KQED’s Eating Taiwanese in the Bay is a series of stories exploring Taiwanese food culture in all of its glorious, delicious complexity.
or as long as I’ve lived in the Bay Area, I’ve spent more time searching for Taiwanese food than I have actually eating it.
I’ve driven 90 minutes in traffic to snag a so-so plate of stinky tofu. I’ve stood in line for four hours for takeout Taiwanese breakfast. And who knows how long I’ve spent scouring online discussion forums and Yelp listings for even the briefest mention of lu rou fan or beef noodle soup?
For many of the 30,000-plus Taiwanese Americans who live in the Bay Area, Taiwanese food is largely a cuisine of nostalgia. It’s a cuisine of memories from 10 or 20 years ago and 6,000 miles away. It’s the 24-hour shao bing and you tiao joint around the corner from my grandma’s apartment in Taipei, or the night market stall where my uncle first goaded me into trying stinky tofu, or the mango shaved ice that damn near saved my life on a sweltering mid-summer afternoon.
What it isn’t is a cuisine I get to experience much of in my day-to-day.
Notwithstanding a handful of suburban enclaves in places like Fremont and Cupertino, the Bay Area has never really been known as a stronghold for Taiwanese food. In wide swaths of the region, you’d be lucky to find even one Taiwanese restaurant—and even then, the food might be a pale approximation of the real deal. As Christopher Lam, a San Francisco native who co-runs the beef noodle soup pop-up Yilan Foods, puts it, “When was the last time you could walk around the corner and find Taiwanese food?”
There are signs, however, that things are changing. One of the pleasant surprises of the pandemic has been the many new Taiwanese-inspired pop-ups and Instagram-based food businesses cropping up all over the Bay, many of them to much acclaim. Yilan Foods got a full write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle; during the (now-paused) weekly pop-up’s tenure on Piedmont Avenue, it routinely sold out of its beef noodle soup, aka niu rou mian, just hours—sometimes even minutes—after opening online pre-orders for the week. An East Bay pop-up called Home Flavory Eats offering Taiwanese pineapple cake, or feng li su, became so popular that it had a weeks’ long waiting list at various points this past winter. And last month, when Oakland’s Taiwan Bento served up boxes of dan bing and fan tuan at the restaurant’s first ever Taiwanese breakfast pop-up, the line of customers wound all the way around the block, all morning long.
So, the demand is clearly there. There are signs, in fact, that the Bay Area is on the cusp of a Taiwanese food “moment,” as a new generation of Taiwanese American cooks joins the established South Bay mom-and-pop scene. These restaurants and pop-ups have brought the cuisine of their homeland into the spotlight—and given a flicker of hope to the stinky tofu lovers and niu rou mian connoisseurs among us, who walk around in a state of perpetual longing.
One of the World’s Greatest Food Destinations
Part of the problem is that in much of the United States, there still isn’t a tremendous amount of awareness about Taiwanese cuisine—or, for that matter, Taiwan itself—outside of the Taiwanese American community. The small island nation, located some 100 miles off the eastern coast of China, isn’t a member of the United Nations—and doesn’t, in fact, have official diplomatic relations with the vast majority of the countries in the world, including the United States. China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, is perpetually threatening to invade the island.
Despite those thorny geopolitics, Taiwan has garnered a reputation as one the world’s greatest food destinations. But that doesn’t mean its most famous dishes have really entered the mainstream food vernacular.
Stacy Tang, who runs Taiwan Bento along with her husband Willy Wang, says that when she first opened her restaurant in Oakland in 2014, many customers hadn’t even heard of Taiwan; they were just as likely to ask if the restaurant was serving Thai food. “A couple of people every week would ask, ‘What is Taiwan?’ or ‘Does Taiwan have anything to do with Japan?’” Tang says. On the menu, they listed their gua bao as a “Taiwanese sandwich” for fear that people wouldn’t understand what it was.
As recently as three years ago, when Angie Lin and Tony Tung opened Good to Eat Dumplings as a permanent pop-up inside Original Pattern Brewing in Oakland’s Jack London district, the wife-and-wife duo didn’t think the cuisine had enough name recognition for them to even use the word “Taiwanese” in their branding—even though the potstickers and other dumplings they sell are distinctly Taiwanese in style. “If it’s Thai style or Vietnamese style, there’s some sort of stereotype or general public perception,” Lin says. “For us, if we mention ‘Taiwanese,’ there’s no general perception.”
Even restaurants that do explicitly self-identify as Taiwanese are often miscategorized, in local food coverage, as “regional Chinese”—a politically fraught assertion that could be grounds for a fistfight if you make it in the wrong company. Though calling it a miscategorization might also be a bit too simplistic: As Lin explains, Taiwanese cuisine is a hodgepodge of influences that include the food of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples, 50 years of Japanese occupation, dishes from many different regions of China (a result of the influx of transplants after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949), hybridized dishes like beef noodle soup that were created by the defeated Nationalist soldiers who had fled to Taiwan, and the island’s ever-evolving street food culture.
Ultimately, it’s all of those influences, combined with the island’s incredible wealth of fresh produce, that give Taiwanese cuisine its own uniquely delicious character—with flavors that lean heavily on sesame oil, black bean paste and Taiwanese soy sauce, Lin explains. These are the tastes that so many Taiwanese Americans in the Bay Area have been missing.
Fueled by Nostalgia
What do you do, then, if you’re a second-generation Taiwanese American kid in Oakland or San Francisco who has acquired a taste for beef noodle soup, but can’t find a bowl here that measures up to the ones you slurped down on Yongkang Street in Taipei? Maybe you try to reverse-engineer your own version.
That impulse, as much as anything, has driven the Bay Area’s new wave of Taiwanese food entrepreneurs. Fueled by nostalgia (and perhaps a little bit of desperation), these young Taiwanese American cooks are determined to replicate—and then elaborate on—the tastes and textures of whatever elusive dish first captured their imagination.
“You have this memory set in your head,” says Eric Sim, who founded Yilan Foods along with Christopher Lam, Alex Tong and Itthisak “TT” Rampaiyakul. Searching for Taiwanese food in the Bay Area, Sim says, “it always felt like it was lacking something.”
Sim still thinks about the beef noodle soup stall outside his aunt’s apartment from a trip he took to visit his mother’s native Yilan, just southeast of Taipei, more than a decade ago. “I vividly remember which stall number it is on the street, and I can tell you that there’s a stinky tofu shop a block and a half away that serves potstickers that are amazing,” he says. “My fondest memories of Taiwan are food-related.”
As the only person of Taiwanese descent on the Yilan Foods team, Sim says the business was inspired by his family’s recipes: a beef noodle soup that’s meant to make customers think, This brings me back to Taiwan, and a version of lu rou fan, or braised pork rice, that’s made with hand-cut pork belly, just as all the best spots in Taiwan do. By all accounts, the pop-up has been wildly successful—enough so that its founders are in the process of securing a location for a full-fledged restaurant, most likely in San Francisco.
Other efforts have been more localized in scale. Ashley Yan, who started an informal lu rou fan delivery service called Ashyan’s Lu Rou Fan in San Francisco’s Richmond district this past winter, says her frustration with the local Taiwanese food scene, especially in SF proper, was the biggest motivation to perfect her own recipe—though getting laid off from her day job due to the pandemic also played a part: “I think it was a perfect storm,” she says.
Initially, Yan just gave away portions of her lu rou fan for free via her neighborhood’s “Buy Nothing” Facebook group. But the response was so overwhelmingly positive, Yan says, that she started taking orders and running deliveries all over the western part of the city. Each time, she’d sell out within a couple of hours. Yan has since stopped the pop-up for the time being, but her experience convinced her that the demand for Taiwanese food is as high as it has ever been: “I definitely think the Bay Area is ready for it.”
Meanwhile, Daniel and Jeffrey Hsu say their ambitions aren’t limited to the Bay Area. In August, the brothers founded Mumu, a San Francisco-based frozen beef noodle soup delivery service that currently ships all over the West Coast. But the company’s long-term goal is to ship to anywhere in the U.S. As Jeffrey puts it, “I want to bring Taiwanese food to the national scene.”
Part of the appeal of Mumu’s heat-and-eat niu rou mian is that it provides convenient access to a dish that so many Taiwanese Americans are homesick for. In parts of the country without a sizable Taiwanese population, it has the potential to be the best option available. But a broader sign of the company’s success is that it’s now reaching an audience that isn’t just Taiwanese—or even necessarily Asian, Jeffrey notes.
That shift, perhaps as much as anything, shows the change in how Taiwanese food is now perceived—from something of a niche product, sold by immigrant chefs within their own communities, to a cuisine with recognizable mainstream appeal. In places like Los Angeles and New York, the nascent movement has already reached an even more advanced stage—to the point that many of the cities’ trendiestname chef restaurants are Taiwanese. Los Angeles now even has a Taiwanese-inspired fine dining spot.
The Taiwanese Food Moment
So, is Taiwanese food having a bit of a moment here in the Bay Area? To an extent, the question itself feels slightly disrespectful, as though the cuisine were in need of outside validation—to say nothing of the many, many mom-and-pop Taiwanese restaurants that have been holding it down for years in the South Bay. But, for both the old standbys and the newcomers to the scene, there is a sense that more people are getting excited about Taiwanese food than ever before.
One of those mainstays is the South Bay food truck Mama Liu, which George Fan has run since 2014 along with his mother, Mimi Liu. During the pandemic, the truck has sold its menu of traditional Taiwanese street food dishes, including what many consider to be one of the best versions of stinky tofu available in the Bay, just once a week, almost exclusively to Taiwanese customers. Its pre-order form, accessible via the truck’s Facebook page, isn’t even available in English.
For businesses like Mama Liu, there’s no question that Taiwanese immigrants are the primary customer base. But these days, Fan says that he, too, is hopeful that customers of all different ethnicities might start to embrace his food. Lately, he says, he’s been asking himself, “How come Taiwanese beef noodle is not as popular as pho?” Maybe 2021 will be the year that becomes a legitimate debate.
What I know is this: All of my earliest and most consequential food memories are from the trips my family took to Taipei when I was a kid. I remember the giddy feeling of walking around the Shilin night market for the first time with a fried chicken cutlet the size of a child’s baseball mitt. I remember the specific brand of instant noodle we used to buy at the convenience store. And I remember sitting at the table with my grandmother, long after everyone else had finished eating, bonding with her over our shared dedication to picking every last morsel of meat off a steamed fish head.
Ever since the start of the pandemic—or, really, since the last time I visited—I’ve been thinking about when I’d be able to board a plane to get back to Taiwan. But now, for maybe the first time, I’m also thinking about where I might eat Taiwanese food this weekend, here in the Bay Area—and wondering which dish will make me feel like I’ve gone home again.
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