Pingtung Brings Pan-Asian Café Favorites to Melrose

Neighborhood Hot Spot

It’s curious that Pingtung is called an “Eat-in Market,” the “market” designation perhaps being a way of propping up the Asian goods that lie on overhead (to me) shelves along the sides of the deep-drawn cafe. Though I have a few guilty snack pleasures such as Yan Yan, Shrimp Chips, that clear, Japanese soda with the swingy little ball, Calpico and the like, I’d make the trek to 99 Ranch, Mitsuwa or Zion if I wanted to go Asian grocery shopping. (I’m trying to cut down on the snacks, much less MSG-laden ones, anyway.)

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Taipei, Taiwan: 72 Hours of Beef Noodle Soup at 72 NRM

Clear broth beef noodle soup (Ching Zuan)

I have always loved beef noodle soup. It’s easily one of my five reasons to drive to San Gabriel Valley. Before my trip to Taiwan, however, I had associated a proper bowl of noodles as having a deep, dark broth and good amounts of chili paste and oil floated in it (latter of which is added by myself). In the beginning of my trip, spent in the southern cities of Taiwan, I even had homemade Nu Riu Mian. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. It was homemade in the sense that the broth and beef had come from a frozen packet bought at the Kaohsiung Costco, whereby you add your own, fresh noodles – and greens, if you wish. If those were available at the Culver Costco, I would become probably the only CostCo member to occupy a 1-bedroom apartment shoebox in a heartbeat.

Broth and bones

Alas, I was left to satiate my beef noodle soup cravings – along with other requisite dishes – to the best of my ability during this trip. I saved the restaurant version for Taipei, which is the city to consume a bowl as the dish is a Chinese import. It’s a specialty particularly in the capital city, as evidenced by their yearly Beef Noodle Festival. Thanks to the recommendation of Danny (KungFoodPanda), the small shop specializing in the bowl of noodles was one of my favorite stops, period. The Taiwanese in the States – and Taiwan, apparently – love acronyms, and the name of the shop was no coincidence since for their most popular bowl of soup, the broth takes 72 hours to complete. It’s also named in allegiance to its Anglo phonetics, though it was my mother whom I have to thank for translating so that I could understand the process. It is unlike any other bowl I’ve had – in both taste and color – and the broth’s complexity pretty much blew me away. The housemade noodles were also excellent and springy, tossed with slivers of fresh ginger. The beef tendon atop the clear broth was super tender. The traditional dark broth (with braised chunks of beef as opposed to the tendon) may be the more favored flavor in general, but there was good reason to wait that extra half-hour before the “clear broth” was declared ready by the shop owner, proving that they really take their broth seriously.

Traditional, dark broth beef noodle soup (Hong Zao)

It is the dark broth at 72 NRM that is ready at all times. Nevertheless, I showed restraint and kept my hands off the jar of chile paste on the table so that I might really taste the essence of the broth. It was the most flavorful yet seemingly effortless bowl of beef noodles I’ve ever had. Sometimes, in a less refined broth, I’ll find that there’s a bit of precipitate to the texture – but this broth was basically seamless with its rich flavor completely integrated. The clear broth still had more, but with that being my first bowl ever, I wouldn’t feign any sort of expertise. It stands that it had eye-openingly complex broth and amazingly fresh noodles.

The process of this broth – and the fact that it takes 72 hours to make – was intriguing enough to ask my mom for a translation. Apparently, the ingredients are simmered in cold water the entire first day. Then the temperature is brought to a medium heat during the second day in order to break down the grease. Mild heat is used on the third day in order to bring out the flavor. One and a half pounds of bones are used to make each bowl of broth. The flavors are so rich that you will “still be savoring [them] for 2 hours” after you finish your bowl.

They were right.

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72 NRM
Taipei, Taiwan

Kaohsiung, Taiwan: Traditional Taiwanese Eats

Bah-Tzang or Zong-zi

Hello from Taiwan! These past few days while on vacation, I’ve been discovering a little (or a lot) about my roots. A large part of my cultural lesson during the beginning of this trip has been through the consumption of each meal in the major city near where my mother grew up – Kaohsiung, in the south part of the island. There is no better way to learn about a people than walking in their shoes – by eating what they do.

Milkfish Paste Soup

Fortunately, I’ve been exposed to a little bit of traditional Taiwanese cuisine since a lone Taiwanese American kid growing up in Wisconsin thanks to my mom’s cooking. Yes, she once made Bah-Tzang, the pyramid-shaped “Taiwanese tamale,” on a regular basis. I remember watching her fill the bamboo leaf-wrapped cones first with sticky rice and soft, boiled peanuts, then a mixture of slow-cooked beef cubes, black mushrooms and dried shrimp before folding over the leaves, tying the pyramid up with a string and boiling these neat-wrapped packages in the rice cooker. All this, while the only other things I wanted to eat were McDonald’s, bratwurst, ambrosia salads and macaroni casseroles like the rest of my friends.

But Bah-Tzang always was a near and dear dish to my heart and heritage while all other Taiwanese dishes were merely oddities with strange flavors and textures. That is, until my palate graduated to a level that could appreciate them. Sweet chili sauce and soy are the best condiments with which to appreciate bah-tzang – and as you collapse the steaming tamale with your chopsticks, notice the texture of the sticky rice and the delicious smell. This is folk food at its finest and most portable, enabling us modern eaters to freeze and nuke at will. Check out this post on Tiny Urban Kitchen: Taiwanese Rice Dumplings (includes history, recipe) for a break-down.

Wahgui | Bowled Rice Cake

Milkfish paste gravy soup is a delicious soup with the consistency of a liquified gravy and taste of a light broth – with the clear color to match.  Do not mistaken the milkfish for fish balls; the paste gives a more tender bite. If you see milkfish/swordfish ball soup, expect the soup to be a clear liquid. By tradition, milkfish paste soups are thicker in consistency with the help of cornstarch. Season it with white pepper and together with its minced green onions and cilantro, the simple soup will have you slurping til the last spoonful.

Wahgui, or translated directly, rice bowled cake with sauce, may be mostly glutinous rice cake, but make no mistake – the bowl gives it its name and shape. Mixed into the sticky, soft texture are radishes and dried shrimp, and a sweet, rich sauce (in translated name only, but I prefer “gravy”) – is heaped on top of it to give it that umami. Add a chili sauce to it to make it hot, if you wish, but this bowl of goodness is as decadent as Taiwanese food gets.

All three of the above dishes, which I had on the day I landed on Formosa, cost between 30 and 35 NT (New Taiwan Dollars) each – the equivalent of $1 USD. You may only know Taiwanese food as Xiao Long Bao, or juicy pork dumplings – especially in Los Angeles (see: Din Tai Fung) – but let’s set the record straight. This is traditional Taiwanese food; XLBs came to the U.S. by way of Shanghai through Taipei (in Din Tai Fung’s case – only after the Chinese Civil War) since Communists hardly let their people emigrate.

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Kaohsiung, Taiwan

The Chinese American Olympic Identity

Zhang Ziyi said back in July, “I don’t know why people are so negative.”

It was before the games even started, around the time of the Tibetan protests. Before the cuter 9-year-old miming the ugly 7-year-old, the 14-year-old girl gymnast(s), the fake digital fireworks, the BSOD (I don’t think the latter 2 were a big deal) – and before the spectacular opening cermonies that showed every other nation on the planet that they could never pull off anything like that without Communism.

Point taken.

Anyway, I sensed the similar sentiment in fellow Chinese Americans in the area. And I have read a few blogs lately that have complained about anti-Chinese news coverage – which uncovered the aforementioned, and a few more.

“It’s an old brand of nationalism that has been revived now that China is a major player in the world,” said Richard Baum, a professor of political science at the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. “Everyone loves a winner. There’s a huge diaspora that had no reason to feel proud for the last 100 years. Most of them, I suspect, identify with Beijing’s coming-out party.”

Chinese immigrants worldwide have supported China despite the fact that many fled their homeland during its most repressive periods, from the Cultural Revolution to the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, to seek better lives. (There are about 400,000 people in Los Angeles County who are either Chinese or part Chinese, according to the U.S. Census).

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