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Taiwan Cafe (or The Eggplants of Heaven)


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Taiwan Cafe (or The Eggplants of Heaven)

glenn | Mar 26, 2003 01:07 PM

I've been to Taiwan Cafe a couple times before, but last night was my first time with a big enough group to try lots of things, and first time back since collecting dish recommendations from old threads here. As has been stated many times before, the place is really fabulously wonderful. I'm sure some people are intimidated by the odd-sounding things on the menu, or even by the fact that it's ensconced in the middle of Chinatown to begin with, but every time I've been there they've gone graciously out of their way to make us obvious non-Asians feel welcome. Although note that my definition of "welcome" allows for a little good-naturedly teasing encouragement, like the chefs sitting down to their own meal at the next table brandishing their enormous platter of fried whole fishes towards us with impish glee.

We began by ordering appetizers, but since they and the entrees arrived in no particular relative order, I'll just try to mentally reconstruct the slow overpopulation of our table with way more food than we really needed. The first thing that arrived was a small plate of fish cakes. The waiter had already delivered three different dipping sauces intended for various items slated for later appearances, but obligingly pointed out the one meant for fish cakes, although since the other two were for dumplings, it was pretty obvious. The fish cakes were a comforting way to start, but quickly paled in relative terms.

Next to arrive, I think, were a dish of Taiwan-style noodles with pork and a dish of shrimp in garlic sauce. The noodles were especially lovely, chewy and well matched by the crunchy sprouts and browned shreds of pork. The shrimp were succulent and firm, and I will report both that everybody claimed to like them, and that they were one of the dishes we did not finish.

About this time, too, we got our bowl of duck tongues in three essences. This dish was the result of two of us volunteering to eat anything on the menu that the other four thought we'd be scared of. The first nomination was the cold jellyfish, actually, but I admitted that I'd already had and liked that on a previous trip. Personally, I'd have picked one of the pork-intenstine things, but they went with the duck tonuges. The squeamish will, in fact, probably want to avoid this. It is a very large pot with a very large number of duck tongues in it, and their tongue nature is undisguised. As a little research would tell you, but none of us happened to already know, duck tongues have cartilage in them, which makes them a little less fun to eat than they looked sitting in the bowl. The three-essence treatment, however (ginger, basil and scallion, I believe) was strong and rather fabulous, and although we didn't finish the whole bowl of the wriggly little morsels, we did eat quite a few. But next time I'm trying the pork intestines.

Food then began arriving in earnest. The mustard greens with edame and bean-curd wrappers were remarkable, at once bitter and sweet, and a fairly general success. The pan-fried dumplings were popular when they finally materialized, but I'd had them before, and this time felt they weren't the best use of my all-too-limited eating capacity. The soup dumplings have been much lauded here, but I don't have any nostalgia to attach to them, and so liked them fine but wasn't as enraptured as I expected to be. The cod with soy sprinkles was light and tangy and delectable, and not nearly as intimidating as the huge pan initially implied. The littleneck clams in basil were intense, and even one person who doesn't consider herself a clam eater enjoyed them. The seafood and vegetable soup in the huge clay pot was ridiculous ordering overkill, unfortunately, and nobody had room to pay it much more respect than extracting the odd crab part or shrimp. The oyster pancake was the one surprising failure, as all surveyed thought its eggy texture was disconcerting at best, and maybe a little gross, but that's the only time I've had it so I couldn't judge whether it was a good example of something we didn't like, or a bad example of something we might have liked in better form.

But the centerpiece of the experience for me, and some if not all of my companions, was the also-oft-recommended eggplant in basil. I'm not normally inclined towards passionate feelings for or against eggplant, but this dish recurred in so many comments that we clearly had to try it. It instantly vaults into my short list of the truly wonderful things on the planet (along with the spicy salmon maki at Suishaya across the street, making that a really important intersection in my world...). My girlfriend observed, incisively, that they had somehow contrived to make eggplant feel and taste like bananas, but like bananas that have defied the usual laws of cooking to become magnificently soft and juicy without turning in any way mushy. I think each of the six of us was independently brought to vocal astonishment by this dish, and every scrap of it was consumed.

The bill came to about $20/person, and was only that high because we way overordered. Take out the seafood soup we barely touched, and the stunt-ordering of the duck tongues, and we'd have been closer to $15/each for what would still have been a memorable and imposing feast.

In other words: yes, it's as good as everybody says.

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