See more photos from Yummy Kitchen's tidy dining room and kitchen in our slideshow.
Taiwanese food is not for the faint of heart. That could be one of the reasons I had difficulty finding dining companions to go with me to Yummy Kitchen. After all, the cuisine is famous for implementing a number of cringe-worthy ingredients, from goose blood to stinky tofu.
One man's trash is another man's treasure, though. And although I'm only a fan of blood in certain applications (blood sausage, for one), I am a resolute fan of stinky tofu. It's both a staple and a delicacy in Taiwan, and certainly a polarizing food that epitomizes the trash-versus-treasure argument.
Stinky tofu is made by fermenting tofu — which, it should be said, is as normal a protein in Asian cuisines as pork, chicken or beef, and not used as a meat substitute or as health food — in a brine that is fairly disgusting in and of itself. Fermented milk, dried shrimp, amaranth, mustard greens and more combine to create a potent liquid that imparts a strong, manure-like scent to the tofu. It's intoxicating.
I ended up solving my dining-partner problem by simply tricking unwitting coworkers and family members into going with me to Yummy Kitchen. Taiwanese food is just like Chinese food, right? Right! Okay, get in the car! And everything was fine, both times, until the stinky tofu hit the table.
"Wow, man," said my coworker Craig, clearly at a loss for words but not wanting to insult either me or the lovely Taiwanese woman who'd brought our meal to the table. "Those intestines smell awful." I chuckled.
Pointing at the plate of stir-fried intestines with ginger that I'd ordered for us, I said, "You mean this stuff? This isn't what you're smelling." I gestured to the plate of deep-fried cubes of stinky tofu. "That's what you're smelling."
As if to prove me wrong, Craig leaned in for a whiff and came back reeling. "Oh my God. You're right." Still, ever the trooper, he picked up a square with his chopsticks and ate one half of it. He grimaced while chewing, and had nothing to say when he'd finally swallowed. It was the last bite of stinky tofu he had that evening. He busied himself instead with the barbecue pork buns in thick, fluffy jackets and the slivers of intestine that were pale and plump, softer than usual yet still with a firm bite. I ate my cubes quite happily, cubes that tasted vaguely of dank, dark, musty places, places that had never seen daylight.
I'm the same person who looks for that quality in other foods, though. I'm the person who wants a Pinot Noir with a strong, disarming funk of barnyards and manure to come through at the nose. I'm the person who wants to surround myself with washed rind cheeses, the stinkier the better. And while these wines and cheeses are accepted indulgences in our Western culinary world, stinky tofu is unfairly treated as a vulgar, disgusting thing. At least with stinky tofu, you know what you're getting right from the start. No hypocrisy here.
The greatest thing about Taiwanese food is how eagerly it makes use of available ingredients — cuttlefish, pig and goose blood, oysters, squid — and how it rewards stalwart diners who embrace the cuisine as a whole. For every dish of cuttlefish in brown sauce (which is almost certainly as much an acquired taste as the tofu), there are two mindblowingly magnificent dishes waiting in the wings.
Yummy Kitchen is quickly becoming famous for its pan-fried pork dumplings and its gua bao, steamed pork belly buns that are filled with soft, fatty belly, pickled greens and a nutty-sweet topping of crushed peanuts and sugar. Gua bao are also called Taiwanese burgers, both for their wide availability on the streets of Taiwan as well as for their quick, fast, finger-food nature: meat with a few vital toppings in a bun.
My friend and occasional dining companion Dr. Ricky is the one who first turned me on to the gua bao at Yummy Kitchen. But it appears that gua bao is coming into its own right now, seen everywhere from Americanized pan-Asian places like Dragon Bowl to ultra-high-end restaurants like New York City's Momofuku, where executive chef David Chang first introduced the Taiwanese snack food to a broader American audience. Just last week on Serious Eats, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt wrote: "Momofuku might have made steamed pork buns cool (if not small and expensive), but there are still places where they fulfill their original goal: a cheap, delicious, workingman's lunch." Yummy Kitchen is one of those places.
Like gua bao, Yummy Kitchen is just now getting a lot of attention, which is funny considering that the restaurant has been in the Metropole Plaza since 2009. It's lately been the talk of Twitter, and nearly half of its reviews on Yelp are from the last few months. Perhaps an influx of equally excellent neighbors has helped spur them on: Mala Sichuan, a popular new Chinese restaurant, is almost next door, and the always-busy Six Ping Bakery is just across the parking lot.
It could also be the fact that aside from serving great food, Yummy Kitchen might have the friendliest customer service in Chinatown. The owner is almost always behind the counter with an engaging smile and a willingness to walk neophytes through the menu. The restaurant takes credit and debit cards. And the menu has English descriptions for all its dishes.
Even better, an enormous meal for four here will run you perhaps $35. That's inclusive of tax and no tip is required, as you order at the counter and help yourself to soft drinks, plates, utensils and some of Yummy's hot and sour soup, which serves as a communal appetizer. (Though, to be fair, it's only sporting to leave a few dollars on the table for your busboy.)
My parents and I enjoyed one of those enormous meals recently, filling the table with General Tso's chicken, ma-pow tofu, crispy-bottomed pork dumplings and plenty more. No blood, tofu or cuttlefish landed on the table this time, something the friendly Taiwanese woman — who never forgets a face — teased me about.
"Last time you were here, you order all Taiwanese food!" she chuckled. "Today you order all American stuff!" I didn't want to explain to her that my parents were already angry at me for subjecting them to Nicki Minaj on the car ride over to Chinatown ("Y'all need to hear what the kids are listening to these days!") and were in no mood for stinky tofu.
In fact, the last time I'd had stinky tofu, I brought some home for them to try. My mother helplessly spit it back out into the trash, while my dad seemed despondently angry at the manure-scented tofu itself. "Why would you eat that?" he asked, exasperated with us both.
This visit, they were both more than content with the food I'd ordered. My dad waxed poetically about how the General Tso's chicken reminded him of an old Chinese restaurant downtown that had served the best butterflied shrimp in a similar sauce. And it was good stuff, tangy sweet and ever-so-slightly spicy. I appreciated the bounty of bright green, steamed broccoli that was served with it, too.
Meanwhile, I had graduated from scooping out individual portions of the ma-pow tofu onto my plate and had begun eating it straight from the casserole dish. The tofu inside seemed slightly fermented, too, although without the trademark pungency. Ground pork mingled with the cubes in a ruddy sauce that was dappled with ginger and scallions. It didn't have that trademark heat or numbness that comes from true Sichuan-style ma-pow tofu, but I loved it nevertheless.
And as soon as the gua bao hit the table, I divided them eagerly for my parents. "You're going to love these," I promised. "It's like bacon's beefier cousin." The buns were a huge hit, gone in a heartbeat.
But just as dinner was looking to have been a total success, the scent of stinky tofu began wafting through the air. My dad smelled it first, then grabbed his temple. The smell was starting to give him a headache. We packed up the rest of our food, finished for the evening anyway, and got up to leave.
The friendly owner stopped by the table before we left. "You smell that, huh?" she laughed. "Sorry. They ordered stinky tofu hot pot. Much stinkier than the fried stuff you eat." We departed, chuckling as well, with the odor of barnyard stalls thick in our nostrils. But the dinner we'd had was absolutely worth every scent.
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