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Soups, small plates, and snacks shine at Taste of Formosa 

Wednesday, Feb 10 2010
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Has it been long enough since the Great Pork Belly Craze of 2005 to stage a revival? The people who care about fashion have sneeringly returned bacon to its populist origins, though bacon is still giddy from the attention and just starting to realize it can't get into the VIP lounges anymore. Braised pork belly, too, has left the metropolises, touring the provinces to great acclaim, while porchetta is now garnering the awards buzz. It's a shame if the cut has become too passé to order, because the Hakka-style sliced pork ($6.95) at Taste of Formosa in the Outer Richmond is one of the Taiwanese restaurant's most memorable dishes.

Western cooks have tended to finish the long-braised cut to yield a meltingly soft interior and crisp, bacony edges. In Taste of Formosa's modern Taiwanese interpretation of an ethnic Hakka specialty, the cooks pluck the strips of pork belly from the cinnamon- and anise-scented broth in which it braises just at the point when the textures of the lean and fat layers begin to mirror one another. The lacquered meat is chilled, sliced into precise square tiles, and served cold with a dipping sauce of rice-wine vinegar and chopped garlic. When you pop a tile in the mouth, there's a flash of vinegar, spice, and sugar; it subsides just as the meat, like a square of dark chocolate, warms and melts on the tongue — even when you're on your sixth slice, the late-blooming succulence of the belly is gratifying, a pleasure earned.

There have long been Taiwanese restaurants in San Francisco, most serving a mix of Cantonese, Mandarin (i.e., Chinese-American), and Taiwanese fare. The three-year-old Taste of Formosa is part of a newer wave of Bay Area restaurants serving Taiwanese street snacks and xiao chi, or "small eats," and aimed at diners who've grown up on both sides of the Pacific. The restaurant's decor is pure Asian pop, from the overcoiffed young men singing blissfully on the television to the pale-green walls, black wood tables, and colored-glass waterfall in the stairway. The 9 p.m. crowd is always bigger than the 6:30 one, and three-fourths of the customers were born long after Madonna first cracked the Top 40. Most are splitting a big beer, or nursing glasses of melon juice, with three or four little plates.

From a glance at the menu, the place appears to be three restaurants in one: a snack shop combined with a sit-down restaurant, with standard takeout and delivery fare (moo shu pork, lemon chicken) grudgingly listed on the back page. You can't do three things well, of course, and Taste of Formosa doesn't. Though the kitchen is frustratingly scattershot, many of its xiao chi are great much better than you'll find at any of the other Taiwanese places in town.

The only rule of thumb I could come up with after my visits would be to treat the sprawling menu as if it's organized by priority: snacks and cold plates on the first page, followed by noodles and soups, then by Taiwanese-style entrées.

While there are probably finds among the entrées in the "hot sautéed" section near the back — the dishes priced $8 and up, which come with bowls of rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds — I didn't find them. Cabbage stir-fried with bacon and a couple of flaccid cloud-ear mushrooms tasted barely cooked, with no wok char to give the dish any depth. A third of the pale-green Chinese squash stir-fried with clams was afflicted with the potent, piney taste of mold. And the iconically Taiwanese chicken sautéed with rice wine sauce ($9.95) was perhaps the worst version I've tasted. It's normally a long-braised dish, often translated as "three-cup chicken" because the braising liquid is traditionally one cup soy sauce, one cup rice wine, and one cup sesame oil. The hot pot I tasted was prepared so quickly that the sauce didn't have time to saturate the chicken meat, meld with the basil and ginger that normally give it a mighty perfume, or transmute the garlic cloves scattered around the pot into allium-scented caramels.

It's the more casual dishes that make up the kitchen's strength. They're carefully plated on ceramic squares instead of doled out from market stalls and spooned sweetly into bowls by young waiters instead of plopped onto a Formica table in a fluorescent-lit stall.

Nevertheless, some of the hominess remained. The sesame-oil chicken soup ($9.50), a cloudy broth aromatic with toasted-sesame oil and ginger, was a soup that could stop a cold and a lovers' spat at the same time. The noodle soup with braised beef ($7.95) was so rich that you could taste it from the next table over, seasoned with sweet spices and a dollop of saday paste, a blend of dried shrimp, garlic, shallots, and chiles that acted as an flavor turbocharger. (As we sipped the broth, one of my dining companions advanced his theory that the Taiwanese like sweet food, especially in the south of the country, because of all the sugarcane fields the Dutch introduced to the country in the 1600s.)

One of the soups or noodles, then, might be a good focal point for a meal, to be surrounded by snacks like "chives pockets" ($5.95), two pressed-together wheat crepes stuffed with scrambled eggs and green onions and then pan-fried; spongy, sweet squid balls ($5.95), deep-fried and dusted with toasted Sichuan peppercorns; slippery, crunchy jellyfish strips ($6.95) tangled around shreds of julienned cucumber and red pepper and tossed in sesame oil and rice wine vinegar; slices of pig ear ($5.25), braised in a sweet, anise-inflected sauce, sliced thick and pleasantly chewy; or deep-fried pork intestines ($6.95), each containing a surprise a Chinese leek threaded into its length, which softens and sweetens while the intestine turns cola-colored and papery-crisp in the fryer.

On occasion, the restaurant's more studied takes on common street foods fell flat — the braised ground pork over rice ($3.95), normally no-nonsense comfort food, tasted paradoxically shallow and overwrought. More often, the kitchen's urge to refine had the intended effect. Taste of Formosa's oyster crepe with sweet sauce ($6.95) was the best version I've ever tasted. A tapioca-starch batter and a single whisked egg flowed into one another in a hot pan. As it cooked, the tapioca side jelled, while the egg crisped and browned wherever it touched the oil. Placed around the crepe and glazed in a mild hoisin ketchup were spinach leaves and oysters that cooked into small rounds of sweetly briny custard. I've choked on a dozen of these pancakes over the years, most of them tasting like seafood-flavored gummi bears. With its delicate layering of textures, this one reminded me more of Thomas Keller's oysters and pearls.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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