Budai Gourmet Chinese
It’ll rub your belly the right way
Even before I learned of the secret menu at Budai, I was already recommending the small, Taiwanese-owned eatery for the element of surprise its regular menu brings. The non-secret menu is a long and interesting read, full of familiar and unusual Taiwanese and Chinese dishes. If you ask questions about the food, you might get a history lesson from Elsa Fang, who handles the front of the restaurant while her husband, Hsia, does the cooking. And, if you ask her to, she will translate the secret menu from Chinese. But she will do so selectively.
The secret menu is where the Fangs hide the dishes they think English-speakers might not appreciate as much, like an oyster-
Budai's interior makeover rivals that of any strip mall dining room in town, looking more like the lobby of a fancy Shanghai hotel, with decorated mirrors adorning blue and gold painted walls. The dining room smells of fresh-cut flowers.
Taiwanese culture was greatly influenced by immigration from all over China during the Chinese Revolution. The cuisine that emerged, framed by the resources of Formosa Island, also drew from across China and the culinary traditions of Japan, Singapore and elsewhere. With separate sections devoted to duck, mussels, scallops, squid and dim sum—in addition to more standard protein, rice and noodle categories—Budai's regular menu is devoid of a “vegetarian” section. It does, however, have sections for tofu and vegetable entrées. Many of the vegetable dishes are seasonal, such as a pile of fragrant, neon-green pea shoots in a mild garlic sauce that's available right now, as are sweet potato leaves. A dish of musky shitake mushrooms atop Napa cabbage in a dark bean sauce, Elsa says, has a good yin/yang balance. Prized “hollow heart,” a relative of morning glory, is available only in summer. (Elsa says her fish delivery guy from Texas can get it now, but the quality is low: too tough and not crispy enough.)
The ribs had a moist crisp, salty and peppery with other unidentifiable fragrances, and made my Tsingtao beer vanish like a shadow in the sun.
Also worth ordering on the main menu: goji berry soup with pollock and pickled mustard greens in a soothing, slightly sour broth. Don't overlook the juicy steamed fish drenched in a soy-based ginger-scallion sauce; or tea-leaves-smoked duck, the soft flesh of which is impregnated with a delicate, smoky, umami flavor and a hint of rice wine. The Taiwanese noodle soup vaguely recalls pho, but is much simpler, with Napa cabbage and slices of beef that include nearly all the tissue layers—fat, tendon, meat—in a mellow broth that’s thin and oily with a whiff of Szechuan pepper.
When the food arrives, Elsa will help spoon it from the serving dishes onto your plate and advise the eating process. “They have juice inside, and you want to eat the whole thing in one bite so you don’t spill the juice,” she explained as she brought out a plate of tiny dim sum buns. “But it’s hot inside, so it’s tricky. You can’t wait for them to cool down because then the juice soaks into the dough.”
Once I caught wind of the secret Chinese menu I focused my attention there, and Elsa was a vigilant gatekeeper against serving what she feared a yang gui zi couldn’t handle. I defied her warning with the oyster omelet, and sure enough it was a tad gooey for my tastes. I paid more respect to her opinions after that, ordering the Northern-style salt-and-pepper short ribs, which she agreed to bring me only when I agreed to drink beer with them. The ribs had a moist crisp, salty and peppery with other unidentifiable fragrances, and made my Tsingtao beer vanish like a shadow in the sun. The delicious “three-cup chicken,” flavored with sesame oil, rice wine, soy sauce, basil and ginger, was chopped in ways I’d never seen chicken cut, bones and all, and served in a beautiful ceramic dish. The twice-cooked pork was fatty and succulent, with pieces of firm, baked tofu, crispy carrots and peas. The Szechuan cow stomach, Elsa said, was good that day. "These Vietnamese people ordered it twice in a row, they liked it so much." The stomach is thin-sliced and marinated in spices to delete the organ’s “funny flavor.” Stir-fried, the pieces were chewy yet chewable. As promised, the organ flavor was nearly vanquished, and what remained was balanced by bitter Chinese angelica root and the creeping heat of Szechuan chilies.
The Fangs opened Budai over the winter, partly because Hsia was having trouble finding work. After he applied, unsuccessfully, to Panda Express, Elsa gave him the nickname “Panda Express Reject.” Albuquerque is lucky he was so overqualified.