Having recently returned from a trip to Taiwan, I've been wondering about the state of Taiwanese food here in New York. It doesn't get the same attention that the regional cuisines of China enjoy, and is certainly found at fewer restaurants.
A Taiwanese friend recommended Gu Shine in Flushing as one destination, and sure enough they offer some intriguing vegetarian options, including chou doufu, the love-it-or-hate-it dish of stinky tofu. You'll have to navigate around some of the more common Chinese menu items to get to the Taiwanese ones, there are plenty to reward your efforts.
The cold noodles Cheng Du style ($4) should taste familiar to anyone who has ordered a cold noodle dish in an American Chinese restaurant. The thin egg noodles are dressed with a sweet and salty sauce, with a faint hint of spiciness at the end. Slivers of raw cucumber are provided for a textural contrast; the crunch that they lend the dish is a good counterpoint to the softness of the noodles.
The napa with bean curd skin ($9) ventures into less familiar territory. Bean curd skin is the thin protein layer that forms on top of heated soy milk, where it can be peeled off like, well, skin. It has a delicate, slightly-chewy-pudding-skin texture, and here it's stir fried with large pieces of crunchy cabbage. The sauce is flavored with the herbal punch of fresh ginger and a few hunks of reconstituted black mushrooms. Though the flavor and texture are delicate and subtle, it's a fantastic dish.
But if you really want to feel like you're in Taiwan, order the fried smelled tofu ($5.50). Stinky tofu, as it is commonly called here in the U.S., is tofu that has been allowed to ferment like a cheese. It takes on a unique pungent aroma, which has been likened to rotting garbage or some unseemly bodily odors.
It is undeniably an acquired taste, and one that I have not quite acquired myself. But Gu Shine makes the tofu more manageable, serving it in a small saucer of thick sweet and salty dipping sauce. When you first bite into it, the taste isn't any different than a cube of regular fried tofu, but then the aroma hits you mid-chew. Take it slow and let yourself become accustomed to it. It did indeed transport me back to a roadside stand in Taipei, where I tried stinky tofu for the first time.
When you enter Gu Shine there is a refrigerated case selling Taiwanese snacks, and a counter with a big pot of tea eggs, a popular Taiwanese dish. Although it's tucked in among all of the other Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood and offers some of the same dishes, with a little judicious ordering you can get a taste of the real flavors of Taiwan.
135-38 39th Avenue, Flushing, NY 11354 (map)
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian. Follow him on Twitter @bklynvegetarian.