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Taiwanese Food Is Taking Over Union Square — For One Day, Anyway

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A customer orders food from the Liang's Village food tent, which has pictures of beef noodle soup and other Taiwanese dishes displayed.
Cupertino's Liang Village will be the main food vendor for this year's Taiwanese American Cultural Festival, which is returning to Union Square for its 30th year. (Courtesy of Taiwanese American Cultural Festival)

Anyone who has ever searched for Taiwanese food in the Bay Area knows that this is mostly an exercise in wandering far-flung suburban strip malls, chasing some obscure tip about savory soy milk or stinky tofu. Where you don’t expect to find any noteworthy examples of the cuisine is in one of San Francisco’s most touristy neighborhoods: Union Square.

But at least for one day, that’s exactly what downtown San Francisco visitors will experience, as the annual Taiwanese American Cultural Festival returns to Union Square for its 30th edition on Saturday, May 13. Organizers say it’s the largest festival of its kind on the West Coast, with upwards of 10,000 people expected to at least pass through — even if it’s just on their way to ride the cable car or browse the Apple Store.

And if you’re wandering through anyway, why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to snag a plate of spicy noodles or lu rou fan?

That’s been the hope of the Bay Area chapter of Taiwanese American Professionals (TAP), the volunteer-run group that organizes the event. According to org president Jennifer Chen, one of the main functions of the festival is to raise public awareness about all aspects of Taiwanese culture — including, of course, the food. Even as the cuisine’s profile has risen over the years here on the West Coast, a lot of folks still don’t know much about it.

“People might only be able to think about bubble tea, and I think there’s so much more depth to that,” Chen says. “Showcasing the diverse set of food that’s related to Taiwan is really important to us.”

A crowd of people sit eating noodles from paper bowls on a set of stairs outside in Union Square, San Francisco.
A scene from last year’s festival: Visitors sit and enjoy a bowl of noodles on the stairs outside in Union Square. (Courtesy of Taiwanese American Cultural Festival)

Somewhat controversially, perhaps, it turns out that bubble tea — or boba, as Californians tend to call it — will not be part of this year’s food and beverage lineup. And because the venue doesn’t allow deep-fryers on site, classics like stinky tofu and Taiwanese popcorn chicken won’t make an appearance either.

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But that’s not to say that there will be any shortage of deliciousness. The main food vendor will be Liang’s Village, a beloved Cupertino institution currently run by three second-generation siblings who took over the business from their father, pivoting into meal kits and frozen foods during the pandemic. Their festival menu options will include spicy (and non-spicy) noodles that’ll be hand-pulled on-site, lu rou fan (aka braised pork over rice) and tanghulu — the candied fruit skewers that are ubiquitous at night markets in Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Hsin Tung Yang will sell its popular Taiwanese meat jerkies, and Cupertino-based wholesaler Combo Market will offer frozen treats. And Brooklyn’s Yun Hai will be on hand to sell dried fruits and other Taiwanese pantry items, and to demonstrate its vision for what a modern day, next-generation Taiwanese American general store might look like.

Other aspects of the festival will present a similar juxtaposition of traditional and next-gen: There will be lion dance and Chinese yo-yo, but also performances by folks like Chance Emerson, a young Taiwanese American folk-rock singer-songwriter and self-described “half-Asian singin’ cowboy.”

Three performers in colorful red and gold lion costumes perform a traditional lion dance.
A traditional lion dance performance during last year’s Taiwanese American Cultural Festival. (Courtesy of Taiwanese American Cultural Festival)

“We’re trying to figure out, what does bringing the community together mean in this day and age?” explains Stephen Liu, the TAP board member tasked with curating the festival’s food offerings. “Because it’s definitely a little bit different than what it might mean for a previous generation of Taiwanese Americans.”

The other goal is to show visitors that there’s more to Taiwan than just its capital, Taipei. Toward that end, the theme of this year’s festival is “Take Off to Taiwan,” with specific Taiwanese cities assigned to different areas of the event. The food vendor area will be designated as “Tainan,” since that’s arguably the Taiwanese city most famous for its food. The “Yilan” area, known for recreation, will be where the hands-on activities will take place; “Kaohsiung,” a famous shipping hub, will be where visitors can find local Taiwanese artists and other small business vendors.

In the future, Liu says, it would be great if the festival also offered specific regional dishes from those cities. “Every year we’re slowly trying to branch out,” he says.

This year’s Taiwanese American Cultural Festival will take place on Saturday, May 13, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. at Union Square in San Francisco. Admission is free.

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