The history of Taiwan and its capital city, Taipei, holds more confusion, emotion and anguish than almost any place on earth. The island's relationship to China is particularly fraught; since the cultural revolution, Taiwan's identity, both political and cultural, has been fiercely debated. The People's Republic of China believes Taiwan should be part of China. The Republic of China, the entity that governs Taiwan, believes that they should be separate, although they used to claim that they were the actual governing power of mainland China. Confused yet? I've barely scratched the surface.
All of this is to explain why a small new restaurant on Buford Highway called Taipei would be serving Szechuan food. The food of China, as well as Japan (which occupied Taiwan from 1895-1945), has strongly influenced the cuisine of Taiwan, and in recent years Szechuan cooking in particular has become the most popular style of Chinese cooking in Taipei. One theory is that the hot peppers and overload of ginger and other spices in Szechuan food is especially well-suited to Taipei's subtropical climate. The chefs at Taipei (the restaurant) grew up in Taiwan, and they grew up cooking Szechuan food.
Both in Taipei the city, and at Taipei the restaurant, Szechuan cooking is slightly milder than it is in its purest form. The spiciest dishes at Taipei don't have nearly the mind-blowing, sweat-inducing level of heat you'll find at Tasty China, Atlanta's most authentic Szechuan restaurant. But many dishes here showcase uncommon balance and complexity.
Through giant windows at the rear of the brightly lit strip mall storefront, two chefs move around the kitchen tending to boiling pots and flaming woks. I believe this is Atlanta's first Chinese restaurant to co-opt the open kitchen trend, and it's by far the most visually interesting part of the room. Menus reside under glass on the tables, and large groups of Chinese families make up most of the patrons.
The chefs in the kitchen right now are Yu Chung and Fa Chung. They are not related, but grew up together in Taiwan. Yu Chung is the former owner of Little Szechuan, and is currently in the kitchen "helping." After the restaurant gets its footing, he will probably step back. Usually I wait a full month before I review a restaurant, but I've made an exception here because of this exact tendency in Chinese restaurants. Often, the best cooking comes right when the doors open, and when the change comes it's never as good again. I hope that won't be the case here.
Manager Tom Kooh is an enthusiastic salesman of Chung's cuisine. Unlike some other Asian restaurants, you'll never hear "you won't like that" or "too spicy" from Kooh. In fact, on my first visit, the item he most heartily recommended was a cold dish of spicy pork kidneys. How glad I was to have taken his recommendation when the plate arrived. The sliced kidneys had the soft texture of delicate oyster mushrooms, but with a pleasant mineral aftertaste. Flanked by chili heat and the snap of scallions, the flavors were as composed and exacting as a still-life painting.
Kooh also recommended the pan-fried egg with shrimp, a huge fluffy omelet filled with perfectly cooked shrimp and bathed in a viscous, garlicky, spicy sauce. And I couldn't resist the eggplant with basil, this version delivering the reward of sweet-fleshed eggplant and crispy basil leaves. Even the usual grease that's almost always present with fried eggplant was kept in check.
For dumpling enthusiasts, the dumplings in red hot oil provide a textural adventure – the dumpling wrapper soft and slippery and conjuring images of raw oysters and wet seaweed. The red hot oil could be hotter and more flavorful, but the savory pork filling and wrapper alone make the dish worth ordering.
Vegetable dishes have the added bonus of health-related encouragement printed on the menu. Deep green yam leaves are tender and savory, tasting of photosynthesis and all the minerals it creates. According to the menu, they are also "healthy for high blood pressure." The Chinese Okra in Crab Meat Sauce may "help kidney functions," but I found it too mushy. Chinese okra is kind of like a cross between a cucumber, a zucchini and a green melon, and in the past I've found it refreshing and clean-tasting, but here it was neither soft nor crisp.
But a near perfect lunch of house cold Szechuan noodles followed by tea flavor duck had me forgetting the texturally challenged okra. The noodles were wonderfully balanced, combining sesame, peanut, garlic and the crunch of fresh bean sprouts. The warm and pleasingly greasy half duck, chopped and laid across the plate in a jumble of meat, crisp skin and sharp bones, was intensely smoke and tea-infused, like the best Texas barbecue but more delicate and gamey.
Taipei may not offer the boldest Szechuan cooking in the city, but subtlety is not always a bad thing. The lack of real heat in these dishes allows the meticulous spicing to shine through, and in many instances that thoughtful balance of flavors is a thing of beauty and complexity. Go now before the magic (or the chef) disappears.