Monja: Like Eating at a Night Market in Taipei
Small plates Taiwanese style is what you get at the new restaurant Monja in City of Industry. Eating there is like browsing in a night market in Taipei, picking up noodles at one stall, fried squid balls at another, a soup with rice dumplings, wonton and vegetables somewhere else. These aren't trendy small plates but dishes with a long history in the culture.
Barbara Hansen Monja's red grain pork
Some you'll find nowhere else, because the ingredients aren't available here. Monja's chef-owner Paul Wang and his wife Enya brought them from Taiwan.
They named the restaurant for the oldest part of the city of Taipei, an area packed with historic sites, temples, night markets and eating places. You can see changing photos of Monja on a screen on one wall; a photo of Manka Qingshui Zushi Temple in that district covers most of another wall.
Wang has copied the red grain pork that has made one Monja restaurant famous. If you order only one dish, this should be it. The pork slices look like Cantonese barbecued pork, only because of their red border. Each bite is crunchy, because the meat has been dusted with flour and fried. The red grains coating the pork add color, and they're medicinal, so the sense of well-being you may have after eating is not imaginary.
Barbara Hansen Enya and Paul Wang in front of a temple scene in the restaurant
Dark brown herbal tea should also give you a boost. It's sweet, pleasantly pepperminty and goes well with the food. Monja is the only place you can get it, thanks to the Wangs' foresight in bringing the herb here.
The second dish that you should order is the chicken roll. In stringent times, chicken was so costly that Taiwanese replicated it in a way that wouldn't hurt their pocketbooks: The "chicken" in the roll is ground pork and fish. The skin that wraps it comes from bean curd, not the bird. Wang mixes in tiny bits of carrot and daikon and provides a thick red sweet and sour sauce for dipping.
The resourceful Taiwanese had yet another thrifty trick. Instead of discarding the peel from daikon radishes, they dried it so they could cook and eat it. Wang serves this too. A scoop on the edge of the chicken roll plate looked like chopped brown pickle.
Barbara Hansen A platter of sliced chicken roll with rice, cabbage and daikon skin
The third dish that you shouldn't miss is the Taiwanese sausage, because Wang makes it himself. It's larger, sweeter and not as pungent as the usual Cantonese sausage. And it's fresh, not dried. You're supposed to eat each slice with a sliver of raw garlic. If you don't do this, you'll miss the point of the dish -- just don't breathe on your friends later.
The fourth dish you should order -- although this should be the first if you go with kids -- is the popcorn chicken, the snack that you take to the movies in Taiwan. The little nuggets really do look like popcorn. They're crunchy outside -- Wang coats them with three types of flour to get that effect -- but they're moist and soft inside. The traditional topping is fresh basil.
Barbara Hansen Monja's popcorn chicken
Monja has a tomatoey version of Taiwanese beef noodles, which you can order with soup or dry, although it's not really dry because it comes with plenty of sauce. The meat is beef shank cooked until it's more tender than you would believe possible.
And if you want to see what traditional Taiwanese shaved ice is like, order that for dessert. It's not the feathery snow flake ice blended with milk that contemporary Taiwanese places serve, but a mountain of plain ground ice drenched with condensed milk and brown sugar. You can have as many as four toppings, including a soft yellow pudding that -- like the wontons, rice balls and most other things at the restaurant -- Wang makes himself.
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