Social life in Taiwan centers around night markets where a cross section of society roams among food stalls and noshes on fresh-made xiaochi, or “little eats,” in a fair-like atmosphere.
”It’s really noisy and crowded,” said Christine Welch.
Welch co-owns a new restaurant, Taiwan Little Eats, inspired by Taiwanese night markets but in the relaxed setting of a teahouse.
Taiwan Little Eats opened Oct. 20 at 320 State St., the storefront that housed the short-lived Mad City Frites and before that, for more than 40 years, the metaphysical bookstore Shakti.
Welch’s Taiwanese husband Min-Hsiung Lin, who goes by “Seven,” and his childhood friend and chef Kai Hsiang Cheng are the creative and culinary forces behind the restaurant. Welch, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Chinese literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, handles logistics and communication.
Taiwan Little Eats’ menu is divided into “nibbles” and “little eats,” along with bento boxes ($9.50) that combine a single protein (pork belly, chicken) with rice, a marinated egg, pickled carrots, cilantro and broccoli.
Among the “nibbles,” the tea-flavored egg ($1) comes soft-boiled in the shell, dyed brown in a mild marinade of tea and soy sauce. These, Welch said, are ubiquitous in Taiwan.
“They have them everywhere in Taiwan, even in 7-Eleven,” Welch said.
BBQ pork sausages (two for $5.50), served on sticks, are sweet with a hint of maple and cinnamon. Lin and Cheng get them from a Taiwanese sausage-maker in Los Angeles.
Another staple of Taiwanese night markets, coffin toast, is made with thick slices of milk bread, hollowed out and filled with hot corn chowder ($6.50) or curried chicken with coconut milk, potatoes, carrots and onion ($7.50). It’s one of the more labor-intensive items on the menu and before the restaurant was fully staffed, Lin and Cheng spent many late nights in the kitchen prepping the ingredients.
The braised pork bowl ($7) makes a perfect small dinner. Cheng braises cubes of fatty pork with lu wei sauce, made with ginger, rice wine and spices. White rice, pickled daikon radish, a sprig of cold broccoli and a satisfying soy-marinated soft-boiled egg complete the bowl.
Night market snacks are made to eat while strolling. A gigantic, surprisingly portable fried chicken cutlet ($7.50) looks like wienerschnitzel. It’s plenty for two people to share.
“In Taiwan, you just take the cutlet and eat it out of the bag,” Welch said.
Taiwan Little Eats also serves a long list of brewed teas and smoothies made from imported, concentrated juices and powders.
To get the taste and presentation right, Lin and Cheng use machines from Taiwan: a brewer to make the tea extra strong so it can be mixed with milk, a machine to add sugar (more or less, per customer request) and a third device to seal each smoothie with plastic film.
Tea lovers can add flavorings like tapioca pearls, coconut jellies, sweet red bean paste, chia seeds and the medicinal herb-based “faerie jelly” (more commonly known as grass jelly).
Before she “dragged him here from Taiwan,” Welch said, Lin was a stage manager and lighting designer for the internationally touring Taiwanese performance troupe Formosa Circus Art. He also helped run a seafood restaurant in Taipei.
The friendships he made there and around the world are represented in a growing collection of postcards on the wall of Taiwan Little Eats.
“In Taiwan, when you open a business, they will send you flowers,” Welch said. In lieu of flowers, Lin asked his friends to send postcards to the restaurant. It’s possible to spot 12 languages among the dozens of cards.
Diners also reflect that diversity. Many are Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese international students, but others “are just interested in Asian culture,” Welch said.
Soon, Taiwan Little Eats hopes to offer delivery. But there are no plans to serve alcohol.
In Taiwan, night markets are “what they do instead of going to the bars,” Welch said. Besides, “we’re kind of going for the Taiwanese tea spot.”