When Sunnyvale’s 408 Night Market was announced in June, quite a few people were excited: Here was a chance to finally get some legit Taiwanese street food in the Bay Area. The weekly event was based on the popular night markets of Asia, where dozens of vendors line up on a crowded avenue and sell all manner of street food on sticks, on banana leaves and in paper cones.
In Taipei and Tainan, two cities where night markets are especially prevalent, booths are filled with xiaochi, snacks like stinky tofu, grilled sausages, pan-fried dumplings, mochi-wrapped meatballs, oyster omelets, tiny deep-fried crabs and bubble tea, alongside clothing, home goods and children’s games such as goldfish-scooping and ring toss.
They’re lively, multisensory experiences based around snacking and walking, and snacking some more. And unlike American fairs, they’re open nearly every night, a solid option for dinner or post-bar bite.
Unfortunately, the 408 Night Market didn’t fulfill its expectations, at least in this iteration. The market was set in a former nightclub on a Sunnyvale street otherwise occupied with office parks, and had only a few vendors. There were some interesting street foods, like grilled sausage in a sticky rice bun with cilantro and pickled cabbage, and a spongy fish stick with a spicy chile dipping sauce. And there was plenty of boba tea (which originated in Taiwan) and stinky tofu, whose sharp ammonia scent occasionally perfumed the air.
But it wasn’t enough. Disappointment ran rampant on Yelp, where the market notched an abysmal 1.5 stars. The market has since been shut down, perhaps permanently, by the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health because the organizers didn’t have the proper permits.
“It felt more like a community fair than a night market,” says J. Peng, who travels to Taiwan every few years and has enjoyed many a meal in its night markets. She and her friends left the Sunnyvale version disappointed. “We has a snack there but we were still hungry for Taiwanese food, so we went to Cupertino.”
There is good Taiwanese food in the Bay Area. And yes, there are a few spots in San Francisco and the East Bay, but to get a real flavor of the country and begin to understand its culture, you need to travel to the South Bay and Peninsula.

Nearly half of Taiwanese immigrants in the United States live in California, according to the 2010 census. However, most are in Southern California, which has some of the best Taiwanese food in the world outside of Asia. Southern California also has a successful 626 Night Market, with more than 200 vendors, a lineup of performers and DJs, plus an offshoot in Orange County.
In the Bay Area, most of the best Taiwanese restaurants are in cities like Cupertino, Milpitas, Foster City and Fremont, which is where many immigrants ended up.
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That’s because many people traveling from Taiwan had some money and education, according to Charlie Chin, a historian at the Chinese Historical Society of America. San Francisco’s Chinatown has always been mostly working-class Cantonese, says Chin, but “for those arriving with a profession, English skills and capital, why would they want to live in a crowded Chinatown when they can buy a decent or very fine home in the suburbs?”
In addition, many Taiwanese also send their children to college in the United States, specifically California — and they end up staying. This creates pockets of Taiwanese culture at schools like Stanford University, whose Taiwanese Cultural Society hosts its own annual night market that drew 4,000 people in May.
Yet other Asian cuisines have always taken precedence in the Bay Area, but now the fervor surrounding the night market and the May opening of mega-popular Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung shows that there’s a surging local interest in Taiwanese food. The burgeoning craze should get another bump at the end of the month, when yet another night market is slated to open in Fremont.
Taiwanese food shares many elements with Chinese cooking, but it has a few distinct qualities of its own. The country was once a quiet, aboriginal island that just happened to be located right off China’s coast, and thus became a strategic stopping place for the European trade ships beginning to sail to and fro in the 17th century. Since then, Taiwan has been occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and Japanese at one point or another, and still shares a complicated political relationship with China.
The cuisine mostly draws its influences from China and Japan, as well as the crops that thrive on the mountainous island, especially rice, sweet potato and peanuts. One of Taiwanese food’s defining characteristics is that many dishes are as much about the texture as taste. Characteristic items like beef tendon, meatballs, fish balls and other texturally springy ingredients are often described as the English alphabet letter “Q” (a serious compliment: “That dish is so Q”). Almost every Taiwanese dish has some element of Q-ness.
Its other defining characteristic, at least to an outsider, is a proliferation of flavors that might not immediately appeal to a palate raised on Cantonese food. Many sauces are sweeter, and for every beef noodle soup or pork with rice, there’s a funkier dish like stinky tofu — fermented in milk brine — or intestines served in a stew with oysters.
The restaurants of the South Bay strip malls offer a tour of Taiwanese cuisine both familiar and foreign. You can easily find stinky tofu, deep-fried and served with pickled cabbage and spicy sauce, all components that lessen the fermented soy to a whisper of its once-bold self. It’s especially good at Grand Harbor in Fremont, and Mama Chen’s and Southland Flavor Cafe in Cupertino, where the prickly funk is lighter and doesn’t linger as long on the tongue. The soft green slices of stir-fried bitter melon also have an astringent flavor, but are tempered by a silky, salty duck egg sauce; it’s an ideal vegetable side dish, and best at Red Hot Wok, a Cupertino standby.
Modern cattle aren’t native to mountainous Taiwan, but its beef noodle soup is famous. It has a sweet, rich broth, more dense than pho, and comes with stewed beef, tendon, pickled veggies and often some green vegetables. Mama Chen’s, Grand Harbor, Liang’s Village Cuisine and the Formosa Streets food truck in San Jose have some of the best versions around, though purists insist that the closest good beef noodle soup is in Southern California. This may change soon when Taiwanese beef noodle soup chain Chef Hung opens in Cupertino’s ritzy Main Street development.
Most people associate Taiwanese food with meaty dishes, but Taiwan is an island nation, so it has a lot of seafood. The oyster omelet is a signature dish, a kind of cousin to the Hangtown Fry, in which oysters are mixed with eggs and sweet potato starch (for the Q), and then served with a sweet dipping sauce. Taiwan Cafe, a colorful restaurant run by Taiwanese immigrants in Milpitas, serves a particularly strong version, as well as a superlative minced pork rice.
Then there are the dumplings.
Joy Restaurant, in a lonely Foster City strip mall directly across the street from the bay, serves traditional Taiwanese pot stickers, which are fried in a row and wonderfully lacy. Joy also serves a Taiwanese breakfast, curdled salty soy milk that has the texture of silky tofu and is entirely delicious doctored with soy sauce and green onions, with a Chinese doughnut dipped into it.
And, of course, Din Tai Fung is the famous purveyor of xiao long bao, a.k.a. soup dumplings. The dumpling specialist started in 1972 in an unassuming Taipei storefront before expanding to the world. Its debut in Santa Clara’s Westfield Valley Fair mall inspired hours-long waits, hard-to-get reservations and general dumpling insanity.
Most people who visit Din Tai Fung stick with the traditional soup dumplings, or splurge on the versions made with crab or heavenly truffles. The rest of the menu doesn’t stray too far from Western crowd-pleasers, but it does offer beef noodle soup, noodles with minced pork and a few other Taiwanese classics.
Stir-fried bitter melon and deep-fried intestines they’re not. But when it comes to learning about Taiwanese food for the first time, they’re not a bad start.
Stinky tofu may never be as popular in the Bay Area as ramen or tea leaf salad, but as we explore and celebrate the more-overlooked cuisines of Uighur China, northern Thailand, and regional Myanmar, the food of this 250-mile-long island should also be on the list.
Anna Roth is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Email: food@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @annaroth


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