Tucked into a nondescript strip mall in Plano, Taipei Station Cafe is the kind of place people who love food want to know about but have yet to discover. Not that it isn't popular — on weekends around lunchtime, Taipei is packed to the gills and the line stretches past the door. Eager customers chat in Mandarin or Taiwanese as they wait for a table. And there aren't many — 15 tables, give or take, occupy the rather unremarkable interior. Weekday evenings are slower but still brisk and seem dominated by regulars: people who converse with the owner and who order big bowls of spicy beef noodle soup without a second glance at the menu.
But if you aren't a regular, you'll need that second glance. In fact, you'll probably need a few, plus a nap and a Morgan Freeman-style pep talk before placing your order. The menu isn't exactly expansive, but every dish on it sounds appetizing.
First, the appetizers. Start with an order of the beef loin, tendon and belly. Served cold, this dish balances heat with sweetness, but the texture is what impresses. Between the elastic snap of the tendon and the fatty beef belly, each bite proves more interesting than the last.
The fried taro takes cubes of the starchy root vegetable — a favorite of African and Asian cuisines — and adorns them with strips of shiitake before frying them in a light, tempura-like batter until the edges turn a caramel color. The richness of the meaty taro is balanced by a sweet dipping sauce and cilantro leaves, which add a refreshing verdant note.
For a lighter start, try the boiled Taiwanese lettuce. Think more bok choy, less iceberg. The hearty lettuce green stands up well to the heat and is transformed into a vegetable almost anyone can appreciate thanks to a dressing of soy and sesame seeds.
One could easily make a meal out of Taipei's starters alone, especially the house-made pot stickers. They're like little burritos, with a filling of ground pork and leeks, or pork and shrimp, tucked neatly inside. The pot stickers are pan-fried on one side until crusty, while their underbellies remain supple from a steam bath. Dip one in some vinegar oil flecked with chili flakes for the full experience.
The pot stickers aren't the only thing made in-house: Taipei also makes its own noodles, as evidenced by the noodles' craggy and imperfect appearance. The long egg noodles are the star of several dishes here, from cold Taiwanese noodles to tomato beef noodle soup. If you look around a restaurant and see plate after plate — or in this case, bowl after bowl — of the same dish, it's a good indicator that the dish is worth ordering. At Taipei, tables are weighed down by big bowls of steaming-hot spicy beef noodle soup. The broth is, indeed, spicy. Slurp carefully, lest your throat be overwhelmed by the beautifully aromatic, chili-intensive liquid. This would be a wonderful soup on a cold winter's day, with its warm spices and thick, chewy noodles. But 108-degree Texas summers be damned. Enjoy this soup now, too.
The beef noodle soup isn't the only dish that draws people to Taipei — there are also pork chops, and not just any pork chops. These are massive, covering the plates they are served on. Pounded thin, the chops are coated in a dense, nutty crust. More sweet than salty, and served with a side of bok choy, this is the Taiwanese version of the blue plate special.
The oyster pancakes — a hallmark of Taiwanese cuisine and the stuff of late night, open air markets — are also as big as their serving platters. Taipei makes them three days a week — Tuesday through Thursday — so devotees of the potato starch cakes should plan accordingly. The starch gives the pancake its characteristic sumptuous texture, akin to the fat on a strip of pork belly, but the edges cook up thin and crispy. Oysters are interspersed throughout, their briny flavor contrasted by the sweet tomato sauce that blankets the pancake. A word of warning: The sauce is quite sweet, so proceed with caution if you dislike ketchup.
Somewhere on the menu, tucked among dishes whose names read like a siren's song of big, exciting flavors, resides a dish called milkfish soup. It's easy to overlook, but don't: While meek in name, it's big in flavor. Pieces of milkfish, a popular white fish in Southeast Asia, are tucked into a steaming hot, tofu-laden broth that has been perfumed with fistfuls of basil and julienned ginger. The fish is cooked skin-on and a fatty band separates the skin from the flesh, giving it a silky mouth-feel.
If silky is not your thing, try the pork chuckles. Otherwise known as pig's feet, what the chuckles lack in muscle they make up for in fat. Sticky, sticky fat. If you pick up a paper napkin after handling one, the napkin will adhere to your fingers. The chuckles taste faintly of molasses and pair well with the accompanying noodles. For those of you who still need persuading to try this particular cut of meat, our waitress mentioned that eating pig's feet is good for a woman's skin. (Sorry, guys.)
But the best dish on the menu involves a generous slab of marinated and braised pork belly. Pork belly is a culinary darling anyway, but Taipei's rendition, with fall-apart tender meat beneath a strip of fat which can only be described as pudding-like, should be culinary legend. This is the kind of pork that could inspire a person to write sonnets, to conquer countries — or, at the very least, to eat far more than their stomach allows. The pork is served with finely diced pickled mustard greens made in-house, an egg hard-boiled in stewing juices, bok choy and rice. Even the rice comes with accoutrement: a cup of rich, meaty broth.
Taipei takes pride in the food it serves. This is evident in every element of every dish, from the fried shallots atop the noodles to the shiitake strips on the taro. These touches, little though they may be, are what separate restaurants that care from restaurants that don't.
Part of me, selfishly, wants to keep this place a secret. But then I think about the people who make Taipei tick, and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't share my sentiment. In a time when most restaurants are owned by massive corporations focused on selling the idea of a good meal rather than delivering one, places like Taipei deserve all the recognition they can get.