KQED's Eating Taiwanese in the Bay is a series of stories exploring Taiwanese food culture in all of its glorious, delicious complexity.
riving down Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino, it’s easier to find a boba drink than a Frappuccino. Hungry teenagers roam shopping centers looking for hot dogs wrapped in milk bread. And “bento,” more often than not, means a multi-compartmented Taiwanese feast of pork chop, rice, vegetables and braised egg.
It’s not by chance that Silicon Valley became ground zero for the Bay Area’s Taiwanese food scene. Santa Clara County’s Taiwanese population is second in the U.S. only to Los Angeles County. Mom-and-pop Taiwanese eateries proliferated along with the rise of personal computers and the internet. Before long, Taiwanese Americans throughout Northern California knew that if they wanted a decent oyster omelet or beef noodle soup, chances were they’d have to trek out to a strip mall in Milpitas or Cupertino.
But just as new start-ups have forced the legacy tech companies to evolve, many of Silicon Valley’s most beloved Taiwanese restaurants now face a turning point as their founders age and the pandemic continues to hamstring their business. Mama Chen’s Kitchen is a sunny Cupertino restaurant known for its Taiwanese small bites, including gua bao and stinky tofu—foods best enjoyed fresh out of the steamer or wok and shared with friends. Like Apple’s new offices across the street, however, the dining room’s glossy tables mostly sat empty during a recent lunch hour. “You can imagine how many people work there, I think more than 20,000 people,” owner Bobby Chan says of his depleted customer base.
Chan started the restaurant in 2012 with his mother-in-law, affectionately known in the Taiwanese American community as “Mama Chen.” These days, it’s one of the many Taiwanese spots across the Valley that are struggling to reinvent themselves during the pandemic. But there’s good news too. A second generation of Taiwanese American restaurant owners have taken the reins from their parents, using social media to sell traditional foods in ways no one could have imagined when they first opened their doors. Their restaurants’ continued success speaks to an underlying truth that hasn’t changed in 20 or 30 years: If you want to understand the Bay Area’s Taiwanese food community, you have to spend time in Silicon Valley.
Taiwan’s Brain Drain and the Rise of High Tech
I first moved to San Jose as a kid in the early 1980s. My family was part of a wave of Taiwanese Americans lured by growing companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Apple. Like many immigrants from Taiwan in the 1960s and ’70s, my parents came to the United States to pursue advanced degrees in science and engineering, part of the “brain drain” of the island’s most highly educated citizens who were newly eligible to go to America under the Immigration Act of 1965.
“You had a larger number of immigrants that could come from China, from Taiwan,” explains Franklin Ng, professor of anthropology at Fresno State and author of The Taiwanese Americans. “A very, very fortuitously historic fact was that the United States was beginning to move into what you might call the computer age. And micro-conductors were very important at this time. And it just happened that UC Berkeley, Stanford, Stanford Industrial Park, Santa Clara, this area was important as a sort of petri dish for innovation.”
But engineers weren’t necessarily good cooks. While there were restaurants serving American Chinese and Cantonese food, there weren’t many that could dish up the sweet and savory flavors, the oysters and squid, or the chewy rice and tapioca confections typical of my family’s Fujianese (or Hoklo) ancestors, who settled in Taiwan beginning in the 1600s. Nor was it easy to find the wheat-based noodles and pancakes popularized by the post-1949 transplants who arrived from China after the Chinese Civil War—the self-described waishengren (literally, “people born outside the province” or “foreign-born people” in Mandarin).
My parents drove us all over the Valley searching for the madeleines of their youth: stretchy oyster omelets drizzled with sweet red chili-miso sauce, squid soup zingy with black vinegar or the warm goodness of fresh-pressed soy milk. Eventually, we found these foods and more, ordering xiaolongbao off the menu at a lunch-special joint and slurping pork chop noodles in the back of an ice cream parlor.
Luckily, changes in U.S. immigration policies also allowed for family reunification, which proved to be a further boon for the burgeoning Taiwanese restaurant scene. Chin-Shin Yang, known by her married last name “Mama Chen,” was one of the many Taiwanese immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1980s. At first, she started selling bah tsàng, homemade leaf-wrapped rice dumplings stuffed with pork and other goodies, directly to the Taiwanese American community. By 1997 she developed enough of a following that she and her son-in-law opened their first restaurant in Milpitas, named Southland (“Tainan” in Chinese) after her hometown in Southern Taiwan. A year later, they opened another outpost in the Cupertino Village shopping center, anchored by a Ranch 99 supermarket. Those restaurants have since closed or been sold, but Mama Chen became well known in the community, often donating meals for church events or the annual Taiwanese American Cultural Festival.
In 2012, Chen and her son-in-law opened Mama Chen’s Kitchen at its current location on Stevens Creek Boulevard. Sitting down to a meal there reminds me of the area’s earliest Taiwanese restaurants—tidy family businesses that served small plates to be shared. After Chen herself passed away several years ago, Chan, her son-in-law, has continued to run the restaurant.
Many of Silicon Valley’s oldest Taiwanese restaurants opened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In addition to Southland Cafe in Cupertino, Queen House opened on Castro Street in Mountain View and Taiwan Cafe set up shop in Milpitas. In 2000, I came back to my hometown after being away for most of the 1990s for college and work, and the changes were unmistakable. Computer chip manufacturers were moving overseas, and internet start-ups employed a steady stream of new immigrants from places like Taiwan. Boba shops had sprung up, selling deep-fried fish balls and five spice–scented popcorn chicken to go along with sweet milk teas, all to a Mandopop soundtrack.
In the Valley today, you can eat Taiwanese food from dawn until dusk, beginning with a bowl of sweet potato congee at Taiwan Porridge Kingdom and moving on to Southland’s savory rice pudding steamed in a bowl. You can snack on pillowy baked buns stuffed with taro or pork floss at one of the local bakeries and then finish the day with an icy lager and three-cup squid at a beer house like Red Hot Wok.
Many of the Taiwanese restaurants which have risen to national prominence in recent years (Baohaus and Win Son in New York, Pine & Crane in Los Angeles) feature mostly “waisheng” menus. These dishes—like rich beef noodle soup and brothy xiaolongbao—often reflect the cattle and wheat of northern China. But Taiwan’s food is as complex and multilayered as its identity. Silicon Valley’s Taiwanese restaurants go beyond the most widely known corners of the cuisine, often emphasizing the foodways of the Hoklo, who make up an estimated 70% of the island’s population. The impact of 50 years of Japanese colonization is also writ large in the current proliferation of bentos, super-sized versions of the pork chop and rice lunch boxes sold on Taiwan’s railways. Another popular dish, Chiayi chicken rice, reflects the legacy of U.S. military presence in Taiwan, spurring locals to create a meal using surplus poultry. It’s still hard, however, to find the flavors of the island’s numerous indigenous tribes, though a charming restaurant called Cambowan in San Mateo used to serve black rice steamed in bamboo before it closed its doors for good during the pandemic.
One of the most beloved niche restaurants is less than three miles from Cisco headquarters. Stepping through the doors of Taiwan Cafe, with its brick walls and vintage neon signs, is like entering a village in the island’s rural south. “We like that country flavor, xiāng xià de wèi dào,” says owner Sue Chang, whose mother Lin Lan Chih opened the cafe in 2006. Some menu items are very specific to the family’s Hakka heritage. This Chinese minority group has been in Taiwan for hundreds of years; their culinary traditions, such as preserved daikon and bamboo shoots, often reflect scarcity and agricultural work. Taiwan Cafe’s specialty is Wan Luan pork, a mahogany braised hock served on a bed of tangy bamboo shoots, named after Chih’s hometown in tropical Pingtung County. Although Chang came to America at age ten, she speaks fondly and at length about traditional Hakka foods, including thick handmade ban tiao rice noodles and pork intestines stir-fried with ginger and vinegar.
Can Tech Save Taiwanese Restaurants? Third Generation and Beyond
Many of these legacy Taiwanese restaurants were already in the midst of handing over the reins to the next generation when the pandemic sped up that process. The need to develop new revenue streams, such as deliveries or selling groceries, requires tech skills that the aging founders might not have.
On a recent Saturday morning, a steady stream of customers arrived at Taiwan Cafe to pick up to-go orders which can be ordered once a week. These dishes include ready-to-eat bentos of sliced Wan Luan pork fanned over a bed of white rice topped with bamboo shoots in minced pork sauce, Hakka Delight featuring pressed tofu and pork strips stir-fried with celery and leeks, and Hoklo classics such as oyster omelet. Since March 2020, the nostalgic dining room has been closed, and it’s now filled with three industrial freezers holding vacuum-packed pork hocks, translucent pork-stuffed bah ûan and five-spice rolls waiting to be deep-fried.
These days, the restaurant is mostly focused on selling frozen specialties, which can be picked up locally or shipped to destinations as far-flung as Minnesota and New Jersey. Three generations are now in the business: Chang’s 23-year old daughter Stephanie Tseng handles the online orders and the Facebook page while her mother and brother run Cafe Taiwan in Pleasanton.
Even more dramatic are the changes that have taken place at Liang’s Village in Cupertino, best known for its beef noodle soup. The family business was first started in 1981 in the San Gabriel Valley as Mama’s Kitchen, a cafeteria featuring braised meats and tofu. The Cupertino outpost was opened by the original Mama Liang’s grandson Austin in 2010, after graduating from U.C. Berkeley. Today, Austin and his siblings Jessica and Erica run the company. In 2018, they raised $26,500 on Kickstarter to start a line of frozen foods inspired by the dishes their father sent with them to college. “Our dad had a restaurant, so we always took sauces home and froze it at school,” says Erica Liang. “Then you boil some noodles and pop it in, and it was just like the best home cooked meal.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, they sold only two items: beef noodle soup and red oil wontons. Now, the newly minted Mama Liang’s brand has a sleek, English-language website selling 19 products. Customers can get frozen meals like minced pork sauce, stewed pig’s feet and caramelized scallion noodles shipped nationwide. They’ve even dabbled in cooking videos: Earlier in May, Jessica did a demonstration of their beef noodle kit for this year’s online version of the Taiwanese American Cultural Festival, which is normally held in San Francisco’s Union Square. Meanwhile, the dining room remains closed, and Mama Liang’s grandchildren don’t know exactly what the future holds. “It's a little bit hard to kind of decide on which way we're going,” says Jessica Liang, who is waiting to see if conditions are ripe to allow restaurants to fully open this summer. “It's really hard to justify opening a restaurant if it’s not 100% capacity.”
Meanwhile, just a few blocks down Stevens Creek Boulevard, Bobby Chan is holding out hope of filling Mama Chen’s dining room soon. “People love to dine in instead of to-go,” he says. And he has a point. Takeout bentos and meal kits, like Zoom and FaceTime, have helped many people get through this year. But there’s something inherently un-Taiwanese about eating alone in front of a screen. Taiwanese people love to eat together. The sensory experience of trying restaurants with friends, or strolling through a crowded night market together, is as much part of the culture as the food itself.
And while it’s hard to know when these restaurants will return to some sense of normalcy, or how much more this next generation of small business owners will shake up the status quo, one thing’s for certain: Taiwanese restaurants in Silicon Valley are here to stay.
Grace Hwang Lynch is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist and essayist, with an eye for Asian American culture and food. Her work can be found at PRI, NPR, Tin House and Catapult. She's at work on a memoir about Taiwanese food and family. Follow her on Twitter @GraceHwangLynch.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.