The back-to-school season has me thinking again about campus-area eateries, which in more and more cases means Asian food. Of Ann Arbor’s more than seventy Asian restaurants, roughly half are within walking distance of Central Campus. With several successful places opening in the past few years, notably Sadako and No Thai!, and promising ones in the works, including a Miki location on South University, both new and old Asian eateries must find ways to stand out in the crowded field. I recently checked out two of these specialty niches–Taiwanese snacks at Asian Legend and the new pho specials at the old China Gate (which we’ll post at a later date).
The two-year-old Asian Legend on William is a long, narrow room. A stretch of mirrors and bright yellow paint don’t quite counteract the closeness of the walls. The soundtrack is heavily orchestrated, hopelessly upbeat Chinese pop. At first glance the menu, with its long list of heavily sauced but well-priced dishes, looks an awful lot like most other Chinese places in town. What makes this place stand out is its focus on an uncommon specialty: Taiwanese snacks.
This sounded intriguing, but, never having been to Taiwan, I needed to get a better understanding of what I was getting into. I called the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Chicago and spoke with Charles Lee, head of the press division.
Leo explained that as an island in a strategic geographical position, Taiwan has come under the influence of many cultures beyond its indigenous ones. Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the West have influenced diet and cooking styles. But, according to Lee, mainland China has had the greatest influence: “We share the same food history on both sides of the strait.” Along with foods from coastal Fujian province, Pekingese, Sichuanese, Hunanese, and Cantonese styles all show up in Taiwan. And snacking is practically a high art.
Snacks can be like appetizers, shared around a big table before a meal. Or snacks may comprise the entire meal, as in dim sum (which originated in Canton). In Taiwan, the snack culture is further propelled by the island’s “night markets,” the most famous being the Shilin Night Market of Taipei City. Operating from late afternoon to midnight and beyond, these are huge districts, veritable food fairs where vendors dish out multitudinous snacks. The night markets are enormously popular for locals and tourists alike, says Lee–“the prices are good and the selection is so great, you don’t have to go to a big restaurant.”
When I tried out Asian Legend soon after it opened, I was given only the standard menu of mainly Sichuan dishes; you had to ask for the Taiwanese menu. Nowadays the word is out, and the Taiwanese menu (which includes both snacks and main dishes) is passed to everybody. There’s yet a third menu, a secret list of daily specials, which you still have to request–and which you have to read Chinese to understand. You have to wonder if this is a commentary on Midwesterners’ lack of adventurousness.
I suppose I fit that stereotype by passing up the pig intestine and the pig ear. I guess I could say that I was on a diet (I usually am). But no, I am sometimes squeamish when it comes to potentially recognizable body parts and internal organs, especially if I don’t know the animal’s pedigree. Besides, if I were sticking to the diet story, I’d have to pass up a lot of appealing and more approachable dishes.
Take the deep-fried scallion pancake roll, a sort of flat-bread dough wrapped around shaved beef, mostly tender, and very well spiced with a peppery star anise mix. It’s gorgeous, in an exotic, slightly junk food way. So is the cruller, a savory cousin to the sweet pastry that’s stuffed with flavor-popping chopped shrimp and deep fried. The wasabi mayo dipping sauce sounded promising, but I would have preferred more intense wasabi-ness to better offset the fried-ness.
Wanting to stick with the most typically Taiwanese dishes, we asked our server’s guidance on the next visit. She pointed out the oyster omelet appetizer as one of her favorites. It combined a slim frittata-like egg base with fat juicy oysters, bok choy, and a layer of gelatinous potato starch, all covered in a faintly sweet red sauce. I’m glad I tried it–it was interesting–but I wouldn’t order it again.
The Chinese watercress with garlic was an easier fit for me. With a bigger leaf and a more pungent taste than the petite peppery greens associated with classic British tea sandwiches, it was delicious–like spinach but earthier, quite salty, and speckled liberally with tiny bits of diced garlic. My only problem was the untrimmed, tough stems. It was a little like eating twigs–and without a knife I had a devil of a time getting manageable pieces to my mouth using chopsticks. That applied as well to one of the main-course dishes on the Taiwanese menu–eggplant with basil, pork, and garlic sauce. This one included the whole basil plant above the root–stem and all.
At first blush the Wuxi ribs presented tactical problems too, but a few stabs with the chopsticks made it clear that the meat was going to fall right off the bone. The server said the ribs were among the most popular dishes; I can see why, starting with their appealing looks–a plate of glistening short ribs with a deep auburn color. They taste delicious with the kind of complex, multilayered flavors that result from slow cooking and many spices. Spicy here does not mean hot, as in flaming chilies; it is more nuanced and mild. That finesse was apparent in the dumplings, too. I’m a fan of giant dumplings and was well pleased with the Taiwanese pot stickers since they were, in fact, huge: long cylinders rather than crescents, stuffed with minced pork and sauteed, but not at all greasy. The dumplings had a lovely balance of textures and fairly neutral flavor; a soy-based dipping sauce bursting with minced ginger adds pizzazz.
The ambience encourages the quick in and out rather than extended dining (especially at lunch, when there are very reasonably priced specials). The service on three visits was terrific, and the servers, enthusiastic ambassadors for Taiwanese food, are very helpful at recommending dishes. One night our young waitress patiently translated the Chinese-language specials as best she could (and we ended up ordering a plate of delicious yard-long beans sauteed with ginger and garlic). That spirit of eager collaboration makes navigating the fare an agreeable adventure.
516 E. William 622-0750
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Taiwanese menu appetizers $2.95-$7.95, noodle and rice dishes $1-$8.95, entrees $6.95-$11.95; Sichuan entrees $4.75-$11.95, lunch specials
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