As far as ethnic cuisines go, visiting a Chinese restaurant is far from the top of my list. Why? Having grown up in Southeast Asia, I have been spoiled by great eats around me ranging from my maternal grandmother’s delectable rendition of Cantonese cuisine (at least 8 main dishes for dinner each night) to fine dining at top Chinese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur where the offerings were so sumptuous but way beyond the skill set of the home cook. A suggestion of eating Chinese food here usually conjures up in me a visceral aversion and a few brief flashes of nondescript dishes further marred by non-distincitive flavors that tend to look and taste like a complete brown-hued blur. Simply put, I have never been happy by these offerings and I try to avoid them at all cost.
Well, since I have started food blogging, the sense of equal opportunity has been overriding this dread for the cuisine (is there a Food EEOC Police?), and it has thrown down the gauntlet in my search for something worth writing about. While conversing with a buddy on Facebook (who has time to pick up the phone and chat, right?), he suggested Bob’s Noodle 66 near the Rockville Town Center that he has visited a number of times. Located in a vast parking lot among other non-restaurant establishments, its offerings cater to the Taiwanese palate that is influenced by all the directions being an island off the coast of mainland China. Having watched a few bizarre foods episodes on cable, I had heard of some of these “unique” dishes and one was sitting on top on my curiosity list – Stinky Tofu. I knew I was going to get on a gastronomic ride, and I was ready for it.
We started with a round of Bubble Tea. These are green teas that have been mixed with various fruit juices, made with or without milk. They arrived with huge straws in order to suck up the pea-size tapioca balls at the bottom looking like tadpole eggs about to come to life. Mine was made with the exotic Lychee fruit that packed that unique flavor that is quite indescribable except for the word refreshing. An aftertaste of tea bitterness lingers in the mouth once the sweetness has dissipated from the tongue, which is indicative of the strong tea essence. I have to admit that I enjoyed this odd but rather refreshing drink, including the chewy bits at the bottom of my glass.
My friend insisted that we tried the Taiwanese Hamburger to start the meal off. I was kind of hesitant at first, not wanting to go for something that sounded like an Americanized dish. When it arrived, I realized that its name is a total misnomer, and I bit into it with some curiosity. The slice of braised pork was very fragrant, moist and savory, punctuated by an interesting mix of sour pickled mustard greens (much like sauerkraut) and a nutty mix of crushed peanuts and sugar, highlighted by some fresh cilantro, and all packaged by some fluffy and light steamed Chinese buns. Wow! This small bite packed lots of flavor and gustatory interest, and we could have eaten more of it. But we had to make room for the rest of the ride.
For the next appetizer, we ordered the Fragrant Bean Curd Skin Roll. It is made with a stuffing of minced fish meat, onion, water chestnuts, wrapped in bean curd skin, deep-fried, and slathered by a slightly sweet sauce. This dish brought back the memory of my grandmother’s version but the restaurant’s offering was milder than my grandmother’s heavily spiced one. However, I did enjoy the smooth meaty fish cake stuffing, the crunchy water chestnut bits, and the sauce on top that made this an interesting sweet-and-sour combination without going overboard like most Chinese take-outs. Another good eat.
While we were waiting for the other dishes, anticipation was building up for “The Dish”. The Stinky Tofu seemed to be sitting at everyone’s table which somehow reassured me that it was going to be quite tasty and OK after all. No-one seemed to be doubled-over their chairs or running to the bathroom in panic. I thought to myself that there was probably more hype over its infamous reputation.
The next appetizer was a plate of Oyster Pancake. It is a pancake made with sweet potato powder, eggs, and oysters, sitting on a bed of Chinese spinach and topped by a sauce. The pancake was soft, very light and fluffy with bits of equally soft baby oysters, and flavored by the savory sauce. This dish did conjure up the memory of a similar dish that I used to enjoy at the seafront restaurants in my father’s hometown in Malaysia. This dish was milder than the Southeast Asian version but interestingly they go by the same Hokkien name, thus pointing to its Fujianese origin. I quite enjoyed it but it was not exactly a study of contrast of flavors and textures – everything was just soft and fluffy, which a friend found disconcerting (most Americans have this textural issue). Not bad for me, though.
Drumroll – Stinky Tofu arrives. Nothing from its appearance made it stand out as it looked just like any regular fried tofu dish. Although it is listed as “Crispy Smelled Bean Curd”, the waft that it exuded announced its arrival loud and clear. Still feeling that it was rather innocuous and not so foul, I was excited about the dish. First bite. OMG, WTH, WTF, SMH, LOL, IDK, IWC (I wanna cry), LMAO, Call a friend, Call your Momma, Call your pastor, Call the Almighty! I am lost for words! The best way to describe it is an Asian vegetarian version of chitlins (chitterlings, for those unschooled in the parlance), which I have had my share of (only 2 spoonsful) living in the Mid-South. Why would someone want to eat this? It is tofu that has been fermented in a blue-green bacteria bath for a few weeks. Well, if some folks like chitlins, I guess there are others that enjoy a similar version, albeit made from soybeans. Thank goodness for the spicy cabbage pickles that sat on top that provided the necessary relief (much-needed) from this mind-blowing bite. Once I got past a couple of pieces, I went back for more (are you crazy?), trying to wrap my brain around the crispy and spongy bits that were sending me on a rollercoaster ride. Oh wow – Need I say more!
To even out the rough going ride from the previous dish and bring us down from the mind-blowing tizzy, a couple of main dishes arrived, and thank God/Buddha/Universe. One of the mains was Shredded Pork with Bamboo Tips. Pieces of young tender bamboo tips have been sautéed with thin slivers of pork and spiked with some fresh chilis. The light sauce was very savory and fragrant, which made the dish a hit among all of us. The other dish was Sautéed Baby Short Rib with Black Pepper. Thin slivers of short rib are coated by a black pepper sauce (peppery for sure) that added the body and piquancy to the thick savory sauce coating the meat. Despite a few rather sinewy pieces, this was very delectable and finger-licking good for me.
Still reeling from the Stinky Tofu incident whose undeniable impression was still lingering in our taste buds and minds, we did not hesitate for a split second to order a dessert dish to cleanse our palate. Shaved Ice can be ordered with different toppings, and for ours, we chose grass jelly, Lychee fruit, red beans, and taro root. Above the toppings, sits a mound of shaved ice that is flavored with evaporated milk and sugar syrup. Again, this brought back childhood memories of enjoying this favorite cooling bite for lunch in my school canteen or at local coffee shops in Southeast Asia. My eating companions and I attacked this shaved ice mountain with full gusto, enjoying the various toppings that provided the different textural and flavor elements. Besides cleansing our mouths from all previous dishes, most importantly ”the one”, these sweet offering held its weight as a refreshing and very pleasing dessert. Great ending and safe landing from the ride.
Bob’s Noodle 66 is quite a trip on a few levels. Along with the mostly delectable offerings in this eatery (I can’t wait to taste their large offerings of noodles), it appears that ”the dish” that was not so appetizing for me was a great hit among the cognoscenti of the strange and exotic, thus my objective appreciation for this kitchen’s authenticity. In addition to this, the place provides pure Taiwan here – loud, crammed, pushy and frenetic wait staff (the check came with the dessert), and large crowds. If you can overlook these shortcomings and deal with the frenziness, here is the place to taste some authentic Taiwanese offerings. And I dare you to order “The Dish”. Go ahead and make your day.