2163 S. China Pl.
Ing-hsu Wu, a gynecologist from Taiwan, has worked for more than 25 years on the second floor of the Chinatown Mall. Lunch was a problem: day after day, year after year, the doctor found himself eating Cantonese food.
There were no Taiwanese restaurants in Chinatown–in fact, there was only one restaurant with Taiwanese offerings in Chicago, Mei Shung up in Edgewater. The scarcity is something of a mystery, since the average Taiwanese can go on for hours about the details and origins of particular dishes.
After years of thinking about it, Dr. Wu finally opened his own Taiwanese restaurant, KS Seafood, on Christmas Eve, in the logical location–just below his office. “He’s so anxious to get Taiwanese food here, he comes by after the clinic and takes food home,” says Tom Wu (no relation), the restaurant’s manager, a native of Taiwan who used to run a Chinese restaurant in downstate Mattoon.
Taiwanese food is an amalgam of influences from several waves of Chinese migrants, a stint as a Japanese colony, and its own indigenous population; it also draws from, and transforms, Western cooking. The result’s a parade of innovation and incorporation, with particular attention to textural consistency (kougan, or “mouth-feel,” is a ubiquitous term) and reflecting deep regional loyalties: dishes are known by which part of the island they come from, down to which shop in which train station first thought it up.
Taiwanese in Chicago have discovered the restaurant largely through word of mouth, but they already make up more than two-thirds of its business. On Christmas the place was so busy it couldn’t keep up–Tom Wu says that customers started cussing the staff out. Things have calmed down since, and the restaurant has a new Taiwanese chef, a courtly man who worked at the late lamented House of Hunan on Michigan Avenue.
Sadly, the restaurant’s raison d’etre may not be obvious to non-Chinese-speaking diners: the current English menu doesn’t list any Taiwanese dishes, instead concentrating on Hunan and Szechuan items. But the characters on the Chinese menu reveal classic Taiwanese preparations ranging from “night market” (street food) fare to traditional feast foods. Three-cup chicken has bone-in pieces of free-range bird permeated by the soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine they’re stewed in. And the name “oily rice” is inadequate for the hearty sticky rice fried with little slivers of dried shrimp, Chinese sausage, and other flavorings (traditionally it’s eaten to celebrate a birth).
There’s also intestine-and-blood soup and “sticky soup,” a rich and spicy broth that’s thickened with a sweet potato starch until it reaches a consistency somewhere between stock and Ghostbusters slime (in a good way–honest). A platter of stick-to-your-teeth DIY pork sandwiches is colloquially known as “the tiger bites the pig.” Steamed wheat buns–the tiger–are served alongside plates of fat-striated pork belly with pickled vegetables, cilantro, and peanuts for condiments. Stewed pork kidney with sesame oil is an earthy and warming specialty of T’ai-nan, a southwestern Taiwanese city that’s famous for its street food.
Stinky tofu (chou dofu), a roadside-stand favorite easily located by its smell, comes from an LA producer who vacuum packs it for transport. The spicy steamed version is usually the stinkiest preparation, but when ours was brought out it failed to reek up the room. That’s a bad thing. “When it is done correctly, it should smell like a high school boy’s socks,” said a Taiwanese friend, who also says it’s the most refined chou dofu he’s ever had. (Tom Wu says that if KS served the kind you get in Taiwan, “everyone in the restaurant would run away.”) Our dish has just a faintly rotten tang, but it still tastes like something you shouldn’t be eating.
The Taiwanese menu will keep expanding, Tom Wu promises. They’ve got plans for a cake of coagulated pig’s blood and sticky rice that’s steamed, sliced, and served straight up with a slightly sweet sauce. (This is the more formal way to eat coagulated pig’s blood; the everyday version comes on a stick, sprinkled with peanut powder and cilantro.) They’re also thinking about making “coffin,” a street snack that’s a thick piece of bread cut open, stuffed with a choice of sandwich fillings, then closed up and deep-fried.
As KS Seafood rolls out more Taiwanese items, it’s also developing an English-language menu for them. For now, Tom Wu is happy to help translate and provide suggestions. He’s like his boss–the food coming out of the kitchen is exactly what he likes to eat.–Nicholas Day and Anya Bernstein
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.