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Regional Interests

Taiwanese Breakfast: One of the Bay Area’s Rarest, Most Coveted Meals

(Photos courtesy of Chef Wu; design by Rebecca Kao)

KQED’s Eating Taiwanese in the Bay is a series of stories exploring Taiwanese food culture in all of its glorious, delicious complexity. New installments to the series will run daily from May 19–28.

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n a Sunday morning in late March, the line outside Taiwan Bento snaked all the way around the corner on both sides of the downtown Oakland restaurant, down to Grand Avenue on one end and Webster Street on the other—an entire city block’s worth of customers, face masks on, small children and elderly in tow. They’d all made the pilgrimage to worship at the altar of this rarest and most coveted of Bay Area meals: Taiwanese breakfast.

It was one of the larger crowds I’d been a part of since the start of the pandemic. People kept pulling up to ask what the deal was, then driving off just as confused: “Taiwanese breakfast? What’s that?” After waiting as long as four hours, customers were rewarded for their patience. Taiwan Bento’s takeout box included the sticky rice roll known as fan tuan, which came stuffed with pork floss, a fried cruller (a.k.a. you tiao), preserved vegetables and a tea egg split in half. It included a couple of steamed pork buns. And, maybe most exciting, there was what the restaurant called a “scallion egg pancake,” cut into bite-size pieces—Taiwan Bento’s take on the savory rolled egg crepes known as dan bing. 

The takeout box for a subsequent Taiwan Bento breakfast pop-up, which also included a mochi muffin. (Beth LaBerge)

Owners Stacy Tang and Willy Wang say they were floored by the response, as the turnout “definitely surpassed our expectations,” Wang says. They point out that the event—the first of what they hope will be an ongoing breakfast pop-up series—was also a fundraiser to support the movement to Stop Asian Hate (and wound up raising $2,000 for the cause), and so maybe that contributed to some of the buzz. Right now, Tang says, Taiwanese people living in America “want their comfort food, and they also want to support their community.”

But the truth is, the turnout was always going to be huge: Of all the foods that Taiwanese Americans miss the most, Taiwanese breakfast is probably right at the top of the list—all the more so because it’s practically nonexistent in the Bay Area.

I can speak personally to that sense of desperate craving. Many, many times I’ve told friends that if I were ever to do something as foolhardy as try to open my own restaurant, it would be a Taiwanese breakfast shop—never mind that I’ve never even attempted to make dan bing at home. After all, if I miss Taiwanese breakfast so much that I’m willing, at the first whisper of savory soy milk, to drive an hour for these dishes, how many other homesick Taiwanese Americans must feel the same way?

A customer patiently waits her turn. (Beth LaBerge)

What Is Taiwanese Breakfast, Exactly?

The thing that many Taiwanese Americans miss the most is shaobing doujiang (燒餅豆漿), a meal genre centered on fresh soy milk, either sweet or savory, and the flaky sesame flatbreads known as shaobing, which are typically stuffed with fried crullers or scallion-laced eggs. Dan bing and fan tuan are also staples on this type of menu—all adaptations of dishes brought over to Taiwan by transplants from northern China. (My standard order always included a dan bing stuffed inside of a shaobing.) When people wax nostalgic about “Taiwanese breakfast,” this is the style of meal they’re usually talking about.

In Taipei, the best known and most ubiquitous doujiang dian, or “soy milk shop,” is Yonghe Doujiang, many of whose locations aren’t much more elaborate than a street stall. There were at least three outposts of the chain within a 10-minute walk of my grandma’s apartment in Taipei; one of them was open 24 hours, which meant it was often my first stop after I got off a late-night flight. The first bite into the shaobing’s crackly, sesame seed–coated exterior was the surest sign that I was really and truly home. 

After years of fruitless searching, I concluded that there isn’t really anything close to a Yonghe Doujiang equivalent in the Bay Area. You can find versions of shaobing, for instance, on the wheat-based menus of northern Chinese restaurants, but they’re rarely offered as a breakfast item—and even more rarely served with all of the other items you’d find at any basic street stall in Taipei. In most parts of the Bay, dan bing, fan tuan and savory soy milk—served hot in a bowl, lightly curdled with vinegar and streaked with chili oil—are even harder to come by.

That’s why the line at Taiwan Bento’s pop-up was four hours long—why there was so much palpable excitement for a three-item takeout box. (It didn’t hurt either that the fan tuan and dan bing were both truly excellent.)

“People haven’t seen fan tuan for ages, and they’re also not able to travel back to Taiwan right now,” Tang says. “They’re so happy that they’re able to get the thing.”

A Uniquely Taiwanese Taste

It makes sense, however, that if you broaden the definition of Taiwanese breakfast, you might have better luck finding it. After all, in Taiwan, as in the U.S., people eat all kinds of different things for breakfast. For instance, in a few weeks, Cafe Mei, a new restaurant in Fremont, will introduce Bay Area diners to another morning favorite: the Taiwanese breakfast burger. Sold at little short-order, Western-style breakfast stalls throughout Taiwan, these burgers feature a heavily marinated pork patty and a fried egg, and are garnished with slices of raw cucumber (instead of, say, lettuce) and a swipe of special mayonnaise. Up until now, I’d never seen them in the Bay.

Toppings for the Cafe Mei breakfast burger include tomato, fried egg, and thinly sliced cucumber. (Luke Tsai)

Owner Kandy Wang says her first job as an 18-year-old kid in Taipei was at Mei Er Mei, the most famous of Taiwan’s Western-style breakfast chains, known for its tidy ham-and-egg sandwiches as well as those breakfast burgers. Her family immigrated to the U.S. shortly after that, and in the decades since, Wang says, she kept trying to fill the Mei Er Mei void in her life to no avail. “You can only duplicate so much,” she says. “You just miss the taste of home.” 

So, this past summer, Wang finally opened her own spinoff of the chain—the first she’s aware of in the United States—initially just on a limited weekly pre-order basis, with the pandemic still raging. Located in a Fremont strip mall, the cafe isn’t officially connected to the Mei Er Mei in Taiwan, but Wang says she secured the official recipes for the chain’s burger patties and mayonnaise from one of its suppliers. (She’s also trademarked the name Mei Er Mei for use in the U.S.)

Cafe Mei’s dan bing is also expected to be a top seller. (Cafe Mei)

When Cafe Mei officially opens to the public, probably in mid-June, it’ll also serve dan bing—a thinner, more crepe-like version than Taiwan Bento’s—and assorted grab-and-go breakfast sandwiches. For many customers, however, those breakfast burgers will be the blast of nostalgia they won’t be able to resist. True to my memory of them from so many bleary-eyed mornings in Taipei, the patties are uncommonly juicy and flavorful, and the cool, crunchy cucumber slices make for a refreshing addition. They’re part of what makes the burgers taste so uniquely Taiwanese.

A Bona Fide Doujiang Dian

It’s also not quite accurate to say that the much pined after doujiang dian format is entirely non-existent in the Bay Area. A handful of restaurants in the South Bay and on the Peninsula, like Joy Restaurant in Foster City and China Bee in San Mateo, have long sold fresh soy milk and a handful of other breakfast specials on the weekend. The owners of Yilan Foods, probably the most widely acclaimed of the new Taiwanese pop-ups, say they’re determined to eventually offer fan tuan, fried crullers and perhaps fresh, house-made soy milk when they open as a standalone restaurant, probably in San Francisco. 

And Tang of Taiwan Bento plans to continue her restaurant’s occasional Taiwanese breakfast pop-ups, with the hope of eventually making the breakfast items a permanent addition to the menu. Already, the scallion egg pancakes are available all week long.

Stacy Tang prepares scallion egg pancake, or dan bing, during a recent breakfast pop-up. (Beth LaBerge)

Even now, Tang says, it isn’t strictly accurate to say that there isn’t anyone selling shaobing and doujiang in the Bay Area; it’s just that all of that is happening in the more informal economy within the Taiwanese immigrant community—again, mostly in the South Bay and on the Peninsula. If you know where to look, you can find folks selling all of those dishes from their homes via WeChat and private, Chinese-language-only Facebook groups. “It’s not that accessible,” Tang says.

There’s also one bona fide doujiang dian that’s largely eluded the attention of the shaobing- and fan tuan–loving masses, though it’s well known within the South Bay’s Taiwanese immigrant community. (I’d somehow never come across it in all my years of searching.) Open in Newark since 1996, with a decade-plus stint in Cupertino in between, Chef Wu specializes in all of the Taiwanese breakfast dishes I’ve been craving: The restaurant makes its own shaobing, you tiao and doujiang in-house, and it’s done so for years, though it has stayed closed during the pandemic.

Kuo’s mother preps the you tiao in the kitchen at Chef Wu. (Peter Wu)

Lih Chuen Kuo, who owns the restaurant along with husband Kun Dou Wu, comes from a doujiang dian family; her mother’s family ran a popular shop in Taipei’s Shilin district. When Chef Wu was located in Cupertino, from 1997 to 2010, the restaurant started serving breakfast on the weekends, and Kuo says it was very busy, with long lines, from the get-go. In fact, there used to be a running joke in the community: “If you live in Cupertino and never went to Huan Xi Lou (the restaurant’s Chinese name), can you really say that you live in the South Bay?” Kuo says in Mandarin.

Ever since the restaurant moved back to the East Bay in 2012, Chef Wu has served its full lineup of Taiwanese breakfast dishes all day long every day that it was open, Wednesday through Sunday—so, customers can score beef shaobing sandwiches, savory soy milk and even rarer offerings like sweet rice milk (mi jiang) five days a week. To Kuo’s knowledge, it’s the only local Taiwanese restaurant serving breakfast that often. And it’s almost certainly the only Bay Area restaurant that’s known primarily for Taiwanese breakfast. 

As such, Kuo says, she was used to having customers travel long distances to get their fix, driving down from Livermore or Sacramento. One customer would fly in from Texas every summer, buy 100 shaobing and freeze them to bring home. 

Chef Wu’s shaobing youtiao. (Chef Wu)

Kuo and her husband closed the restaurant down last March at the start of the pandemic, and ever since then, Kuo has been peppered with questions from long-time customers asking when they’ll reopen. That’s no surprise, Kuo says, given that she went through the same thing during the two-year hiatus after she closed Chef Wu’s Cupertino location. Everywhere she went, it seemed—when visiting Reno, or at the airport in Taiwan—she would run into old customers. “Why don’t you hurry up and open?” they’d say. “We’ve missed it so much!”

For the many Taiwanese Americans who’ve been waiting for years for a reliable Taiwanese breakfast spot, as well as for those outside of the community who haven’t yet had the pleasure, there’s good news: According to Kuo, the restaurant will likely reopen in mid-June. You’ll find me there, at the front of the line, saying a little prayer of thanks that I don’t need to open my own restaurant just to eat the breakfast I’ve been craving for the past 30 years.

 

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