If you ask me about Taiwan, I will be able to spout about its foods for hours, and not be able to dredge up any specifics about its history or politics, besides some common knowledge. Ever since I can remember, my mother would bring me back to Taiwan each summer and there, I experienced the most mouthwatering, and cheapest, foods imaginable. With the guidance of my cousins, aunts, and friends, I navigated through the menus and signs of which I can only read about 75% and brushed the heart of Taiwanese cuisine.
Back in America, I miss the food almost as much as I miss my relatives. When I came to Atlanta for college, I threw myself happily into the sea of Asian cuisine – Chinese (Sichuan, dim sum, northern dishes…), Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino. Millions of bubble tea shops litter the city, some reminiscent of the ones I drink in Taiwan, others, not so much. However, try as I might, I could not find the Taiwanese street food I held so dear to my heart. I must clarify, though, that as much as I love Taiwanese cuisine, I have only brushed its surface thus far – I am far from an expert on it.
My friend, A, a native Atlantian, brought me to Bento Cafe near the end of my first year in Atlanta. I absolutely loved it – however, the overpowering smell of sewage floating into the dining room from the bathroom finally convinced me not to return after giving the place another three tries (I have returned this year and was happy to find the stench gone!).
I didn’t hear about Kan Pai until early this fall. I checked out their menu online and they had me at the first oyster omelette. That night, I went over with A and my friend, L. I knew that restaurants are slower on weekday dinners, but I did not expect to find only two other parties. Wary about the emptiness of the restaurant, I set about ordering multiple dishes to share between us, for neither A nor L had really experienced Taiwanese street food.
We first tried the fried oyster mushrooms. Think of salt pepper squid, but mushroom form. Well-seasoned and hot, the fried mushrooms were pretty decent. However, the batter could have been a little lighter and crispier. Not the favorite of the night, but pretty tasty.
I’ve never eaten beef wraps in Taiwan before but wanted to give it a try. A pancake, similar to a scallion pancake, had a thin layer of sweet, salty, and a little tangy sauce smothered on it. Cilantro, sliced green onion, and shredded beef were then scattered on and the entire pancake was rolled up and sliced. The filling was the perfect amount – not so little that you felt cheated, but not so generous that everything falls out with your slightest movement. I enjoyed the dish. A and L ranked it a among their top three of the night.
Pig’s blood cakes – something else I had never tried before. I didn’t tell the guys what they were – just to try it. I told them after their first bites. The pig’s blood cakes appear to be sticky (glutinous) rice mixed with pig’s blood. They sprinkled the tops with crushed peanuts and garnished it with some cilantro. The cakes were chewy and the peanuts lent both a nice crunch and nuttiness to the dish. All three of us found it to be a decent dish, although not the best.
The lamb skewers had a nice, charred flavor to it. The seasoning was good and the sauce, tasty. However, I found the meat to be somewhat tough. Had they been tender, luscious chunks of lamb, I would have given to almost-top marks. No one likes chewy, tough meat, though. Thus, the lamb skewers were not a hit.
The fried pork chop bowl would make an extremely satisfying, well-priced lunch. The pork chop was seasoned well and, thankfully, not dry. Like the fried mushrooms, though, it could have been crispier. The little meat sauce on top of the rice could have used a little more salt. I appreciated the side of greens, for I’m not very good with eating my daily vegetables. I must say, however, I do like Bento Cafe’s fried pork chop better – it’s seasoning is a little more pronounced and it’s also more juicy, in the this-can-not-be-healthy-for-me type of way. However, Kan Pai’s fried pork chop bowl is not bad at all.
I know that the “Little Sausage in the Big Sausage,” literally, holds a special place in Taiwanese street cuisine. However, I have not tried it before and thus, have nothing to judge this one against. It consists of a sticky rice sausage, split in half, and filled with a hot dog. It was served drizzled with a salty, sweet sauce and crushed peanuts. I think that this dish really had the potential to be spectacular. However, the hot dog appeared to be one bought from a supermarket and the sticky rice sausage was a little bit too hard. I think the hot dogs used in Taiwan are probably prepared fresh by the vendors, and the sticky rice sausage would probably have the right chewy, sticky consistency. I probably wouldn’t order this here again until I’m back in Taiwan – not because it was bad, but because it was rather disappointing.
I had to order the beef noodle soup. Comforting and hearty, it brings back memories of my grandmothers and Taiwan. I really, really liked the beef noodle soup broth at Kan Pai. I’ve tried this dish at a few other places around Atlanta, and this broth may be my favorite so far. However, there were only three large chunks of beef, all of which were even tougher than the lamb skewers. I associate beef noodle soup with tender, falling apart beef with melt-in-your-mouth tendons. The ones in this soup were akin to gum, albeit a gum whose stringy strands get caught into your teeth. The noodles were pretty standard noodles. I did appreciate the generous amount of chopped pickled mustard greens, though. This dish could have been really great, but the meat dragged it down.
I saved the three dishes I was most excited for last – the Taiwanese meatball, oyster omelette, and oyster vermicelli. A lot of Taiwanese foods have a chewy, bouncy texture termed “QQ,” and these two signature dishes really exemplify it. Kan Pai’s versions were close enough to satisfy my cravings for these dishes in the United States, but were also a far cry from the ones I’ve had in Taiwan.
The meatball’s outsides were nice and chewy. It was stuffed with a pork and Shiitake mushroom mixture. It had two sauces on top – one rather salty, the other a sweet tangy one. L and A absolutely loved this dish – it was their favorite of the night. I, however, found the entire meatball, (wrap, filling, sauce and all), to be just all right. It’s just not the same, but I will settle for it here in the U.S.
I had similar feelings about the oyster omelette. The omelette could have been more “chewy” and its sauce, the same sweet tangy one on the meatball, just wasn’t the same. It had a decent amount of oysters and greens. However, the greens were rather too wilty and insubstantial – I wanted more crunch. Like the meatball, I am happy enough to eat the oyster omelette.
Out of the three dishes I was most excited for, this one let me down the most. The oyster vermicelli, surprisingly, did not have enough oyster flavor. The dish was also not as thick and rich as the ones found in Taiwan. It also had too much soup and too little noodles. If you wanted an oyster vermicelli soup dish, this would have sufficed. However, I was looking for the thick, oyster-ey, dangerously hot, “uh-ah mi swa” of Taiwan. This just didn’t cut it. However, the previous two dishes were enough to satisfy my cravings for the foods in Taiwan.
Kan Pai offers a really good introduction of sorts to Taiwanese cuisine. The prices are decent and the food, pretty tasty. Although the dishes don’t taste quite the same, they’re enough to help fill that void while you’re in Atlanta. I am still on the hunt for more Taiwanese restaurants, but if you have never experienced Taiwanese street food, give Kan Pai a try.