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Some years ago, I was invited to Taiwan to be a judge in a cooking competition to determine the best Chinese restaurant in the world. I was going to spend three days, eating dozens of dishes — and I couldn’t wait.
When I arrived, I was greeted by a car, a driver and a guide, who took me to my hotel, and then out to dinner. Which was at…an Italian restaurant. The next day, they showed me the city, and we went to lunch at a steakhouse. For dinner, they started to take me to a French restaurant, and I revolted. I was in Taipei. I wanted to eat Taiwanese cooking.
My guide looked at me like I was crazy, and said, “Oh, I eat Taiwanese food all the time, but I never get to Western restaurants.” And so, since he was supposed to treat me well, he decided to do it — with the food I eat back home.
I finally went out on my own, and found the amazing night markets — streets lined with dozens, even hundreds of small tables with low plastic chairs, no menu, just a single dish made very well, costing nothing much at all. In between working my way through the 120 dishes served at the competition, I’d go out for bowls of long-grained rice topped with pork, chicken and seafood — mostly milkfish. I luxuriated in the many flavors of soy, the utility of rice wine and sesame oil, the pungency of fermented black beans, pickled radish and mustard greens.
I never ate in a fancy restaurant, just on the street, late at night. Amazing that after a day of elegant dishes, I was still hungry. But the competition cuisine and the street dishes seemed to come from different worlds.

Artwork on the wall at Dago Taiwanese Cuisine in West Covina. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

At the West Covina branch of Dago Taiwanese (there’s also a location in Chino Hills), there’s a menu with culinary influences from many regions of China, plus an oversized secondary menu of flavored teas, flavored milk teas, “fresh flavored drinks,” slushies and smoothies. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

I was reminded of that at the West Covina branch of Dago Taiwanese.
The cooking of Taiwan isn’t as clearly delineated as that of, say, Szechuan or Hunan. It’s filled with influences from many regions of China, with an oversized secondary menu of flavored teas, flavored milk teas, “fresh flavored drinks,” slushies and smoothies, fresh blended juice and milk drinks, and desserts. (I’m intrigued that there’s a “Have It Your Way” box on the “Sweet” menu, ranging from “No Sugar” through quarter, half, three quarter and regular sugar — and the same set of options for ice. Plus half a dozen toppings. The options are mind-boggling!)
And so are the options on the menu proper. It’s where you’ll find 15 soups, nine fried dishes, 34 snack dishes (crispy and otherwise), 25 noodles dishes and 19 rice-based entrees. With that many choices, you might as well close your eyes and just pick. Indeed, you don’t have to go much past the 34 snack dishes to create a very satisfying meal.
Let us begin, then, with pickled cucumbers, and pickled black fungus (which is a friend of the mushroom family, if not exactly a mushroom as we know mushrooms here in the West). Cold, pickled dishes seem to prepare the palate for whatever comes next. They’re a bit like potato chips — but they go with a meal and not just dip.
And indeed, there are potato chips, of a sort, under the fried snacks, made in this case out of sweet potatoes. There’s crispy fried tofu as well, along with really wonderful popcorn chicken, and some very flavorful crispy fried chicken thighs. Deep-fried squid balls too, and crispy fried pork intestines. Both of which were very popular on the street stands of Taipei.
Indeed, “fried” is a very popular word at Dago. Under the “Fried” heading, there are potentially 27 dishes — nine vegetable or protein options, fried with rice, wheat noodles or rice noodles. There are more fried snacks as well — a fried mushroom omelet, a fried oyster omelet, a fried shrimp omelet. And yes, I know, omelets are not what many of us think of when we think of Chinese food. But then, we’re dealing with the Taiwanese variant. Which is full of surprises.
In terms of surprises, I was staggered by my first bite of the deep-fried chicken thigh rice, a dish with depths of flavor, unexpectedly so for ingredients so seemingly mundane. This was a chicken thigh that I could eat every day — heck, I could eat it three times a day because it was so tender, so moist, so good.
Curiously, one of the most expensive dishes on the menu is the Taiwanese seafood porridge, our old friend jook or congee, making me both feel like a small child and a sophisticated diner at the same time.
And speaking of feeling like a child, it didn’t hurt to finish the meal with a Taiwanese egg pudding, topped for the fun of it with some lychee jelly — along with some steaming honey green tea. My daughter had the honey lemonade made with green tea, which was eminently refreshing. What was needed, of course, to make me feel as if I was back in Taipei, was a low plastic table, and a chair made more for a child than a grownup. And a lot of tumult, and chatter, and street corner chaos.
But then, that’s there, and this is here. And I didn’t have to sample 120 dishes after this meal — for which I’m thankful. I’m running out of pants that still fit.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email mreats@aol.com.
Dago Taiwanese
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