My favorite moment at Taiwan Cafe comes around 9 p.m. when the first shift of cooks files out of the kitchen, each one carrying a plastic takeout container. They seat themselves around a big table in the restaurant. One of them has brought out a tureen of soup. They eat quickly, using the containers as soup bowls, inhaling the broth and its noodles, along with big platters of cabbage, and what looks like morsels of pork tossed with ribbons of fresh bean curd. Once the cooks are done, they return to the kitchen and several more take their place. After that scene, Taiwan Cafe suddenly makes sense: You get your food so fast, so hot, and obviously seconds away from its steamer or pan -- nothing here waits around -- you have to wonder if the kitchen isn't manned by an army ready at the woks.
And so it is.
Another delightful event in this busy and very popular cafe comes when it's time for a couple of the waiters to cash out. Someone takes the tip jar (in this case a plastic gallon jug), and turns it upside down onto a tray, letting dollar bills, fivers, and lots of change spill out. Then with the care you might see in a bank, the bills are doled out into piles. The waiters who are not staying until the 1 a.m. closing get their cash and take off; the rest of the money is returned to the jar. No calculators, no pens, not even scribbled figures on a paper napkin.
Taiwan Cafe is the favorite restaurant of so many people whose taste I respect that I wonder what took me so long to get here. One flight up from street level, the place is always packed, and most of the dishes are leagues above any other Chinese food you've probably ever tasted. The tableware is mish-mash Melmac, retro plastic plates in unappetizing colors. Rice comes in beige plastic bowls, for instance, as does soup. (At least they're not plastic containers). Those are some of the many things you have to overlook in this ordinary setting, where the army of well-fed cooks sends memorable dishes to the dining room, and a generous dinner for four costs about $75 with plenty of food to take home.
Once you reel off your order, and it starts arriving tableside within a few minutes (the staff might tell you that dumplings take 20 minutes, but just nod, because they don't), you'll practically begin clucking. Sauteed clams with basil ($11.95) are inky dark. Their spicy black bean sauce is pooled in the shells of the tender clams, the leaves of sauteed basil a luscious garnish. Salt-and-pepper shrimp ($9.95), all crusty with tender pink flesh (crunch right through the salty shells), are remarkable in every way. You won't be able to stop eating them.
Taiwanese-style pan-fried dumplings ($5.25 for 6), really pot stickers, have a thin dough, one golden side, and pork with cabbage shaped into slender sausages tucked inside. Mini steamed buns with pork ($5.25 for 6) have a doughier consistency, wrapped around walnuts of highly seasoned meat, served with a divinely vinegary sauce loaded with shredded ginger. Vegetarian steamed ravioli ($4.95 for 6) are filled with plump morsels of chopped greens, which meet perfection when bathed in a soy dipping sauce.
Home-style braised eggplant with basil ($7.95), intensely aromatic and a little hot, quite an addictive dish, is made from strips of the light purple vegetable bathed in garlic, basil, and chilies. Sauteed spinach ($6.95) is breathtakingly beautiful: a mound of shiny emerald leaves with sliced garlic. Hardly seasoned, and unusual in its simplicity, mustard greens with edamame and fresh bean curd ($7.95) was recommended by Taiwan Cafe regulars. The lima-like edamame beans are steamed with chopped tender greens and bean curd that resembles short white fettucine.
Patience is required for Taiwan-style soy sauce duck ($10.95), a whole cut-up bird reassembled on a platter, in which you get mouthfuls of bones. As for Taiwanese-style chicken vermicelli soup ($10.95), every bite is bony and the broth tastes watery.
Perhaps you're more adventurous than I am. In that case, you might go for intestine and blood pudding, pork tripe, salt-and-pepper frog, duck tongue in hot pot, fish head with vegetables in clay pot, and other delicacies you would expect at an authentic establishment. Because once you walk into Taiwan Cafe, you'll forget you're in the middle of Boston.