190801TAIWAN3

Gazette restaurant reviewer Bill Livick enjoyed these selections of braised pork, fried silver silk roll and sweet potato plum fries during a recent visit to Taiwan Little Eats, 320 State St., Madison.

MADISON

I’m not sure why it’s taken me almost two years to get to Taiwan Little Eats, a casual restaurant serving Taiwanese street food that opened on State Street in October 2017. But as the cliché goes, better late than never.

Little Eats is, in fact, a little restaurant that packs a lot of big flavors into its fare. A Taiwanese friend assured me that its food is an authentic, if small, representation of what you might find on the streets of the island nation.

The family-owned and operated restaurant is frequented by students and has a youthful air, but it also holds plenty of appeal for older folks because its food is simple, delicious and affordable.

Its menu is divided into several categories: Night Market Eats (small servings meant for the grab-and-go customer), Nibbles (appetizers), Little Eats (more than a starter but less than a full bowl) and Big Bites. The most expensive big bite is $12 (black pepper beef over rice), but there is also a teppan plate category (a teppan is the metal plate on which food is cooked and served) with the menu’s priciest item—teppan steak over noodles ($14).

The dining room is a jumble of mismatched tables and chairs, a couple of low couches, colorful art and sundry odds and ends. On the Wednesday night of our visit, recorded music played a bit too loudly in a crowded dining room.

That crowd meant a long wait for food—more than 30 minutes. But a friend and I didn’t mind because it was a fun place to hang out and catch up. Still, we would have liked to have seen the beverages we ordered come sooner than just before our food arrived.

Speaking of beverages, Little Eats doesn’t offer sodas or drinks with alcohol, but it does have a long list of options that are more authentic to Taiwan. There are iced and hot-brewed teas, delicious milk teas that are like a dessert drink (especially if you add “tapioca bubbles,” little balls of tapioca that rest at the bottom of the glass), fruit teas, matcha, smoothies, taro teas, ginger teas and steamed milk drinks.

Customers place orders at a front counter. Some special menu items are listed on a chalkboard, and there are printed full menus next to the counter. A young wait staff was helpful in explaining the food options and also apologetic about the long wait.

My dining companion and I noticed that, regardless of the category you order from, some key ingredients are common to almost all dishes—including a hard-boiled egg soaked in tea. Also popular is the kitchen’s braised pork, fried boneless chicken, popcorn chicken and tofu—some of the best I have tasted.

Tainan-braised pork over rice is listed in Little Eats at $7. We ordered it as an evening special for $8.50 and received a larger serving that included a broccoli floret, sweet pickled radish, cold-boiled carrots, a hard-boiled egg and rice. Best of all were the cubes of pork that had been braised in soy sauce. At once meaty and fatty, they are complemented by a host of spices including star anise, cloves and cinnamon—a combination that did wonders for the rice.

Our meal began when a server at a counter called our number, and we received two milk teas—a brown sugar (16 ounces for $4.45) and a raspberry cream (24 ounces for $5.35). The tapioca is an interesting addition. It makes the drink a bit more sugary, and next time I would skip the extra 50 cents and go with the creamy tea alone.

The solid food was ready a few minutes later, with an order of sweet potato plum fries ($4.50) that were a tad sweeter than usual because of the plum. A mixed plate ($9) included thin slivers of very tasty tofu, pickled radish, candied seaweed, hard-boiled egg and a slice of beef tendon.

The crispy and salty popcorn chicken can be ordered as a Night Market item ($5.50) or as a Big Bite ($9), which comes as a larger serving with rice. Either way, they are lightly fried with chunks of chicken breast inside and come in a white wax bag.

We didn’t need a dessert after the sweet milk teas but decided to share a fried silver silk roll ($5.50), which is a lot like a doughnut without the sugar. (It’s still sweet, just not over-the-top sweet.)

As mentioned, the food came out slowly the night of our visit. Everything happens at the counter—placing and picking up orders—and customers are expected to clear their tables themselves. There was a small misstep or two with our orders (we got a small tea after paying for a large, for example), but overall, Taiwan Little Eats is a great spot for really tasty food at low prices.

We liked the restaurant’s ambiance and convenience, except for the long wait for our orders. The delay notwithstanding, Little Eats is on my list of places to which I will return. It’s an eatery that isn’t quite like anything else in the Madison area.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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