Decorated with enough vintage posters and knick-knacks to stock a flea market, Ah-Tsai’s Restaurant (阿才的店) gets precariously close to theme restaurant territory. But a fiery, garlic-heavy menu of classic Taiwanese dishes proves the restaurant’s culinary chops.
Ah-Tsai’s is housed behind a picturesquely dilapidated-looking storefront on Jinshan South Road (金山南路), with overgrown planters and a vintage scooter parked out in front for good measure. The interior is carefully decorated to look untouched since the 1960s (a thick layer of dust on a row of Tatung electric fans and Bakelite telephones helps the overall effect). Scruffy white walls are festooned with colorful movie posters, yellowing calendars and black-and-white photographs of dreamy looking women in qipaos. Waiters grab dishware from cupboards topped with old tin toys and coin banks.
Every vintage item is probably twice as old as Ah-tsai’s clientele, which on weekdays appears to consist mostly of young professionals celebrating the end of a workday by knocking down bottles of Taiwan Beer. Ah-tsai’s strong flavors certainly seemed designed to induce thirstiness for a cold brew.
Take, for example, the stir-fried betel nut flowers (檳榔花, NT$100 or NT$200 depending on portion size), a white plant that resembles and tastes like a slightly sweeter version of bamboo. Ah-Tsai’s version tosses in a heap of cilantro, chili peppers and diced scallions, as well as a luxurious dose of garlic. After my taste buds got over the initial shock, I enjoyed the dish, even though all the spicy flavors threatened to compete with the mild taste of the crunchy betel nut flowers.
Also searingly hot was the kongpao shrimp (宮保蝦仁, NT$190 or NT$280), which was stir-fried with lots of chili peppers. Unlike kongpao chicken, this dish did not feature roasted peanuts, which were replaced with chunky slices of juicy zucchini. The vegetable was a welcome contrast to the shrimp, which had absorbed plenty of chili oil.
Address: 17, Ln 41, Renai Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市仁愛路二段41巷17號). The entrance faces Jinshan South Road (金山南路)
Telephone: (02) 2356-9109 X8206
Open: Mondays to Saturdays from 11:30am to 2pm and 5:30pm to 2am
Average meal: Most dishes range from NT$100 to NT$250
Details: Chinese menu, credit cards not accepted
We didn’t get a respite from the spiciness with the Hakka stir-fry (客家小炒, NT$180 or NT$250), or strips of pork, bean curd and squid tossed with scallions, celery and yet more chili peppers. The stir-fry was good, but the meat and bean curd were slightly overcooked and tough.
Surprisingly, the shacha lamb stir-fry (沙茶羊肉, NT$130 to NT$200) tasted tame in comparison to the other dishes, probably because it was only lightly sprinkled with a few tiny bits of chili. The slices of meat were cooked with water spinach, basil and lots of shacha sauce, a thick condiment made of chopped fish and dried shrimp marinated in a mixture of soybean oil, garlic, chilis and shallots. The amount of lamb seemed skimpy but went very well with the basil and crunchy water spinach, whose hollow roots soaked up the shacha sauce.
At NT$380 or NT$480 depending on your order size, sanbeiji, or three cup chicken (三杯雞), is one of the priciest dishes on Ah-Tsai’s menu. It takes about 20 minutes to prepare, which gives the meat time to simmer slowly in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine. Topped with cloves of garlic that had been cooked until tender, the chunks of chicken were heavy on bone and relatively short on meat, but nonetheless delicious and worth the wait.