Tue, Apr 08, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Taiwanese lunchboxes take Manhattan by storm

Chicken leg with rice and pork dumplings are among the Taiwanese culinary delicacies that Thomas and Diana Yang serve from their lunchbox food trucks to a hungry New York City crowd

By Chris Fuchs  /  Contributing reporter in New York

After some trial and error, and navigating the city’s arcane parking restrictions, the Yangs found a nice nook to dock on E 53rd Street near Park Avenue, where they attract a regular lunch-hour crowd of construction workers, curious passersby and white-collar business types from the nearby office buildings. On a good day, when the weather is nice, Biandang serves as many as 150 customers in two hours, Diana said.

ASIAN DEMOGRAPHIC

But the crowd demographic, she added, still remains heavily skewed — 70 percent Asian, 70 percent male. “I think it’s because it’s heavier food,” she said, referring specifically to the dearth of women customers.

As Yang predicted, those waiting in line last Wednesday were mostly men. But only half were Asian. Debbie Pappas, a regular who is neither, took a drag on a cigarette as she chatted up Biandang worker Joanna Wu (吳昭安), a Taiwanese-American graduate student studying education at nearby Hunter College. Wu was busy deep-frying Pappas’ pork chop.

“Their pork chops are amazing — it’s like crack,” Pappas said, adding that she “loves” the stewed pork sauce poured on the white rice topped with pickled mustard greens.

“At one point, I was eating it everyday. Now I limit it to once or twice a week.”

Patrick Chatkupt, who stopped by around 12:30pm, shortly after Pappas made her way down Park Avenue, said he used to be a weekly regular a few years back, before moving to Connecticut. “That’s probably why I’m gonna have a heart attack in my 40s,” he joked. Down in the city for a meeting, Chatkupt, who comes from Thailand, said he has had Taiwanese-style pork chops elsewhere in New York, but said these were his favorite.

T.J. Caparas, a professional chef who was also in line, agreed. “This is comfort food,” he said. “I would give it an 8 ½” out of 10.

Business has been good for the Yangs, so much so that in the last three years, they have launched two new trucks: Domo Taco, which sells pan-Asian tacos; and Moo Shu Grill, which prepares rice bowls and, of course, Moo Shu (木須), a northern Chinese dish of stir-fried and pickled vegetables, served with a choice of six proteins, and wrapped in a soft tortilla-like shell. All together, the Yangs have a team of between 10 and 15 employees who each must train for a city Mobile Food Vendor License to work on a food truck. Owners can be fined up to the equivalent of NT$30,283 for each employee who lacks a license.

These days, obtaining a New York City Department of Health vehicle permit is tough. The city has already issued nearly all of the 5,100 permits allocated for food trucks and carts and now has a long waiting list for upstarts eager to join the ranks, according to the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs. This, in turn, has created a black market for permits that can each cost up to NT$757,075, published reports said. In 2010, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) reported that there were some 10,000 food trucks on the streets of New York — nearly double the number for which permits are allotted.

With half a decade of experience behind them, Biandang runs with speed and efficiency, though it is anything but an assembly-line experience. Besides fried pork chop and fried chicken leg over rice, which they always deliver with a smile to customers in literally a minute, Biandang serves rotating specials like pork belly, which sold out last Wednesday, as well as eight main dishes and appetizers, including Tianbula (甜不辣) fishcakes over rice, pork dumplings (豬肉水餃) and a snack platter of pork sauce poured over rice and accompanied by a stewed boiled egg (滷肉飯加蛋).

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