Thursday, December 30, 2010

[北加州矽谷] 陳媽媽家 台灣小吃 - Mama Chen Santa Clara, Silicon Valley, California USA

Back to the USA for a moment. Santa Clara, Northern California, USA to be exact.

This might just be the best Taiwanese restaurant in all of Northern California that perhaps can rival some of the good ones in Southern California.

The general at the helm? A 70+ year old grandma, known as Mama Chen 陳媽媽.

Don't mess with this mama (or grandmama). She may look cute and cuddly, but man, she (and her crew) can cook!!! I've seen her at the restaurant before. Unlike Liang's (or Mama Liang 梁媽媽, a chain in Southern California that has spread to 2 Northern California locations) where Grandma Liang appears to be the only one who really knows how to cook, maybe is really hiding in Taiwan and counting her wealth (from the franchise) while contemplating how many more Mercedes Benz, BMW, Lexus, and real estate to purchase. Mama Chen is a mom and pop type operation (no branches), and yet so much higher quality, albeit a different style. This is another legend where grandma is basically in retirement, but maintained her passion of cooking and wanting to share that joy (while making a living), so lucky for us in the area, this place exists.

So Mama Chen herself is supposedly a veteran of the Taiwanese/Chinese restaurant business. One of the reasons why her food is so ass kicking is because approximately 20 of those cooking experience years were spent in Southern California Taiwanese restaurants. The other reasons are that the food just rocks.... very simple and at times homey tasting, yet minimal use of MSG (based on not feeling thirsty afterwards at all) if any, pretty authentic tasting given the ingredients and skills available. She apparently did a short chef stint when the Tainan restaurant 台南風味小吃 in Cupertino Village (Northern California) opened circa 1996 , but I never recalled that place being stellar at all.

If you are at Mama Chen later than 5:30 pm on certain days (especially weekends), you'll have to sign your name on the waitlist and then the rest is up to the clock. This place fills up so quickly with locals (ie Taiwanese expat community) craving a fix of the homeland. Given that there are virtually no other good options around, this place is pretty much the best in town (with quality and value to boot!).

One of the absolute best dishes is 攪和攪和 (Mix Mix / Jiaohe Jiaohe) , a savory blend of soy sauce simmered/marinated excellence (lu wei / 滷味)
containing dried tofu strips 干 (doh gahn), pig's ear (豬耳朵) that tasted very smooth and like beef tendons, and beef tripe (honeycomb/stomach 肚). Topped with scallions and cilantro. This dish tasted like it was cooked to order, as it was nice and warm (not refrigerated and not piping hot). The marinade receipe was perfect, not too salty, just the right soy sauce and herb flavors with complexity. Not as beautiful as the stir fried combo 眷村炒滷味 at 72 Beef Noodles in Taipei , but for NorCal this is as great as it gets.

This might just be the fugliest looking Taiwanese oyster omlette 蚵仔煎
I've ever seen. While it looks like barf on a plate, it actually tastes quite good. Instead of griddling or grilling (over charcoal) like they do in Taiwan, this looks like it was pan fried. The diluted ketchupy looking sauce is their house receipe, and is a valiant effort despite the poor visuals. The addition of soy sauce paste added that needed savory flavor to the mix. A little more oysters would have helped. Since Ay-Chung / Ocean Harbor cafe in Milpitas is gone (that made a half decent 蚵仔煎), this will have to do for now. Not sure I can afford the US$18 Singaporean style omlette at Shiok in Menlo Park :-o
For the pittance they charge, something like US$5.75 (oh yeah cash only place), you get a humongous portion of chicken leg rice 雞腿飯. No wonder this place is so appeals to the El Cheapsadores in us! Pickled mustard greens (suan tsai 酸菜)are awesome, probably the best in town (even better than Formosa Bento House in Redwood City). Even the chicken tasted good.

Ahhh yes, Beef Noodle Soup 牛肉麵. Better than a lot of overpriced and poorly executed Japanese style ramen most of the time. Tsing Jiang Tsai 清江菜, thick wide slurpy noodles, excellently cooked beef shank slices (thick but soft and good chunks of tendon), perfect pickled mustard greens (酸菜), and the crucial element that holds it all together, a deep rich flavorful thick beef broth seasoned with herbs and a little pepper (although with a thick layer of non spicy oil or grease on top...wish they would strain it beforehand, but during cold winter nights this actually helps and adds further punch like true Taiwanese soul food...). Also a shade under the $6 mark, and for a cash only place it cannot get better than this.

Had to come back again earlier tonight, as the need for a fix was so great. To start, a tender crispy juicy appetizer of blanched vegetables or tang tsing tsai
菜. The house veg changes depending on what they stock or in season. Tonight it was A-tsai (A 菜, where A = Taiwanese dialect for duck, a large crunchy leafy green that well, used to be fed to the ducks, but eventually people discovered how great it was!). The best part? The magic soy sauce seasoned broth it was cooked in, and a little bit of rou zhao (stewed minced pork 肉燥) that was done excellently....airy, puffy, and light. Wished they put more pork on the veg! 

OK the oyster noodle 蚵仔麵線 wasn't stellar, but this is Northern California where the standards are very low, so it was fun to be able to eat this in half decent quality (and quantity to boot). Flavor wise it was a great effort. I'm trying reaaaaaaalllly hard not to compare this to 宏麵線 (let alone Ay-Chung Xiemending...), but can't help it. KC gourmet is so right.... to be able to properly judge a dish, one should at least have had the real thing in the country of origin to have a baseline. Anyway, a little minced garlic could have gone a long way, and perhaps making the broth smokier via katsuobushi (bonito flakes). Whatever they used still worked to some oysters (too few), bamboo shoots, cilantro, some pepper, black vinegar. The noodles were the weak link, pretty much the supermarket variety, unlike the thinner fresher tasting ones in Taipei. But in the end, this was still satisfying.

 Drum roll please.....gua bao 割包, the original version of the steamed bun pork sandwich (sometimes nicknamed Taiwanese hamburger), before the likes of David Chang, Chairman Bao capitalizing on this classic snack. A good rendition, even though this was a very healthy prep of lean pork. Good mustard greens, a little cilantro, shaved peanut powder. Around the $4 mark for two...can't complain. 

Stinky tofu here is not that stinky, more like mildly and briefly annoying.
Oyster noodles looked good but perhaps do not expect the exact replication of Taiwan.

Overall a very solid effort by this retired grandma. Were it not for her, it would be easy to give up hope and settle for extreme mediocrity in the SF Bay Area (or suck it up and drive 8 hours to Southern California for a wider variety of much higher quality Taiwanese....)

Mama Chen 陳媽媽家 台灣小吃
5075 Stevens Creek Blvd
Santa Clara, CA 950510
(408) 249-9888

Monday, December 27, 2010

[台北縣永和市] - 世界豆漿大王 - World Soymilk King in Yongho - The Breakfast of Champions

Sometimes you just want to start, end, or break your day (or night) with a Taiwanese style breakfast. Like dis classic combo of hot soymilk with a carb sandwich (shaobing yohtieo / 燒餅油條). Don't forget to dunk the carb wrap like a donut (or cookie) in the soymilk!

The township of Yongho 永和市 is primarily a residential area with lots of small mom and pop type shops and businesses. Certainly not a foodie destination to say the least. Whatever the local food shops sell, there are places that generally do it better, from oyster pancakes to beef noodles. Even the local night market Lir Hua (樂華) isn't particularly high on the must-eat list (although nice if you are in the area, but certainly not a destination stop).

But if you mention the word (or town) Yongho 永和 to any Taiwanese ex patriot living abroad one thing that will inevitably associate them (similarly to the effect that Din Tai Fung has become the brand name for Xiao Long Bao) is that 永和 goes hand in hand with soy milk 豆漿, or at least 9.9 Taiwanese out of 10 will immediately react and say "oh, 永和豆漿!!". If you live in Yongho, you will probably respond by saying "yeah, WHATEVER clever".

There are a ton of shops in Yongho that sell the good stuff for breakfast. But there is one shop, probably the most famous in the area, that deserves special mention.  The shop is now 55 years old, and pretty much operates around the clock (yes open 24 hours!)

The name is World Soymilk King 世界豆漿大王, and is pretty much the landmark of Yongho breakfast. The Din Tai Fung of breakfast maybe, but of course, not Michelin star, and certainly not a date kind of place.

The history of this place is quite amazing. Apparently two former soliders from Mainland China (Shandong province to be exact) moved to Taipei and missed the breakfast food of their homeland (namely the breakfast stuff) and what started out as literally a street vendor/hawker small business eventually blossomed into a shop. It is also interesting to note that initially not many customers embraced the style of breakfast in the early 50s, but eventually that changed. The owner(s) pretty much started their days at 3 am, soaking the soybeans, and by 5 am started to cook the soymilk, so that they can serve their customers by breakfast time (students and adults on their way to work needing a fix).

Need your fix at 3:15 am right now? No problemo. Why at that hour you can even order some Hong Kong style dim sum too... like 蘿蔔糕, 叉燒包, 燒賣 if you crave it. Even xiao long bao at interesting street vendor quality.... but why bother with that one.

Seriously, you just want to stick with the classics.

Soymilk any style or rice milk (mi jang / 米漿)

Shaobing 燒餅 - roasted flatbread with sesame seeds on top, crunchy multi layer pastry shell thingy. Or request this with yoh tieo 油條 to double your starch pleasure. For those who like sweet starch, there's a kind sweetened with molasses 麥芽甜餅 that's quite delectable too.

There's something about World Soymilk King's signature soymilk flavor that is not present with the competition, and frankly an acquired taste. It has a slightly burnt flavor! Well I do not believe it to be burnt, but more so earthy. I don't think anyone has decyphered the secret to this, but I have to admit I did not like it the first time, but having tried it again for the 2nd or 3rd, it started to grow on me. Sometimes a chilled earthy (re: burnt tasting) version can hit the spot! This is what makes their soymilk unique, and not easily copied by the competition. Let's just say I've had truly burnt soymilk before abroad, and it was stuff that you want to throw away. Not so with the Elvis of Breakfast!

Surely there are other breakfast places in Taipei city that are as popular or even arguably equivalent or better, especially those who work downtown.

However you cannot just dismiss Elvis, who really started it all.
世界豆漿大王 (World Soymilk King)
台北縣永和市永和路二段284號 (Taipei County, Yongho township, Yongho Road, 2nd portion #284)
Tel: 2923-9635