Cheap Eats: Ah-Ma's Taiwanese Kitchen
Taiwanese eats on a budget in MidtownTuesday November 4, 2014 04:00 am EST
Generally speaking, Taiwanese cuisine is an embodiment of cultural fusion. Modern Taiwanese food melds indigenous and imported flavors strongly influenced by the food of mainland China and Japan, but with a flavor identity all its own. Many Taiwanese dishes are familiar to anyone who has tasted sushi or bitten into a Chinese dumpling, and there tends to be an emphasis on natural favors and slow cooking methods. Taiwan is also known for great street food, small bites, and cheap eats. These things don't always translate well when applied to a restaurant setting, but they do at four-month-old Ah-Ma's Taiwanese Kitchen.
Since opening in July in the former home of Rice Box at Midtown Promenade, off Monroe Drive, father Shane Chen and sons Alex and Andy have been tinkering with a menu they say is an homage to both the street food snacks Shane grew up eating in the night markets of Taiwan and the comfort food his mother made at home. Shane and Alex handle things in the kitchen, while Andy manages the front of the house, and 30-plus-seat dining room. Ah Ma's is currently operating without a liquor license, but the Chens say one is in the works.
DEEP ROOTS: Inside the restaurant, the eye is drawn to bright red walls and a mural of a flowering ume tree. The ume blossoms, which bloom during late winter, are the national flower of Taiwan, not just for their beauty but also for their ability to endure such a harsh environment. This resilience and perseverance inspired the Chen family, much in the way Alex and Andy's grandmother did by cooking traditional comfort foods for them. Some of the recipes are hers, and "Ah Ma" means "grandmother" in Taiwanese. "We wanted to pay a tribute to her for playing such a big part in our lives as we were growing up," Andy says.
FINGER FOOD: Ah-Ma's is open daily for lunch and dinner. The menu, at least for now, is the same for lunch or dinner and consists of small, shareable plates of xiao chi (aka cheap eats). Super-crisp frog legs ($4.50) with thinly sliced scallions are tender and salty, with meat that comes off the bone with ease. Bao (steamed buns) are delicately made in-house each day. The salty, sour, and sweet pork belly bao ($4.50) is filled with slow-braised pork, pickled mustard greens, and crushed peanuts. The dirty bird bao comes stuffed with a dark-meat chicken patty, pickled daikon and carrots, and a bright wasabi aioli.
HOME COOKING: Beef noodle soup ($10) is the quintessential Taiwanese comfort food and widely considered to be Taiwan's national dish. Each bowl has chunks of slow-cooked flank steak, noodles, veggies, and a rich broth. The tasty hot and sour soup ($2.50) is a nice balance of sour and heat. Lu rou fan ($5.50) is elevated at Ah Mah's with slow-cooked pork, cubed mushrooms, pickled daikon, cilantro, and a soy-braised egg over steamed rice. Pro tip: Mix everything together with the sauce — or "gravy" — for maximum gustatory pleasure.