight of our month at school would be when he'd return from home on a Sunday night bearing a huge bag of these beautiful sausages, which were intended for the freezer but were ticketed straight for our stomachs instead. We'd fire up the rice cooker, sear these links on a hot plate, and completely gorge ourselves late into the night, taking periodic breaks only so that we could stuff more in. Unlike the lap cheong that you'll find all over China, xiangchang is quite sweet with an assertive cinnamon flavor. Influenced by such strong memories from my formative years, my brain almost can't handle seeing something green alongside all that meat. My roommate was, after all, the one who proudly insisted that he never ate anything that didn't have a central nervous system. But the flavor is there, fatty and sweet full of nostalgia, and for that alone, I'll return.

But in general, though it pains me to say it, I find Taiwan Food Express more frustrating than anything. I love that they exist and I love that they make these dishes accessible in Phoenix, but for the most part, they're executed at a level that leaves me wanting. There are good dishes. And something that's off one visit may be on the next. I guess the best I can say is that visiting Taiwan Food Express is an uneven experience, though it's certain to be educational for many. I intend to keep digging through the menu, to see if anything else compelling pops up. But if not... well... hanging my hat on the xiangchang wouldn't be so bad, I suppose.

Taiwan Food Express
66 S. Dobson Road
Mesa, AZ 85202
480-668-9888

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