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Made in Taiwan

Christopher Gardner

Some Like It Hot and Sour: Soups and stir fries are served up
Taiwanese style at Taipei Cafe.

Taipei Cafe, with its spare decor, fresh food and low prices, makes for a welcoming out-of-mainstream dining experience

By Andrew X. Pham

SILICON VALLEY culinary rule of thumb: Go north and west for western food, go south and east for eastern food. It used to be that a trek to San Francisco was the only route to authentic but inexpensive Chinese food. Not anymore. The last five years have yielded a bumper crop of Chinese restaurants and diners in Milpitas and South San Jose. These new arrivals are neither fancy nor bastardized Chinese. They serve a predominantly Asian clientele with a cuisine that--while not refined--is very much authentic.

The neon marquee reads Taipei Cafe; the menu reads 3-6-9 Shanghai Restaurant; the telephone directory reads 3-6-9 Taiwanese Restaurant. Whatever name you go by, the restaurant is lodged in a mega Asian strip mall located on Milpitas Boulevard near Dixon Landing Road.

The clattering of cookware, the shouting between cooks and waitstaff and the roar of the packed restaurant serve as ambiance. Conversations in Chinese fill in the absence of music; nearly all patrons are Asians--families, students and those who dress to impress. The service is fast. A savvy diner can relay his order as he walks to his table and have it served within five sips of tea. It all boils down to fast-food Taiwanese diner style.

The English part of the menu fails to illuminate, describing each item by its two main ingredients. Taped to the windows and the walls, posters handwritten in Chinese characters announce a lengthy list of daily and weekly specials. The busy waitstaff with its minimal command of English dashes any hope of culinary enlightenment. Neither patience nor pointed interrogation yields appreciable insight.

The kitchen proves more adept with its soups and main entrees than with its dim sum and noodles.

The dim sum choices double as appetizers, though, of course, the staff rarely serves them as starters. Instead, these morsels are dished up whenever they are ready. Although many patrons order one of the three types of steamed dumplings, they fail to impress. For instance, the Shanghai steamed dumplings ($3.95), ten dough purses stuffed with marinated ground pork and served in a bamboo steamer, lack finesse, the dough too thick and unresilient, the filling too fatty and under-flavored.

"Big Fish's Head Casserole" ($10.95) makes a grand entrance in a giant claypot, plenty for six. Under the lid steams a catfish soup rich with petsai cabbage, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, noodles, bean curds, onion and scallion. The only remnant of the fish is its giant meatless head, and essence in the stock. Murky, faintly sweet, peppery and somewhat woodsy with mushrooms, the soup base, while exciting and different, comes across a tad musty.

A bowl of braised beef soup ($4.25) brings a savory, spicy-hot and extremely fatty beef broth with bits of cabbage. If cholesterol isn't an issue, the broth, at least, is worth a sip to the curious. For others, the standard hot and sour soup ($4.25) seems about as good and basic as it gets in a diner.

While the uncommon flavors are not guaranteed to please all, the options are there: steamed pig intestine with rice powder, eel with scallions, bean with salted vegetables and bai-yi, and stir-fried rice cake.

The simplest entrees also appear to be some of the best and most popular. String beans with ground pork ($4.95) shows up at the table in a jumble of green with julienne pork, dotted with flecks of red chile and shallot. Perfectly seared in oil, the beans retain their crispiness even as they get singed around the edges.

Far from the typical Chinese barbecue, smoked pork with green garlic ($5.95) tingles with a sweet, sizzling zest. Flat ribbons of pork, chewy as thickly cut bacon, are tousled with the grassy strips in equal portions. Salt and spices bind the grained smokiness of the pork.

Lightly floured and then fried to a crusty gold, the catfish ($10.95) gets a blanket of spicy black bean sauce that enhances the deep-river sweetness of the white meat, juicy and flaky. This dish is a must for fish aficionados.

A counter in the back of the restaurant showcases desserts, mostly sweet beans and gelatin over shaved ice. Interesting, but insufficient for those with a serious penchant for sweets.

Taipei Cafe--with its spare decor, fresh food, low prices and minimal service--makes for a welcoming out-of-mainstream dining experience.

Taipei Cafe

Cuisine: Taiwanese/Shanghai
Ambiance: fluorescent cafeteria
Menu: Entrees: $4­$11
Hours: Mon.­Sat., 11am­10pm; Sun., 9am­9:30pm
Address: 1706 N. Milpitas Blvd., Milpitas
Phone: 408/935-9369

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro

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Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.

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