If I were planning an ultimate eating trip through Asia, I'd start in Japan, bounce down to Taiwan, swing over to Hong Kong, dive down to Vietnam, then finish things off in Singapore. Surprised to see Taiwan on the list? You shouldn't be. The sub-tropical island off the Southeastern coast of China is a food mecca, full of some of the most food-obsessed people I've ever met. There are two sides to Taiwanese cuisine: street food and restaurant food. I spent little time at actual restaurants in Taiwan, and almost every dish I ate at them was similar to the Hokkien Chinese food I was eating on a daily basis in Singapore. This means a lot of noodle soups, braised meats, and tons of seafood.
Tai Ke is St. Louis' newest and only Taiwanese restaurant, as far as I know. I wasn't overly excited about eating there until my sister went and told me they had a Taiwanese Street Snack section of the menu.
I fucking love Taiwanese street snacks.
I nearly shutdown from culinary overload at the Shilin street market. Fried chicken breasts the size of a small child, sausages of all sizes and flavors wrapped in sticky rice, penis-shaped waffles and ice cream, dumplings galore, tofu that smells like a rotting corpse (okay, maybe not that one), bubble tea! I'm getting all hot and bothered just thinking about it.
Newcomers to the St. Louis blog scene JeniEats and Eat First Worry Later joined me for my culinary adventure to Tai Ke. We started with the braised pig ear, which weren't the kind I was familiar with. These were served room temp and were more crunchy than soft, a texture I imagine most Americans will be turned off by. Had there been more of the garlicky, sweet soy on the dish, I think they would have benefited.
I was overjoyed when the street snacks hit the table. We started with the gua bao, pork belly buns, which were meaty chunks of braised pork belly sandwiched between steam bread with cilantro, ground peanuts, pickled mustard greens, and a sweet sauce. The pork doesn't have that crunchy outer layer that Hiro's have, but I thought these were still definitely worth ordering.
The Taiwanese have an affinity for tube meat and sticky rice. It's the Asian version of a hot dog and bun. The sausage itself is a sweeter, fattier dog than you find in pretty much any Western cuisine, making it all the more delicious. Diabetics thought they were cool to eat hot dogs, but not in Taiwan! The sausage is drizzled with the chef's secret sauce (it's like a Chinese ketchup, almost) and some cilantro. I love these.
Finally, we have the fried pork chop. It's a pork chop with a crunchy five-spice infused breading. You're goddamn right it's good.
The entrees were just as solid as the starters. The Three Cup chicken is a steaming bowl of chopped chicken in a deeply flavorful sauce of rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, roasted garlic, ginger, and Chinese basil. I imagine Chinese and Taiwanese grandmas across America started making their versions of this this past week to help fight the cold.
The sizzling bean curd comes out hissing and bubbling like the fajita platter at Chili's, except it actually tastes good. The tofu is fried, then put on a cast iron platter with bell peppers, onions, snow peas, and leeks. It sounds like your typical stir fry, but I thought the sauce was fantastic.
Both the mapo tofu and spicy shrimp stir fry were both leaps and bounds better than their descriptions would make you think (and compared to most Chinese restaurants around). The mapo tofu had a nice level of heat to it thanks to chili oil and Szechuan peppercorns and the shrimp, labeled as "hot" with 3 chili peppers, wasn't nearly as spicy as I feared it might be. The flavor of the dish was spot on thanks to a hearty helping of roasted garlic, scallions and more Szechuan peppercorns. Roasted garlic makes every dish better.
Out of all the new Chinese restaurants I've gone to this year, this was the most solid first impression I've had. There's not one dish up there I wouldn't recommend (well, maybe the pig ear plate). Eating there did what any good meal should do: it left me full, happy, and wanting more. The famous Taiwanese braised beef noodle soup will be my next order.
The restaurant is tucked away behind a shopping center off Olive Blvd., right near Dao Tien, and I highly recommend you make reservations. We went on a Wednesday night and saw tons of people get turned away due to the 30+ minute wait.