One of the reasons I love this job is because I eat everything — and I mean everything. But a funny thing happens when I go to an ethnic restaurant: Whenever I order something spicy or made of organ meat or something else authentic to a region, I get a sideways glance from servers, as if they were saying, “Are you sure you want to eat that?”
Sometimes, the sentiment is overt, as it was when I ordered a pickled plum iced tea at Red Onion Chinese Restaurant in Edison. Our waitress asked at least twice how I liked the tea, probably because she knew that it had a bit of a funky flavor. I had just ordered pig intestines in hot chili sauce, so she needn’t have worried.
There are a lot of adventurous selections on Red Onion’s menu, which suits the owner, David Shen, just fine. Mr. Shen, 48, came from Taiwan nearly 20 years ago to work as a dancer and choreographer, and he’s still going strong. But when his chef friend, Kyle Wang, told him that he wanted to cook authentic Taiwanese food, Mr. Shen took to the idea and opened the restaurant in 2013. “It’s a beautiful coincidence and a beautiful mistake,” Mr. Shen said with a laugh.
What is Taiwanese cuisine? It is mostly influenced by island geography and culinary elements from central and southern parts of mainland China, but it is not out of the ordinary for ingredients and cooking styles representing the entire mainland, as well as Japan, to be found on a Taiwanese menu. The Taiwanese diet also focuses on snacking and smaller portions.
Among those snacks are two I didn’t try: a Taiwanese burger in a small pancake, whose name roughly translates as “a tiger’s bite,” and a Taiwanese meatball covered in a rice-powder coating. But one I did try was an oyster omelet, which could have been an entree: The oysters were tender and rendered in a starchy goo to hold them in the egg mixture, with a slightly sweet sauce placed on top. I ate it up, but wondered how people in Taiwan would digest such a meal after a night of carousing, which is how many order it, as a sort of after-hours pick-me-up, Mr. Shen said.
There was also an appetizer called chicken roll, which had no chicken to speak of, just a flavorful mash of pork in a crispy bean curd wrapper. It’s called “chicken roll,” Mr. Shen said, because the name in Taiwanese translates to “chicken” in various Chinese dialects. When he explains this to customers, he said, “not only do they eat the chicken roll, they learn about the language.”
Among the traditional Taiwanese entrees was the three cups chicken hot pot, with chicken pieces cooked in soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, garlic and basil. Besides a bit of boniness, it was my favorite dish. A close second was the soft intestines in a chili sauce that made my lips tingle, despite the inherent whiff of gaminess, which faded quickly. The salt and pepper squid was great to share but it was like having an entree of fried calamari. A dish I hope to try in the near future is the chung wan hot pot, featuring intestines, once again, in a broth of pig’s blood (yes, you read that correctly).
There are plenty of non-Taiwanese dishes, too. The sauce on the boneless spare ribs wasn’t as sticky and cloying as it is at many Chinese restaurants, a refreshing change. Pork soup dumplings that one might find from a Shanghai street vendor were appropriately juicy. And mapo tofu, a Sichuan dish, was just spicy enough, and enhanced by gelatinous cubes of tofu that melt in your mouth.
As for that pickled plum tea, it was indeed a bit earthy, and a little sweet, but I drank the whole thing. It seems as though I’m more adventurous than Mr. Shen. “When people have the bravery to try stuff, that’s good enough for me,” he said. “The pig blood and the intestines, I don’t eat.”
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