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January 20, 2010

Jo Jo TaiPei

Oyster Pancake Dominic Armato

Woooo, it's been a busy few weeks. During the break I managed to relocate the family to Phoenix, get mostly settled, squeeze in a quick business trip to Vegas and San Francisco and, incidentally, clear one million pageviews over the lifetime of Skillet Doux. I'm still having a hard time wrapping my head around that last one, so let me just take a moment to say... wow, guys. I'm simultaneously flattered and flabbergasted, and I guess the most appropriate thing to say is thanks. So... thanks!

Back to business, however, there's a bit of a backlog to start clearing, and I think the best place to start is with some Boston spots I never quite got around to writing about. We'll mix in a little Phoenix and a little Vegas, but I'm hoping to put the Boston stuff to bed over the next couple of weeks, starting with a write-up I promised a good buddy I'd get posted.

Cold StartersDominic Armato

Chinese, I have a pretty good grip on, but Taiwanese is pretty much a total mystery to me. It's familiar, of course, for obvious reasons, but there are plenty of curveballs for somebody like me who's spent all of my time in Hong Kong, Guangdong and some exceptional Sichuan restaurants stateside. In fact, before visiting Jo Jo TaiPei, I think my experience with Taiwanese was exclusively limited to the amazing homemade sausages that one of my high school roommates used to bring back to the dorm once a month (more on this later, I hope). It was, in fact, these very sausages that kept me from writing about Jo Jo TaiPei sooner. Though we didn't have them when I visited back in July, I knew they were on the menu and I wanted to revisit my introduction to Taiwanese cuisine to make a nice bookend for the post. Aaaaand, then I never quite got back. But it wasn't for lack of desire. The first (and only, thus far) official Skillet Doux outing was a great night with some great folks and pretty darn good food.

Xiao Long BaoDominic Armato

Jo Jo TaiPei is one of the obscene number of little ethnic joints crammed into Allston, and it's a very small, cozy and comfortable place that's open late and has a huge menu. This is always a good start. Foodwise, we got started with a selection of what I could best describe, for lack of the actual term (which I'm sure somebody will reveal in the comments) as Taiwanese panchan. Our server brought out a large platter of chilled items from which we selected three. Thinly sliced pig's ear in sesame oil was a little tougher than I would have liked, but was simple and tasty, nonetheless. Pickled bamboo was tart and spicy, but the most interesting, hiding in the rear right corner of the photo, was some manner of fish, I believe, that had been transmogrified into something almost meaty. The seasoning was heavily soy-based, it had been dried to create a very dense, chewy and almost jerky-like consistency, and then smoked.

Pork Belly BunsDominic Armato

Immediately following the cold dishes, and pictured at the top of the post, was an absolutely dynamite dish. The oyster pancake was simple enough, made with eggs, rice flour (I assume), mushrooms and greens with oysters cooked within and an almost ketchupy tomato sauce on top. But it was beautifully executed, the tender, plump oysters set against the pancake's crisply fried edges and absolutely vibrant vegetables. If I hadn't forgotten about it, it might very well have made the Deliciousness of 2009 a few weeks back. Beautiful dish. Less beautiful but perfectly pretty were the xiao long bao, which always seem to find their way to my table if they're on the menu. I'm usually just courting disappointment, but Jo Jo's were worthy. They weren't nearly so delicate as others I've had, the flavors weren't quite as clean and intense, that telltale sag wasn't present, but they had good flavor and were plenty soupy. I'd get 'em again without hesitation.

Three Cups Tofu and EggplantDominic Armato

We also went for the pork belly -- surprise -- which was a bit of a new and interesting preparation for me. Thick slices were stewed or perhaps steamed tender, and then folded into a small bun and topped with fresh cilantro and some sort of pickled green that I suspect was mui choy. The little packages were great, with a deep caramelized flavor and a nice bit of contrasting tartness from the greens and herbal freshness from the cilantro, even if the pork could have been a little more tender and lush for my tastes. The curveball, however, was sprinkled over the top. I swear it must have been granulated sugar, or perhaps a seasoned version thereof, but it added a little sweetness and a really unusual texture that, while jarring at first, I found I really enjoyed. For me, this was the other big hit of the night.

Shredded Pork with Black BeansDominic Armato

Our next two dishes, both of which I believe were specials that day, were serviceable if unremarkable. Three cups tofu and eggplant hit that magically smooth (and apparently quintessentially Taiwanese) marriage of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil, but something about the combination of this sauce and the eggplant wasn't quite working for me. I may yet be convinced, but my first impression is that this isn't the strongest pairing. The other special was shredded stir-fried pork that was treated with fermented black beans, an abundance of scallions and fresh cilantro. I couldn't fault it. The flavors were nicely balanced with a little zip and the finely shredded texture was great, but it just wasn't a standout. If you have a hankering for pork and black beans, it's your dish. Otherwise, it's entirely missable.

Ginger Scallion LobsterDominic Armato

Strangely, the big disappointment of the evening was the dish the Boston Chowhounders have been falling over themselves to praise. Twin ginger scallion lobsters are, indeed, a very good deal at $17. But maybe I caught an off night, or maybe the fact that I'd just had Chun's version of the same at my farewell dinner in Baltimore less than a month prior set the bar unfairly high, but it just struck me as flat. The sauce didn't pop, it didn't bring out the lobster, and rather than those vibrant aromatics enhancing the fresh lobster's sweetness, it played more like generic Chinese-American brown sauce atop a slightly rubbery crustacean. This particular disappointment aside, however, I rather enjoyed Jo Jo TaiPei and wouldn't have hesitated to return if we'd stuck around, not least of which because there's a lot on this menu that's unfamiliar to me. I suspect I could've learned a little, and consider it a missed opportunity.

Jo Jo TaiPei
103 Brighton Avenue
Allston, MA 02134
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - 11:30 PM


uhm ... dominic, shouldn't there be a prize for the millionth page viewer. something like, say ... a container of your bolognese or, i don't know, two containers of bolognese?

Wow! Congrats on the page views. (I wonder how many of them are a result of my manic refreshing while waiting for Power Rankings...)

Congratulations, Dom. I came for the power rankings and stayed for the writing. My parents winter in Scottsdale and have been unable to find a truly great Mexican restaurant. I'm hoping you can help change that!

Ditto what Anne said. Came for Top Chef. Stayed to talk food with other food nerds.

If you want to try more Taiwanese-style, try Taipei in San Francisco. Especially known for dumplings.

I think the fish you had in the cold starter plate was Xuny Yu. It's actually deep fried, marinated and smoked. Yum!

If you like Jo Jo Taipei, you should try Mulan in Cambridge, at the corner of Broadway and Market, next to the Dunkin Donuts. That is very authentic Taiwanese-style Chinese cooking. It's hard to say which is better, but Mulan is a bit cheaper and more to my liking. For us Taiwanese international students, Jo Jo Taipei and Mulan are two of our favorite places. Wisteria House has the most authentic beef-noodle soup I have found in Boston.

The Taiwanese-style is hard to pin down, because the authentic "native" cooking pre-1949 has had to share the name with the massive influx of mainland-Chinese cooking after post-1949, so the label "Taiwanese cuisine" does double-duty. It can refer to either traditional native Taiwanese foods (like Cantonese), or Chinese cuisine cooked with a Taiwanese flair. Usually, there is a good dollop of Japanese influence, as Taiwan was a Japanese colony pre-1945.

A place like Jo Jo Taipei is a mix of the two. The oyster omelet is definitely Taiwanese, while the pork-belly buns and Xiao Long Bao are adapted from Northern China and Canton province, respectively.

Hope this helps.

Thanks for the rec and info, Altoids. Taiwanese kind of seems like one of those odd natural fusion cuisines, though less obviously so since those it's drawing from are less diverse than someplace like Peru. But it's that same thing where you think you've got a handle on it and then something kind of comes out of left field.

re: Xiao Long Bao, they've certainly been adopted by the dim sum culture of the south, but I was always under the impression that they originated around Shanghai... is that not the case?

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