Looking to go Mainstream in the Bay Area

Southland Flavor Cafe is one of several eateries offering authentic Taiwan fare in the Bay Area. PHOTO: Keith Menconi

Not satisfied with catering just to Asian diners, some Taiwanese restaurants in the region are seeking to expand their customer base.   

While many would hail the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California as the Mecca of Taiwanese cuisine in the United States, the southern half of the San Francisco Bay Area stands as a solid rival. The region boasts its own array of well-regarded establishments serving up thoroughly authentic Taiwanese-style dishes: Southland Flavor Cafe in Cupertino, Taiwan Cafe and Liang’s Kitchen in Milpitas, and Grand Harbor in Fremont are just a few standouts on a very long list of strong entrants.

Beyond restaurants, a seemingly endless number of bubble tea shops have popped up across the region as well. It is safe to say that if you are in the South Bay and want good Taiwanese food or drink, you can find it.

Making the embarrassment of riches all the more embarrassing is the fact that most residents of the area who are not of Taiwanese heritage don’t even know it exists. At least I didn’t.

Southland Flavor Cafe is one of several eateries offering authentic Taiwan fare in the Bay Area. PHOTO: Keith Menconi

Many of these shops are tucked away in strip malls catering to Asian tastes, and are easy to miss unless you’re looking for them. The odd non-Taiwanese diner who stumbles inside more likely than not will blow right past the traditional Taiwanese fare on the menu and head straight to the noodles and beef fried rice – walking away without ever really getting acquainted with any food that is uniquely Taiwanese.

Even the numerous bubble tea shops, prominent as they may be, are not readily associated with Taiwan. I managed to spend the entirety of my formative years in the region without ever making the connection between Taiwan and boba. It was just the tea my classmates liked.

After a five-year stint living and working in Taiwan, I now know better. In fact, my time abroad left me with a healthy appreciation for the finer things in Taiwanese life: oyster omelets, pig’s blood cakes, Taiwanese fried chicken, and yes, stinky tofu. Upon my return to the States, I realized just how much I had been missing out. A great bowl of beef noodle soup had been just down the street this whole time.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has been missing out. While Korean, Thai, and Japanese food have all become staples of the restaurant scene in many regions of the United States, Taiwanese food has yet to win its own place at America’s dining table.

That may be changing, though. A handful of restaurants and drink chains are now testing the waters to see if the Taiwan brand can attract mainstream attention and a larger share of the food market.

On my return home, I set out to find all the great Taiwan eateries the region has been hiding in plain sight. As I did so, I discovered a handful that are betting not only that the goal is achievable, but also that this region – with its adventurous foodies and existing Asian cuisine market – might be the perfect starting point for an expansion into the rest of the country.

To understand the extent to which these up-and-comers are cutting against the grain, let’s first meet a more typical Bay Area Taiwanese restaurant. Fremont’s Du Xiao Yue (渡小月) runs a brisk business offering a wide variety of Taiwanese xiaochi (small snacks) street food and other Taiwanese-style dishes to an almost exclusively East Asian clientele (the sign in front gives the restaurant’s name only in Chinese).

Du Xiao Yue shares much in common with the other Taiwanese restaurants in the region – including the aforementioned Southland Flavor Cafe, Taiwan Cafe, Liang’s Kitchen, and Grand Harbor. They are all home-style eateries serving up a similar set of Taiwanese classics. Their dishes are by no means identical, but are all variations on the major themes of traditional Taiwanese fare.

It’s a narrow focus, but this market has sustained them well so far. At the time of my visit on a weekday afternoon, the lunch rush is at its height. Mandarin conversations emanate from all corners of the simple, unadorned eatery, and customers happily chow down on food that would fit right in at any re chao (Taiwanese stir-fry and seafood restaurant) in Taipei.

I heartily partake of their rich and tangy, super tender “three cups pork intestine” dish along with a healthy serving of “tofu preserved century eggs.” To my palate, the food is as good as any on offer back in Taiwan – which is to say, really good.

However flavorful, Du Xiao Yue’s “three cups pork intestine” may not be for everyone. PHOTO: Keith Menconi

Restaurant owner Tina Yu says that her shop does attract a trickle of non-Taiwanese diners, mostly professionals who live or work nearby. Those diners, she says, enjoy a plate of rice and noodles well enough, but she is skeptical that they can ever be convinced to embrace less familiar dishes on the menu. “They don’t really know what Taiwanese xiaochi is,” says Yu. “I think it would take a long time to catch on. You either like it or you don’t. I think this is very polarized.”

Like most Taiwanese restaurants in the Bay Area, Du Xiao Yue is in what is known as the South Bay, a loosely defined region roughly 30 miles south of San Francisco and largely made up of sprawling suburbs that surround the tech hubs of Silicon Valley. These suburbs – rather than the denser, more urbanized areas of San Francisco or Oakland – are where the majority of Taiwanese-American families have chosen to live, and by no accident this is where the bulk of these restaurants have decided to set up shop. They’re going where the customers are.

Taking a different path

 

Hanlin. PHOTO: Keith Menconi

In 2016, Hanlin Tea Restaurant chose to walk a different path, opting instead to sell their mid-to-high-end Taiwanese fare on the very edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, not exactly home turf for Taiwanese cuisine. The traditionally working-class Chinatown neighborhood has never attracted a large number of Taiwanese immigrants, who for the most part arrived in the United States with cash in their pockets, and largely used that cash to find quiet homes in the suburbs.

By Hanlin’s account, it is now the only restaurant in San Francisco’s downtown area focused on Taiwanese cuisine. Far away from the largest Taiwanese population centers and serving at a higher price point than most, the new location is a massive bet that Tina Yu’s pessimism is misplaced, and that the restaurant chain can indeed attract a more cosmopolitan crowd.

While this location marks the company’s first foray into the U.S. market, it is a well-established brand in Taiwan. The parent company was founded there in 1986 and is credited with being one of the first to develop bubble milk tea back in the mid-’80s. Now the restaurant and teahouse chain has more than 55 locations in Taiwan, and they hope that San Francisco can serve as a staging ground for further international expansion.

“San Francisco is a very challenging market because there are so many cultural and ethnic groups and foods from everywhere in the world, so I think if we can be successful here, we can be successful anywhere,” says Shihkai Tai, a San Francisco-based sales and marketing manager for the chain.

Hanlin’s interior is polished and inviting. The menu consists of Taiwanese classics, but the presentation of each dish is chic and distinctive. The prices are indeed higher, but the money you spend is well worth it. For this diner accustomed to night-market fare, the well-plated “shaoxing wine goose” provided the first taste of what Taiwanese fine dining could be. Even a simple dish like “stir-fried cabbage” delivered such original flavors that for a moment I wondered if I had ever really had cabbage before.

High marks for the whole experience, but if the goal is to win over a more diverse audience, the restaurant still has some ground to cover. In the two hours I spent there, only one other non-Asian diner came in asking for a table.

Education will be a major challenge. Even in a cosmopolitan place like the Bay Area, the public seems to have at best a sketchy understanding of the many varieties of East Asian cuisines. David Mitroff, a restaurant expert with Piedmont Avenue Consulting, notes that even generally knowledgeable eaters in the Bay Area would be unlikely to have any notion of the differences between say Taiwan, Beijing, and Hong Kong dishes.

“If you’re a foodie, you may know that dim sum is Cantonese,” he says. A savvy diner may even know that Sichuan cuisine is spicy, but the knowledge likely ends there.

Mitroff is nevertheless optimistic that Taiwan’s food fortunes in the Bay Area are on the rise. “People are more interested in learning about Chinese culture,” he says. “People need to be more educated about Chinese cuisines, but I think that’s coming. It’s just a process. Especially in the Bay Area, we’re all about food and learning.”

Taiwan’s representative office in the region is eager to help the process along. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco just this past year has invited eight prominent Taiwanese chefs to share their culinary prowess at events organized by Bay Area nonprofits.

“The principal motivation for inviting these Taiwanese chefs to demonstrate Taiwanese food in the Bay Area is to promote the mutual understanding of these two societies, the United States and Taiwan,” says Joe Wang, director of communications for the office. “Food is part of this program of exchange.”

A shaky start

Hanlin’s San Francisco opening was encouraging at first, but Tai says that after a few months the new customers began to taper off. “Although we are very famous in Taiwan, we’re a very young and new brand in the U.S., and so we need to do more promotions and more marketing to let the people know who we are and where we’re from,” he says.

Making marketing all the more challenging is the language and culture gap. “There are so many good brands in Taiwan, but one major barrier for them coming to the U.S. is the language barrier,” Tai says. “Most of the food brands are very traditional, so I think their management team doesn’t have good English ability.”

The other side of that coin is that America’s baseline understanding of Taiwan is also extremely low. “We need to do more to let people know the difference between Thailand and Taiwan,” he says, adding that “some customers even come to our store and ask ‘do you sell sushi?’”

“I think in a couple years this situation will be changed as more Taiwanese brands come to the United States, but right now we’re the very first food company here, so it’s difficult for us,” he says.

Perhaps Hanlin will not need to wait long. Already a new generation of Taiwanese-Americans are working to make their own mark on the food industry, and their experience living between cultures could give them the needed edge to break through.

Bin Chen – born in Taiwan and raised in the United States – and Andrew Chau, who is half Taiwanese, co-founded Boba Guys in 2011 to create a milk-tea brand that makes use of high quality, natural ingredients rather than the more typical powders and syrups. The project started as a pop-up stand within a friend’s ramen shop in San Francisco, but has now expanded to 10 locations in both San Francisco and New York.

Of course, bubble milk tea was well established in the United States long before Boba Guys came on the scene. A dizzying array of mom and pop shops, along with massive chains such as Quickly and Happy Lemon, have pulled in steady business for well over a decade. But Boba Guys alone seems to have hit upon the secret mix of hip branding and energetic social media engagement that has enabled them to win an eager fan base beyond the beverage’s traditional market.

“We probably have the most diverse clientele of any boba shop ever, partly because of the way we emphasize the education aspect,” says Chen, who estimates that a majority of their customers are non-Asian.

Chen emphasizes the partners’ efforts to make both the stores and their product as accessible as possible. This effort can be seen in their adoption of untraditional flavors (horchata and matcha options, for example); in the bright, simple, and inviting design of their shop interiors (capped off with an aardvark logo no less); and in the menu itself. Rather than the often overwhelming variety of options at most boba shops, they have adopted a simplified approach focusing on a handful of thoughtfully crafted flavors including classic milk tea, jasmine milk tea, and Indian chai.

Boba Guys doesn’t claim to offer the most traditional boba tea experience. Instead, Chen says that the drinks are faithful chiefly to the partners’ own perspective as Taiwanese-heritage youth living in America. It is this in-between perspective that informs many of their branding and product choices. “You need to straddle that thin line of making food that is authentic to your own experience, and catering it to an audience that is going to be receptive to that,” says Chen.

Like Hanlin, Boba Guys sees the Bay Area as a land of opportunity for Taiwanese food and drink. “San Francisco has a lens toward what the world could look like. They have more of this open-eyed optimism for change and embracing it so well,” says Chen. “We could have started in other places, but it was that attitude of embracing change and new ideas that was so special for us.”

Despite the challenges, Hanlin Tea Restaurant plans to continue its march into the American market. It has sold a franchise that will soon open in Los Angeles, plans to open a new branch in the South Bay, and hopes to follow that up with new locations on the East Coast or in Chicago.

For his part, Bin Chen of Boba Guys also sees plenty of potential growth for brand Taiwan. “I’m very bullish on how mainstream it can get,” says Chen. “But I do think that for it to break out, it will need certain torch bearers to lead the charge.” As a hopeful sign, he points to a handful of other restaurant brands that he believes are making good progress bringing Taiwanese food to a wider audience, including Pine and Crane in Los Angeles, Taiwan Bento in Oakland, and Win Son in New York.

So will night-market snacks one day be as big as sushi? Only time will tell. Me, I’m already pretty happy with the down-home Taiwanese shops available in the Bay. For a guy who’s missing Taiwan, maybe a stinky tofu a day can help keep the nostalgia away.

Still, I’m rooting for the Hanlins and the Boba Guys of the world – if not for me, then for the many people who will only ever know the joys of Taiwan’s signature flavors if these restaurants manage to truly take off. And if my home region really does help Taiwan cuisine make the jump into national prominence, well I’ll be pretty happy about that too.

PHOTO: Keith Menconi

Directory

Boba Guys

Many locations. I went to:

429 Stockton St., San Francisco, CA 94108

(415) 967-2622 (Google account)

bobaguys.com

 

Du Xiao Yue

4161 Cushing Pkwy., Fremont, CA 94538

(510) 661-9316

 

Grand Harbor

46577 Mission Blvd., Fremont, CA 94539

https://www.facebook.com/GrandHarbor

(510) 656-9688

 

Hanlin Tea Restaurant

801 Kearny St., San Francisco, CA 94108

http://www.hanlin-tea.com.tw/

(415) 780-5000

 

Liang’s Kitchen

402 Barber Lane, Milpitas, CA 95035

(408) 577-1922

 

Southland Flavor Cafe

10825 N. Wolfe Rd., Cupertino, CA 95014

Southlandcafe.com

(408) 446-9488

 

Taiwan Bento

412 22nd St., Oakland, CA 94612

(510) 250-9858

taiwanbento.us

 

Taiwan Cafe

568 N. Abel St., Milpitas, CA 95035

http://www.taiwancafe.me/home.html

(408) 586-8885

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