101 Taipei World Financial Center is a landmark skyscraper in Taipei, Taiwan. The building ranked officially as the world’s tallest from 2004 until the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010. It’s the namesake for 101 Taiwanese Cuisine. This small bistro seats 30 in a simple, comfortable setting. Owner Brett Lin is both in the kitchen firing a wok and working the front of the house greeting guests. The restaurant business is in his blood; his folks own the Dynasty China Bistro on California Avenue.
A few historical influences help define Taiwanese food. Fujian province dishes from mainland China were originated in the 18th century with the first immigrants to Taiwan, and from 1895 to 1945, the Japanese occupation introduced techniques and ingredients like the mountain yam and ramen.
Because so much of the cuisine revolves around fermented foods, the liberal use of vinegar, sugar and chili gives the food its unique characteristic. This treatment doesn’t totally neutralize the cuisine, but rather sharpens and frames the flavors with acid, sweetness and spice.
There are more than 90 dishes on the menu from soups to gourmet offerings to chicken, pork, beef and fish ($3.99-$10.89). There’s a vegetarian selection ($7.89-$8.89) and more than two dozen specialty drinks ($2.80-$3.55).
The chef went a bit overboard by serving me several dishes to taste. Highlighting those that caught my palate’s attention—first was the gourmet rice ($4.59). It was sticky rice that looked like a cupcake and was filled with dried shrimp, sautéed pork, black mushrooms sitting in a miso broth and topped with sprigs of coriander. It was savory with a hint of sweetness from coconut milk in the broth and more filling than a plain side of rice.
Next was something called a Taiwanese hamburger ($3.89), which was much more than a simple burger and full of flavor. This was braised pork (belly), with flavors of garlic, ginger, chili peppers, Chinese spice bag (anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, basil, bay leaves), rice wine, soy sauce and brown sugar slow simmered to infuse all these great flavors. It was served on an oval bun made from the same light, pale white dough as barbecued pork buns with a side sauce of crushed peanuts, Taiwanese sweet sauce, cilantro, pickled relish and Taiwanese red sugar. This was a cavalcade of flavors with a hint of sweet-tart in every savory bite.
A small taste of the tofu with baby bai choy (Chinese cabbage) ($8.29) for a vegetarian sampling proved full of flavor and crisp vegetables rather than soggy. The highlight came with the Braised Beef Noodle Soup ($7.89). The flavors of ginger, scallions, Sichuan peppercorns and an anise seed made the savory broth aromatic. Nice pieces of braised beef piled in a bowl of long, ribbon-like rice flour noodles flavor with green tea made this dish a complete, hearty meal. It’s traditionally a celebratory meal for the New Year, as long noodles symbolize long life.
Milk teas, smoothies and icy slushes ($2.75-$3.55) with many flavors are the drink offerings. I tried the Boba milk tea ($3.00), also known as pearl milk tea or PMT. This a tea-based drink invented in tea shops in Taiwan during the 1980s. It was served with small chewy tapioca balls, commonly called “pearls” or “boba.” The consistency is like a gummy bear: soft and chewy, and no larger than a marble. Sweet, milky rich, enjoyably different with the tapioca balls and fat drinking straw, I’d order another for sure.
Taiwanese food is distinctively different from other oriental foods by giving your palate a new adventure in sweet, tart and savory. Lin said he wanted to make the food in this restaurant authentic to his heritage. I think he has succeeded.