Off the Wall

Fried Pork Intestines and Other Taiwanese Specialties at Kiki Cafe

Last week, when a I took a friend to try authentic Taiwanese food at Kiki Café (9126 Bellaire Blvd at Ranchester, Tel: 713-772-8883), he took one look at the appetizer menu and said "I'm gonna have the fried pork intestines." I looked at him questioningly, thinking he was joking, while he grinned from ear to ear. "Gotta get the weirdest thing on the menu," he said without batting an eyelash.

Gosh, how I love eating with someone who's not afraid to try something new.

Kiki Café is one of those places where you order from the counter, and when I told the Taiwanese owner what my friend wanted to order, it was her turn to smile. "Really?" she asked excitedly. "We make it good for you, don't worry," she said, obviously tickled pink by the fact that the only non-Asian person in the restaurant would be willing to try this rather unusual dish.

When it came out, the golden yellow, crispy fried intestines had been sliced thinly, resembling fried beignets or donuts. The taste, when you bit into it, was mild but had a hint of Chinese spices, and the texture was extra light with a very slight hint of chewiness. It was kind of like a fried calamari, but much thinner and less rubbery in texture, more like fried air. It came with a sweet and salty sauce, similar to a hoisin. And it was pretty awesome, if you like that sort of thing. My friend sure did. "I love it," he proclaimed as he noshed enthusiastically on the intestines.

I stuck to the easier stuff, like the salt and pepper nuggets, a Taiwanese version of chicken nuggets, with a dusting of a red pepper powder to give it a slight kick. It was good, but my friend was unimpressed. "It's like something you can get in an American restaurant," he said, preferring to embrace the novelty of something foreign.

I really enjoyed the large hunk of fried silken tofu topped with minced pork. Crispy on the outside, and meltingly soft on the inside, it was an ideal tofu-lover's dish. "It's okay but I'm used to firmer tofu," my friend said, to which I explained that this was a silken tofu and that was supposed to be more mushy.

In addition to the appetizers, we ordered two lunch specials, which came with free self-serve hot and sour soup, and iced Jasmine tea served in plastic bubble tea-type cups. My friend ordered the soy sauce braised pork belly rice plate, which came with bok choy, a hard boiled egg, pickled radish and cabbage. It's hard to get this dish wrong, so of course Kiki got it right. The well braised pork belly chunks were extremely tender and seeped in the braising juices, and "so good," according to my friend.

My dish, a Taiwanese noodle with minced pork, was exactly what I wanted without even knowing it. I'd never tried this type of noodle before, and although the topping was the same topping I'd had on the fried tofu, this was probably my favorite of all the dishes. "I think I like your noodles the best," my friend told me as we surveyed the damage we'd done. The noodles were like a Japanese udon, thick and white, but not as smooth in appearance. The minced pork sauce coated the noodles to perfection, while the parboiled bean sprouts and chives gave some crunchy texture to the noodles.

Yes, we ordered a lot for a simple lunch, but that's part of the adventure when you go to an ethnic restaurant where you're not too familiar with the food. Usually, there are hits and misses while ordering, but at Kiki Cafe, everything was a hit, including the prices. Appetizers rang in at just $2.25-$4.50, while lunch specials were only $5.95-$7.95. And although I was prepared to pay cash, I was happy to find that despite the low prices, they even accept credit cards.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham