Restaurant Review

Authentic and top-notch, it's the little eatery that can

CorrespondentJune 17, 2011 

  • 121-A E. Chatham St., Cary


    Cuisine: Chinese


    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: traditional Chinese

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: efficient and eager-to-please

    Recommended: scallion roast beef pancakes, mini steam buns, pork cutlet over rice, cumin lamb, Szechuan fish, vegetarian entrees

    Open: lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.

    Reservations: not accepted

    Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

If you're a fan of authentic Chinese food, no doubt you've discovered that the best restaurants usually focus on the cuisine of a single region. Szechuan chicken and Peking duck on the same menu are, as a rule, not a good sign.

Unless, that is, it's a Taiwanese restaurant.

Thanks in large measure to the influx of people from all parts of mainland China following the Chinese Revolution, the island nation has become a cultural melting pot. Chefs in Taiwanese restaurants have been catering to the tastes of a diverse population for more than half a century now.

At Taipei 101, chef Yun Hun Chen has been doing that since the restaurant opened in February. Those who are familiar with the considerable talents of Chen, a Taiwanese native who has worked locally at Ma Ma Wok, C&T Wok and Grand Asia Market, won't be surprised by the quality of his offering. But even Chen's most ardent fans will be gratified by its range.

The scallion roasted beef pancake roll has already become something of a signature dish and deservedly so. Originating in the Zhejiang province (whose cuisine is a specialty at Taipei 101, along with Taiwanese and Szechuan), the dish raises the ante on the ordinary scallion pancake with thinly sliced beef rolled into a flaky, scallion-spangled crêpe lightly smeared with hoisin sauce. You'll find it on the extensive menu under the heading of "Rice & Buns Corner."

In that same section, you'll discover several other worthy temptations ranging from fried rice with anchovies and chicken to "mini steam buns," pouches of pillowy dough filled with savory ground pork, served on a napa cabbage-lined steamer basket in a presentation that would do a dim sum house proud.

If your waiter recommends an off-menu special called "beef sandwich bun," even if you don't quite understand his description, take him up on it. Your sense of adventure will be rewarded with a delightful Asian riff on a slider featuring roast beef, crisp chiffonade lettuce and hoisin on a dim sum-style baked bun (bao).

Pork cutlet a must

The list of authentic Chinese appetizers leans to Szechuan fare, with options such as bamboo shoots with chile sauce and steamed pork with Szechuan garlic sauce. Spicy sliced beef, tendon and tripe is served cold, but delivers plenty of heat in the form of chiles and Szechuan peppercorns.

A less daring, but nonetheless bracing option is oyster soup with pickled mustard, one of half a dozen authentic Chinese soups served for two. Serving up a bounty of plump bivalves in a translucent, briny broth that sparkles with slivers of ginger and finely chopped pickled mustard, it's refreshing even on a sweltering summer night.

When it comes to entrees, the Taiwanese-style pork cutlet with veggies over rice is a must. The cutlet is in fact a succulent, lightly battered bone-in chop, with emerald-green Shanghai bok choy heading up an exotic supporting cast.

Nor will you go wrong with Szechuan fish, a surprisingly harmonious pairing of delicate tilapia and incendiary sauce. Or cumin lamb, with toasted whole red chiles and an abundance of onions in a sauce richly redolent of its namesake spice. Hunan chicken, stir-fried with mushrooms and green peppers, is a moderately spicy alternative for those without asbestos-lined palates.

Don't overlook the "Tofu & Veggie Dishes" section of entrees, even if you're not a vegetarian. Meatless offerings such as Chinese watercress with garlic and eggplant with basil make superb side dishes.

The dining room is a modest, traditionally furnished space that gets much of its warmth on weeknights from a small, friendly wait staff. The room comes alive on weekends, when, according to Chen's partner, Wen-Kai Ho, it fills with the native Chinese customers who represent 90 percent of the restaurant's business.

Taipei 101 is named for the skyscraper in Taiwan that ranked officially as the world's tallest building when it was completed in 1994. If that name seems too aspiring for a little eatery in a squat, nondescript building in downtown Cary, rest assured that the food rises to the heights.

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