Taiwanese snack attack
Taiwan Best Mart
Sacramento, CA 95818
It’s widely known that Taiwan boasts one of the most exciting street food scenes in the world. The night markets are notorious hubs of sights and smells: stinky tofu, braised chicken feet, oyster omelets, a seemingly endless supply of mango varieties. And the eating culture is very pro-snack. Three meals a day? Nibbling all day is more fun.
There are hardly any places to get a sense of Taiwanese food in Sacramento—as few as two, actually, apart from boba tea shops. The most well-known is Yang’s Noodles, but it serves dishes from all over China that are popular in Taiwan, less so Taiwan-specific fare. The other is Taiwan Best Mart, a family-run operation that started out in 2002 as a sausage business in a home kitchen. The Changs crafted tubes for restaurants until demand for Taiwanese goods grew so high that they opened a brick-and-mortar downtown in 2012. It’s a tiny place next to Osaka-Ya with two small tables and a couple of freezers stocked with Taiwanese favorites to take home. There’s also a small menu of hot food priced absurdly low, particularly given the quality and on-the-grid location.
Start out with the place’s bread and butter: sausages. The fatty, slightly sweet tubes of pork are served on a stick, just like on the streets of Taiwan, with a crackling skin, dark grill marks and a level of juiciness that bursts upon impact. There are five to choose from, but the original ($1.99) is a great place to start. Within the local Taiwanese community, the sausage flavored with kaoliang liquor ($2.25) is popular, but my favorite is the mala spicy ($2.25), which leaves your lips tingling from Sichuan peppercorn.
From there, keep snacking. Taiwan Best Mart offers all kinds of tasty fried things, including springy cuttlefish balls ($3.25) and addictive popcorn chicken ($3.95). The chef’s skill with salt cannot be overstated.
Or, go for one of the entree-sized rice bowls: simple, comforting and, again, remarkably affordable. You get a protein atop rice—short-grain, of course, and perfectly soft and seasoned—along with chopped pickled mustard greens, which add a nice sharpness. Every option is delicious, from the stewed minced pork belly ($4.50) to the miso-glazed salmon ($5.99). Fans of Japanese pork katsu ought to try the juicy pork chop ($4.99), expertly fried with an extra crunchy crust made from tapioca starch.
Another house specialty is the meat roll ($4.50), which should not be confused with the northern China-style beef roll at Yang’s. Instead of beef wrapped in a scallion pancake, this one features pork, water chestnuts and aromatics rolled inside bean curd skin, deep fried and sliced. Each bite offers lots of texture perfumed with five-spice.
Of course, Taiwan Best Mart also makes its own scallion pancakes ($3.50). They aren’t quite as layered and flaky as those at, say, Yang’s, but the flavors are spot-on.
The only dish that suffers from blandness is the Taiwanese classic ba-wan ($3.95), basically a giant steamed dumpling with a translucent, chewy wrapper. Taiwan Best Mart’s version is filled with pork, shiitake mushrooms and bamboo, but a pour of gravy on top leaves the whole thing feeling one-dimensionally sweet. I would happily sprinkle on some MSG here, but the Changs don’t touch the stuff.
Since the kitchen closes at 5:30 p.m., this is really more of a lunch spot or place to grab dinner to-go and, while at it, pick up some frozen dumplings for later. The hot food comes out fast—usually in about five minutes, depending on the order.
With all that said, doesn’t a snack sound nice right about now?