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Sweet on Taiwan

restaurant
Christopher Gardner Flower Power: Willow Glen's Taiwan Restaurant offers freshly prepared dishes executed with flourish.

A 14-year Willow Glen landmark showcases sweet and spicy Asian classics and cozy neighborhood atmosphere

By Christina Waters

FOR A DECADE and a half, Jimmy and Nancy Niu have made their Taiwan Restaurant one of the culinary centers of Willow Glen. From their busy kitchen comes a nonstop stream of Szechwan, Cantonese and Taiwan specialties, served in two bustling dining rooms. And sooner or later--mostly sooner--everybody and her cousin stops here for a fix of pot stickers, kung pao chicken and broccoli with garlic sauce. So it's with a distinct sense of sacrilege that I must quibble with the quantity of sugar the chef is using these days. At least on my most recent two visits, I found most dishes sampled bottom-heavy with sweetness. Let's review.

Katya, a Taiwan Restaurant regular, did most of the ordering on one visit, and I must say that left to my own devices, honey walnut scallops ($8.95) would not have been my first choice. The word "honey" is a clue, don't you think? But Katya likes it sweet, so when our platter of gorgeously glistening, honey-coated scallops and honey-coated walnuts arrived, she practically squealed.

But frankly, it had taken so long to get the dish that I had all but lost interest. Let me be up front about this: we made the serious mistake of arriving at 12:20 on a weekday. The entire population of Willow Glen had attempted to cram itself into Taiwan Restaurant by 12:15, and the wait staff had become a blur of fast-forward motion by the time Katya and I sat down. We were neglected, then we were brought one drink, but not the other. One dish arrived, and the chopsticks finally made it to the table 10 minutes later. Katya was practically growled at for asking if she could please have her bowl of hot and sour soup.

What have we learned? Don't go during the peak lunch hour. The resulting orders of hot and sour soup arrived considerably cooler than desired, though Taiwan Restaurant does a nice, semi-fiery version of this Chinese treasure. An order of yu-shiang eggplant ($5.45) was nicely made, slathered in sesame oil, bright with lots of garlic and ginger, hot with red chile paste, and slightly sweet. Of the honey walnut scallops (which should be called "honey honey honey"), the less said the better. Let's just note for the record that the "cream sauce" mentioned on the menu was in fact mayonnaise. Katya insisted that she liked it anyway. But she wasn't invited back on my second visit.

This time, we walked in the door minutes after the 11:30 opening time. Calm and relaxed, the pretty interior showed off its pale-pink linens and huge floral displays of gladiolas, flowering ginger and anthurium. Service from start to finish was crisp and caring--what a difference 45 minutes can make. An order of pot stickers--a bit thickish but containing an inoffensive mince of meats, vegetables and hint of Szechwan peppercorn--arrived swiftly, along with very, very hot chile oil and vinegar to make into a dipping sauce ($3.95). I admired the way the dumplings burst with interior juices as I bit into them, while my companion happily worked her way through the slinky tofu and egg shreds of her hot and sour soup.

Lips tingling, we watched both dining rooms fill up with diners and the blur of young staff women in tight brocade dresses with Mandarin collars. I remembered the misguided order of doughy dumplings with garlic and peanut sauce that Katya had ordered last time. But visions of cold food vanished swiftly as our luncheon specials arrived, steaming hot on huge plates sided with a mountain of white rice and crisp fried wontons drenched in sticky, sweet and sour sauce (should be called "sweet and sweet"). My twice-cooked pork ($4.85) glistened with fresh preparation and contained abundant sliced pork and crisp cabbage, but was ruined beyond redemption by a sauce so sweet only a teenager could love it.

Over at my companion's broccoli with garlic sauce ($4.85), a variation of the sweet thing was also occurring. Sampling a few bites of the crisp, perfectly wok-ed broccoli, I detected a beautiful balance of garlic, rice wine, soy, and chiles, just beneath the surface of cloying sugar. I was experiencing a distinct sugar rush from my pork, but I'll say it again--those fried wontons were crispy in the extreme. Perfect, in fact. But given the blanket of red sugar sauce coating them, they were perfect as a dessert course.

All our dishes were freshly prepared and executed with flourish. Portions are generous at Taiwan Restaurant, prices are fair and the family management couldn't be more courteous or accommodating. Cooking could flourish--as it has on occasions past--if the chef would calm down and return to the balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet that makes Chinese cuisine so memorable.


Taiwan Restaurant

Address: 1306 Lincoln Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408/289-8800
Hours: Daily 11:30am­3pm and 5­9 pm
Cuisine: Chinese classics
Ambiance: Casually inviting
Service: Uneven; dicey during rush hours
Price: Inexpensive; great value


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From the July 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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