Experience a taste of Taiwan's night markets at Asian Legend
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Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are the same, but he could just as easily have been talking about Chinese restaurants. Like those boring happy families, there's a sad truth that most Americanized Chinese restaurants tend not to rock the culinary boat, with their ubiquitous egg rolls, wonton soup and almond chicken. But in Taiwan, people head to popular night markets for shopping, entertainment and especially "xiaochi" or "small eats." To sample a diverse selection of these Taiwanese snacks in Ann Arbor, you can head over to Asian Legend. They specialize in dishes inspired by the culinary culture of the phenomena once known as "ghost markets."
While Asian Legend doesn't capture the ambiance of hawkers shouting into the dark with T-pop blaring and stinky tofu in the air, Kevin Lo, the chef/owner of the East William street eatery, does attempt to recreate many of the popular foods sold by vendors at a Taiwanese night market. Foods like green onion pancakes, crispy salt and pepper chicken, oyster omelets, Singapore fried noodles and "pearl milk" (aka bubble) tea.
516 E. WIlliam St., Ann Arbor
- Hours:Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.- 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Open on Christmas.
- Plastic:Visa, Mastercard, Discover
- Liquor: None
- Prices: Moderate
- Noise level: Moderate
- Wheelchair access:Yes
Savvy eaters know to look for the separate order sheet (and specials) for the Taiwanese dishes, both "snack" size and main dishes. The list of items on that order sheet (in Chinese characters followed by an English translation) includes both familiar and exotic options. In the "exotic" category I would put choices like Spicy Pig Ear and Deep Fried Stinky Tofu. More familiar appetizers would include the crispy Pepper Salt Chicken Wings and hand-made Little Pork Steamed Buns that "look like a bell on the bottom and a lantern on the top."
In addition to appetizers, the Taiwanese snack menu includes vegetables,soups, rice/noodle dishes, and entrees. They also serve sweet and milky bubble tea in many flavors, from honeydew to red bean.
Courtney Sacco | AnnArbor.com
Our server also told us that the Pepper Salt Chicken Wings are among their most popular appetizers. In this generously heaped dish, the small drummettes are deep-fried in a crisp and crumbly coating. When I talked later with Chef Lo, he said he makes the coating with two kinds of sweet potato powder to get the right amount of crunch.
(A little aside on the sweet potato angle — I was interested to read that Taiwanese people have historically called themselves "children of the sweet potato" based on the tuberous shape of their 14,000-square-mile island.)
The bone-in pepper salt chicken wings have a hint of anise-scented 5-spice powder in the crumbly coating mix and came with a garnish of deep-fried basil. At least one person in our party was anticipating that the deep-fried morsels would be boneless, so it helped to be able to navigate eating them with chopsticks.
The Little Pork Steamed Buns were also notable. About the size of a large walnut, these small dumplings feature handmade wrapper dough delicately pleated around a pork filling that Chef Lo says he beats by hand for 15 minutes to get the right texture.
The Onion Pancake Wrapped with Beef was a favorite at our table. A hot crisp fried disc of flaky dough infused with bits of green onion is wrapped around (cold) thin-sliced soy-braised 5-spice beef shank.
The Bok Choy with Minced Pork was a small oasis of green in our very meat-centric meal, with the bok choy retaining just a bit of crunch in a savory soy-based sauce with ground pork.
We also tried several main dishes, of which the pork and bitter melon with black bean was probably the most unusual. In this dish, thin slices of scalloped green bitter melon are interspersed with shredded pork in a garlicky black bean sauce. Bitter foods are among the least common tastes for the American palate, but I enjoyed this dish. It's interesting to have a menu that allows exploration of out-of-the-ordinary ingredients (like bitter melon, Chinese watercress, 100 year eggs) that Asian Legend uses in many of their dishes.
At the same time, many of the dishes are not at all exotic. For example, the Deluxe Taiwanese Lo Mein Noodle was a linguine-type pasta in a light sauce with shrimp and shredded pork alongside snow peas, mushrooms and bok choy. Tasty but not remarkable.
Fried tofu with basil had chewy deep-fried triangles of soft tofu in a sauce with heaps of thinly sliced ginger interspersed with fried basil leaves. While I loved the chewy and custardy texture of the soft tofu, the sauce was so aggressively ginger-y that it had turned bitter.
Sweet and sour crispy fish filet had generous portions of crispy-coated tilapia filet with a thick sweet and sour sauce. Also tasty, but I wish I had tried the version with ginger and green onion. Chef Lo told me that he used to serve this dish in the more traditional way, with a whole fish. But he says "kids these days don't like the bones, so I started using filets."
One bone I would pick with Asian Legend is regarding their rice—it can be overcooked and broken and is usually served in smallish portions. But in general, I appreciate the home-style approach to this particular food of Taiwan, the fact that they make everything in-house (according to Chef Lo), their use of special ingredients (like bitter melon, which they have flown in from California on Thursdays), and the fact that it seems like lots of people looking for a taste of home appreciate it too.
According to Chef Lo, he started his "specials" menu because there is one patron who eats at Asian Legend five nights a week and had already tried everything on the regular menu. He described what he wants people to experience at his restaurant by saying, "I want to bring Taiwanese culture here — and how we feel when we eat in Taiwan."
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.