When Taiwanese-American Thomas Yang (楊嘉豪) graduated from college in 2008, a stagnated economy offered little hope of finding a job, even with his newly minted bachelor’s degree in accounting. But Yang had something his classmates did not.
“I had a family recipe that I thought was pretty good,” he said.
That and insurance money from his father, a Taiwanese chef who died while Yang was in high school, helped him and his sister, Diana, start New York’s only Taiwanese biandang (便當) food truck, which serves up classics like fried chicken leg over rice (雞腿飯) and fried pork chop over rice (排骨飯) to a hungry midtown lunch crowd.
“We were one of the first few food trucks,” Diana Yang (楊佩珊) told the Taipei Times. “We didn’t do any research, and it just happened that it worked.”
Thomas said the inspiration for Biandang — the Chinese word used in Taiwan for a take-away box similar to Japan’s bento — came from the Halal food carts outside Baruch College in Manhattan, where the Yangs both studied. (Halal is an Arabic word meaning “permissible” and denotes that the meat conforms to Islamic dietary laws.) The popularity of those NT$150 chicken-and-rice combos, heavily seasoned with middle-eastern spices and topped with iceberg lettuce, tomato and a sweet-and-tangy white sauce, got Thomas thinking about a similar ubiquitous staple of takeout Chinese joints: chicken and broccoli served over rice.
“He was thinking of one day opening Asian carts and taking over Manhattan,” joked Diana.
FILLING A NICHE
That never happened. But Biandang, which celebrates its fifth anniversary on April 28, has helped fill a void in New York’s Taiwanese food scene. Finding Taiwanese fare among the nearly 6,000 Chinese restaurants in New York is no small task. Flushing, a Queens neighborhood home to many Taiwanese, has around a dozen-or-so Taiwanese restaurants scattered throughout its congested downtown area. And Manhattan and Brooklyn, another borough, have even fewer.
Realizing this, Thomas, who had previously worked on two other trucks, saw the food business as a viable career move in an otherwise sluggish economy. But neither Thomas nor his sister could cook. So they enlisted the help of their uncle, an immigrant from Taiwan who, like their deceased father, was an accomplished chef. In their Brooklyn kitchen, the Yangs’ uncle preps the pork chops and chicken, which are fried-to-order on the truck, as well as other dishes, including zongzi (粽子), sticky rice stuffed with ingredients like radish and mushroom, topped with pork or beans and steamed in a bamboo leaf. The night before heading out, the Yangs load up their truck, which is equipped with a refrigerator and a rice cooker.
At first, it was rough going for the brother-sister team. “When we first started, I parked by Baruch College, and I couldn’t give away free food,” Thomas said. “They would be comparing us to Halal chicken, which is more well known in New York. To them, it was Chinese chicken and rice, and they didn’t want to try it out.”
So the Yangs changed tack. They scrapped the original name of their food truck, Cravings, which some customers errantly assumed served desserts, in favor of the Taiwanese-sounding Biandang. And they also hired a designer to brighten up the truck’s exterior, painting it in a sky blue, dark purple color combination that prominently features Taiwan’s national flower, the plum blossom (梅花).