Restaurants of the week

This week we look at three restaurants in west-central Tainan.

By Steven Crook  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Fri, Feb 02, 2001 - Page 10

Onion Curry House

67 Yungfu Rd. Sec. 2 (06)220-3531. Average meal: NT$280 per person. Open 11:30am to midnight. English menu. Credit cards not accepted.

Any description of the Onion Curry House must start with its door. A heavy, anachronistic timber edifice, it suggests that this is a restaurant which strive to set itself apart from its sliding glass door competitors.

This comfortably appointed restaurant is very much a Taiwanese take on the popular Japanese-style coffeeshop concept. Service is relaxed but efficient; arrivals are greeted in Japanese.

The curries here are not nearly as oily as their Malaysian equivalents, somewhat less creamy than many Indian dishes -- and far superior to the cheap potato, chicken and carrot concoctions sold in hundreds of local eateries. They are smooth, but can pack a punch.

When ordering, each diner is asked to specify, from a rating of 1 to 5, how strong he or she wants the main dish: "1" is mild, "2" is standard, "3" is for those used to spicy food, "4," the menu says, "will make you mop your brow," while a request for "5" will prompt the staff to advise caution. First-timers should not make the mistake of assuming that the restaurant's mild demeanor means insipid curries. A "4" will satisfy even hardened spice addicts.

Among the curry options are chicken, beef, vegetable and seafood, plus Thai-style variants. Dedicated carnivores will appreciate the meat dishes, which are full of good-sized, succulent chunks in rich sauces, and contain relatively few vegetables. Those looking for something other than rice-based dishes are advised to order the baked curried squid, shrimps and shellfish with a thick but not too heavy cheese sauce.

Another option is the curried omelet, which bears some resemblance to a Taiwanese rice omelet. As with the curries and the baked curried seafood, the degree of spiciness can be specified when ordering.

The restaurant also offers five different kinds of hot pot (NT$290-350, for one person) with a seafood or a "Japanese-style" broth. These are worthy and reliable alternatives to the curries, but are rather bland in comparison with the store's specialty dishes.

Main courses are not huge, but extra helpings of rice are free and provided on request.

All meals come with a soup (onion, of course), a salad, a choice of desserts and an even wider choice of drinks. The cappuccinos are also excellent.

The Onion Curry House has space for fewer than 30 diners, and on weekends fills up very quickly. Reservations are not accepted, so turning up promptly, or in the middle of the afternoon, is advisable.

The Green House Delicatessen

3F, 21 Lane 196 Fuchien Rd. Sec. 1 (06)222-4474. Average meal:NT$200 per person. Open 10am to 10pm. English menu. Credit cards not accepted.

If repeat customers are the best indicator of a restaurant's success, then the Green House's approach to business must be about perfect. Extremely popular with Tainan's expatriate population -- many of whom eat here up to twice a week -- the reliably delicious Western food on offer in this homely eatery also attracts many locals.

A stone's throw from the Confucius Temple, and reached via a vertigo-inducing iron spiral staircase, the Green House occupies the top floor and open-deck roof of a relatively old building in a quiet lane.

The pasta recipes, which include pesto spaghetti and fettucini alfredo, go light on the cheese and are much the better for it, while the crisp, freshly-prepared and substantial salads -- chicken, tuna, seafood, lettuce and bacon, Greek varieties -- are perhaps the best in the city.

The Mexican dishes -- nachos, tacos and enchiladas -- are reasonably authentic and quite popular. Homesick Westerners looking for nothing more exotic than a cheeseburger and fries, or a decent sandwich, will not be disappointed with the substantial versions of these classics here.

The choice of desserts is limited to crepes and a homemade baked pudding, but the helpings are generous.

Some of the regular customers hide out on the roof, where there are sofas and armchairs, as well as tables. The view is nothing special, but Tainan's dry, warm climate makes this a pleasant place to hang out for an afternoon.

Slack Season Tantsi Noodles

16 Jungjeng Rd. (06)223-1744. Average meal:NT$70 per person. Open 11am to 9:30pm(approximately). No English menu. Credit cards not accepted.

Tainan is renowned throughout Taiwan for its cheap and delicious snacks. Few dishes are more popular than "tantsi mien," and no tantsi vendor is more famous than this one, which is currently run by a third-generation descendant of its founder, Hung Yu-tou.

Hung, the recipe's putative inventor, was a 19th century fisherman who sold noodles during the typhoon season, when the seas where too rough for fishing -- hence the eatery's name. Before opening his own establishment, he carried the noodles and other ingredients to market in baskets suspended from a shoulder yoke called a tantsi -- hence the dish's name.

Tantsi mien differs from other noodle dishes in that the meat sauce poured over the noodles includes garlic, a kind of soybean vinegar, bean sprouts, fresh coriander leaves, and in the case of this eatery, a single shrimp.

The result is a beguiling taste which, strangely, fails to impress many diners at the moment of initial consumption, but soon has them hankering to return. Customers are offered a choice of mi-fen (rice noodles) or conventional wheat noodles. Side dishes such as sausages and hard-boiled "iron eggs" are available. This is just as well, because the portions served at Slack Season are small, and by the inexpensive standards of Taiwan noodle joints, somewhat dear.

However, the food here is something special, and gourmets who usually steer clear of Taiwan's noodle vendors -- for culinary or sanitary reasons -- should give serious thought to eating at this welcoming and spotlessly clean restaurant. The Hung family also operates a Taipei branch at 26 Alley 5 Lane 170 Chunghsiao East Rd. Sec. 4.