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When Stacy Tang first opened Taiwan Bento in downtown Oakland in 2014, customers routinely asked whether the restaurant served Thai food or Japanese takeout. No one seemed to have even heard of Taiwanese beef noodle soup, so Tang and her husband, Willy Wang, spent an inordinate amount of time each day explaining how Taiwan’s national dish differed from ramen or pho.
Eight years later, the landscape of Taiwanese cuisine in the Bay Area is completely different, thanks in part to Tang’s scrappy little restaurant, which served many local, non-Taiwanese customers their first gua bao, their first classic Taiwanese pork chop over rice. “Right now, it’s easier to be yourself,” Tang says. “Because people know more about [Taiwanese food], you don’t need a lot of explanation.”
It’s more than a little bittersweet, then, that Tang and Wang have decided to close Taiwan Bento at the end of this month, marking the end of an era for one of the real pioneers of Taiwanese food culture in the Bay Area. The restaurant’s last day of business will be Friday, July 29.
According to Tang, it’s closing due to a combination of factors. Of course, the pandemic has been brutal, and Tang says Taiwan Bento is still dealing with the same COVID-related staffing shortages and financial pressures that have put so many other local restaurants through the wringer. Still, she says of the pandemic, “We actually made it through it.”
More immediately, Tang says she needs to take some time away from the industry in order to be with her family. Last year was especially tough: In Taiwan, her godfather passed away, and her mother underwent a major surgical procedure. But because of the daily pressures of running a restaurant, she never had a chance to plan a trip there.
“I wasn’t able to see my family and take care of my mom,” she says. “That time with family—if you miss it, you miss it.”
With the restaurant’s lease set to expire at the end of the month, Tang says she just couldn’t see herself committing to another five years. But looking back on it now, she says she’s proud of the business she built from the ground up. As a brand new immigrant who only moved to the United States in 2012, just two years before she opened the restaurant, she says the first few years were incredibly challenging because of how naive and inexperienced she was about even the most basic things about running a business in the U.S. “Every day was overwhelming for me,” she says. At one point, when she was still tweaking the restaurant’s initial set of recipes, she became so stressed that she lost her sense of taste for nearly a month.
While the South Bay has a fairly long, established history of Taiwanese restaurants, there were almost none in the Oakland and Berkeley area back in the early and mid-2010s. Still, slowly but surely, the restaurant built up a following. It was one of the first non-boba shop businesses in the area to serve Taiwanese popcorn chicken—properly garnished, of course, with plenty of fried basil. It was one of the only East Bay restaurants where you could get Taiwanese-style beef noodle soup on a consistent basis. More recently, it became the first restaurant in Oakland that would occasionally serve Taiwanese breakfast.
These days, Tang says, she doesn’t have to justify or explain her Taiwanese menu.
“Now more and more people are coming, and they say, ‘gua bao’ or even ‘lu rou fan,’” she says, using the Mandarin names for dishes she used to have to translate using Westernized terms like “pork belly sandwich.” And after the restaurant was featured in an episode of KQED’s
“Some became regulars,” Tang says. “That’s truly amazing.”
Tang and Wang say they won’t rule out the possibility of opening some new incarnation of Taiwan Bento somewhere down the line, especially if they’re able to figure out a way to do it while striking a better work-life balance. For now, however, Tang is focused on helping her staff secure new jobs, saying final farewells and closing out the restaurant’s last two weeks of service right.
After that? She’ll be buying a one-way ticket to Taiwan.
Taiwan Bento is open 11:30 am–8 pm at 412 22nd St. in Oakland. The restaurant’s last day of business will be Friday, July 29.