Get weekly insight, news and tips on St. Louis’ thriving dining scene from Ian Froeb.
Braised Beef Noodle Soup as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Braised Beef Noodle Soup as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Braised Beef Noodle Soup as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Hakka Stir Fry as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
The nondiscript store front that is Tai Ke located at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
For as long as I’ve been writing about St. Louis restaurants, dedicated diners here could find — or, more likely, could find someone to lead them to — pockets of regional Chinese cooking. There is the “secret” Szechuan menu at Brentwood’s Joy Luck Buffet and the Chiu Chow fare at a restaurant so willfully off-the-radar that its chef once persuaded one of my former colleagues not to publish its name or address.
More recently, Lawrence and Emily Chen have opened the Shanghai- focused Private Kitchen in University City, and at Lona’s Lil Eats in Fox Park, Lona Luo and Pierce Powers are serving fast-casual cuisine inspired by Luo’s native village in southeast China. Still, as far as I can tell, St. Louis lacked an exclusively Taiwanese restaurant until September, when chefs and co-owners Calvin Koong and Brian Hsia, both of whom have previously cooked in Americanized Chinese restaurants, opened Tai Ke.
In another era, before Yelp and “First Look” previews on food blogs, Tai Ke might have remained a hidden gem. Certainly, its location isn’t one you’re likely to stumble upon: in the middle of a small strip mall that is itself tucked behind a much larger strip mall by the intersection of Olive Boulevard and Interstate 170 in University City. Word of the unique restaurant spread quickly, though, and the crowds that I encountered even during weekday lunch visits suggest an appetite for and curiosity about Taiwanese cuisine.
Gua Bao, Pork Belly Bun, as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Taiwan, of course, is both intimately entwined with mainland China, but also geographically separate, with its own history, and if your experience with Taiwanese cuisine is limited — as, to be frank, mine is — your best bet is to approach Tai Ke with an open mind.
Some dishes will seem familiar, almost. The heady aroma of the braised-beef noodle soup ($9.99) might remind you a little of pho, though the flavor is more intensely and singularly beefy. So rich is the broth that it almost overwhelms you. Cilantro, bok choy and pickled mustard greens balance the beef somewhat, but for me a couple of dashes of chile sauce brought the dish together. In contrast, the Taiwanese Clear Clam Soup ($9.99) is so understated that after a spoonful or two of the rice-wine-based broth, you might think the kitchen is pranking you. Stick with it, though. The briny sweetness of the clams, the rice wine and the punch of shredded ginger gradually coalesce into a bright, satisfying whole.
The chile stir-fry chicken ($9.99), marked on the menu with a spice level of three fearsome chiles, does deliver heat and a mild dose of Szechuan-peppercorn tingle, but this is, to its credit, more subdued than similar Szechuan dishes are. You can actually taste the interplay between the chiles, chicken and roasted garlic, with a sharp accent and a little crunch from scallions and celery. Even more flavorful is the Signature Three Cup Chicken ($9.95), which arrives at your table still sizzling inside a clay pot. A sauce of rice wine, soy sauce and sesame oil gilds crisp-skinned chunks of bone-in chicken enlivened by whole cloves of roasted garlic and biting Chinese basil.
Taiwanese soft drinks for sale in a cooler at Tai Ke located at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
To dive into the Tai Ke experience, you might begin with one of the street snacks. The most obviously appealing is the Sticky Rice Hot Dog ($5.99), which brings a small, plump and slightly sweet Taiwanese sausage tucked into a sticky-rice “bun” and drizzled with chopped scallion, crumbled peanuts and a tangy, vaguely ketchup-like sauce. That same sauce dresses the sticky-rice cake ($4.99), an umami bomb with shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp and the dried, seasoned pork known as pork floss.
Among these snacks are sticky-rice cubes ($4.99) seasoned with Chinese basil and pork blood. The restaurant critic’s Pavlovian response is to point a neon arrow at the use of pork blood (or pork intestines elsewhere on Tai Ke’s menu). By now, though, it shouldn’t be news or a big deal that offal is a vital part of many cuisines, and you shouldn’t order these cubes to be daring but because they are delicious.
The blood, if it’s noticeable at all, is a slight tang behind a beguiling, soy-sauce-slicked flavor: savory, salty, funky and a touch sweet, with the verdant basil laid atop it all. It’s the sort of dish, and Tai Ke the sort of restaurant, that you want to lead others to, another example of St. Louis’ increasingly diverse restaurant scene.
Where Tai Ke, 8604 Olive Boulevard, University City • Two stars out of four • More info 314-801-8894 • Menu Taiwanese cuisine • Hours Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Excellent ★★★★ Extraordinary
The inside of Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Get weekly insight, news and tips on St. Louis’ thriving dining scene from Ian Froeb.
Ian Froeb is the restaurant critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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Braised Beef Noodle Soup as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Braised Beef Noodle Soup as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Braised Beef Noodle Soup as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Gua Bao, Pork Belly Bun, as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Hakka Stir Fry as prepared by Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Taiwanese soft drinks for sale in a cooler at Tai Ke located at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
The inside of Tai Ke at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
The nondiscript store front that is Tai Ke located at 8604 Olive Boulevard in University City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. The Taiwanese restaurant is tucked behind a strip mall on Olive Boulevard. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
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