As a Taiwanese-American girl who grew up making frequent visits to Taipei, finding Taiwanese cuisine in the Bay Area is like getting a taste of home away from home. There’s just nothing that can compare with the joy of slurping down a good beef noodle soup or devouring a classic bowl of lu rou fan (braised pork rice). And while missing the motherland is something that never goes away, I’ve been pleased to discover there are several places to get a taste of Taiwanese flavor here in the East Bay.
Given the cheap prices of all the mom-and-pop food stands throughout Taiwan, most Taiwanese eat out more often than they cook. So it’s no surprise that the country is best known for its blue-collar comfort foods. Besides beef noodle soup and lu rou fan, you’ll find a plethora of other xiao chi (small eats), like dumplings, gua bao (steamed pork bun sandwich), stinky tofu and other fried foods, on a walk through any major street or night market in Taiwan. And the best part is, you can find a majority of these dishes and snacks for less than the equivalent of $2.
Although you probably won’t find Taiwanese food for quite that cheap in the Bay Area, there are a few places in Berkeley and Oakland where you can get some authentic Taiwanese fare that’ll still give you plenty of bang for your buck.
Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks
When night falls in Taiwan, the streets of Taipei come to life. Along certain major roads, a wide variety of pop-up shops and food stands open their stalls, bringing forth a wild burst of color and noise while the smell of assorted fried goods fills the air.
A tiny snapshot of this world is captured at Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks, an international chain restaurant specializing in Tawainese eats. Its name references one of the most famous food markets in Taiwan, the bustling Shilin Night Market. Since its grand opening in Berkeley’s Durant Square last September, Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks has been drawing long lines of hungry Cal students and Taiwanese expats to its counter-service store.
Besides the oyster mee sua (vermicelli noodles in thickened soup) and seafood mushroom fries, Shihlin’s menu is chicken-based, offering braised chicken rice bowls, hand shredded chicken over rice, a popcorn chicken box and most importantly, the classic fried chicken fillet. The spicy chicken — a choice of breast or thigh — is fried to a crisp, yet remains tender and moist. Spice levels range from not spicy, mild, spicy and extra hot. Be careful — the spicy and extra hot are a step above average expectations.
With a cup of honey lemon ai yu jelly and a bag of crispy chicken in hand, Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks transports you right into the heart of a classic Taiwanese night market. Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks, 2521 Durant Ave. (between Telegraph and Bowditch), Berkeley
Good to Eat Dumplings
Oakland’s Good To Eat Dumplings has been serving homemade potstickers and steamed buns since September 2017. Currently operating as a pop-up, you can often find Good to Eat at various bars and breweries throughout the East Bay. Since many Taiwanese folks eat potstickers with a side of beer, it’s a natural fit for Good to Eat to bring appetizers directly to hungry drinkers.
Eschewing the classic dumpling shape, Good To Eat makes its potstickers in its own style. Rather than small pouches, the dumplings are formed into the length and shape of sausages. Good to Eat offers a variety of fillings, including chicken basil, shrimp and pork and mushroom tofu. There is also the option of pork belly or chicken gua bao (steamed bun) and occasionally, potsticker chips, which are crunchy strips of deep-fried potsticker dough.
Despite putting its own unique spin on its menu offerings, Good to Eat makes dishes that are completely authentic. Its three women founders are originally from Taiwan; they met and started their business in the Bay Area. Eventually, the trio plans to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Bay Area, but until then, you can enjoy their local bar and brewery appearances for a little taste of Taiwan. Good to Eat Dumplings brings its pop-up shop to various breweries throughout the East Bay. Find out where it’s popping up next via Facebook and Instagram.
Bento boxed meals were first introduced to Taiwan during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945), but were popularized by the government-run Taiwan Railways Administration, which adopted the format to serve cheap, simple, but tasty meal boxes on its trains. Called bian dang in Taiwan, bento box meals have become classic staples in Taiwanese cuisine. Made up of some combination of rice, meat, tea egg and cooked vegetables, this is the style of food that Taiwan Bento brings to the table in Oakland.
Taiwan Bento’s version of lu rou fan (braised minced pork and rice) is a perfect choice for the bento lunch experience. Topped with cilantro and served with a side of pickled veggies (onions, cucumbers, radishes and bell peppers), steamed edamame and tea egg, the meal is reminiscent of an afternoon lunch break at Chinese school. Other bento box options include fried pork chop, mao po tofu and beef curry. Taiwan Bento, 412 22nd St. (between Webster and Franklin), Oakland
While many popular Taiwanese dishes are derived from street food culture, there are a few specialties that are more gourmet than budget. One of my favorites is hotpot, which is often enjoyed on special occasions and when the weather is cold in Taiwan.
The most basic form of hotpot involves a big pot of soup placed at the table. Once the fire is lit beneath the pot, customers can order different meats and vegetables to cook in the broth. Popular San Jose-based chain Tasty Pot specializes in Taiwanese-style hotpot, but instead of a communal cooking style, the ingredients are already included in the pot right off the bat. Tasty Pot has a location in downtown Berkeley, where you’ll always find a long line out the door.
Taiwanese hot pot differs from (mainland) Chinese hot pot, in that it’s more like shabu shabu due to the Japanese influence on the island. The main difference is in the ingredients: instead of bok choy, you’re more likely to find shiitake or enoki mushrooms and Taiwanese cabbage.
Tasty Pot provides three types of dipping sauces: garlic soy sauce, fermented soybean paste and chili oil. Its beef hot soup is a classic dish, with napa cabbage, beef slices, vermicelli, enoki mushrooms, tomato, corn, taro, tofu, meatballs, imitation crab meat, fish cake, clam, and scallion. But its Taiwanese supreme spicy hot soup is a showstopper, featuring every ingredient you’d ever want to cook in a bowl of piping hot broth: cabbage, instant noodles, beef slices, mushrooms, pork blood, rice cake, fried tofu skin and a wide variety of seafood. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a heartier meal.
And besides, there’s just something aesthetically pleasing about seeing all of the food arranged neatly right before you. It’s mouthwatering anticipation — a colorful preview of what you’re about to taste. Tasty Pot, 2115 Kittredge St. (between Shattuck and Oxford), Berkeley
Dragon Gate Bar and Grille
The doors leading into Oakland’s Dragon Gate Bar and Grille feel like a portal. The moment you step into this low-lit haunt, you feel like you’ve entered a sacred temple. Located close to the heart of Jack London, Dragon Gate aims to bring locals a flavor of authentic Taiwanese street food in a lounge setting.
Dragon Gate’s menu is chock full of every Taiwanese and Chinese dish and appetizer you can think of. The pork, shrimp or chicken dumplings and popcorn chicken are popular starters. Another option is the stinky tofu, which is fermented tofu that’s been deep-fried, served with wooden skewers on a plate. Its beef noodle soup has a truly traditional taste. One sip of this dish — made with big chunks of beef, ginger root and daikon radish — brings me back to sick days under my grandmother’s care, who’d feed me a humble bowl of soup made with the utmost love and good wishes for my health.
Dragon Gate also brings a nostalgic night-in-Taiwan vibe with its three private rooms upstairs for — wait for it — karaoke. As anyone who’s visited Taiwan at least once knows, no Taiwanese bar experience is truly complete without a long, memorable night of KTV (karaoke television).
If you’re looking for a place to spend Friday night enjoying Taiwan’s nightlife cuisine, bring your wallet, your appetite and your singing voice to Dragon Gate Bar to sing your heart out over some Manhattans and a bowl of hearty beef noodle soup. Dragon Gate Bar and Grille, 300 Broadway (near Third), Oakland