A Meal (and History) in a Box at Taiwan Bear House
Pell Street these days is two quiet blocks, no more, but Chinatown was born here, where Doyers Street dead-ends into Pell, where tour guides still talk of tongs and mah-jongg.
At night, on Pell’s eastern end, pilgrims queue for soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai. They may not notice Taiwan Bear House, which opened last June, with its teddy-bear logo suggesting just another perky bubble-tea shop.
到了晚上，在披露街的东头，来到鹿鸣春(Joe’s Shanghai)品尝汤包的人排起了长队。他们可能没注意到去年6月开张的台湾原创便当店(Taiwan Bear House)，它的标识是一个泰迪熊，让人觉得它可能又是一家生气盎然的珍珠奶茶店。
But see those towers of empty wooden bento boxes in the window? They’re waiting to be filled. First a bed of rice, then a layer of minced pork simmered down to a near gravy. On one side, garlicky cabbage, barely wilted in a wok, still crunchy and bright. On the other, half a hard-boiled egg, inked with soy, and a dense pressed square of dry tofu with sweet seams of star anise.
Over this may lie a pork chop hammered thin and sealed inside an improbably fluffy crust, or pork belly in slices thick as cake, with descending horizons of lean and fat, or chicken freed of its bones and deep-fried twice, so the crispy shell of skin turns chewy where it clings to the flesh.
In Taiwan, these boxed meals are called bian dang, an adaptation of the word bento under Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century. They are stubbornly unfancy and in no need of elevation. Secret ingredients in the Taiwan Bear House kitchen include Skippy peanut butter and ketchup.
Indeed, the highest compliment you can pay to the restaurant’s food is to say that it tastes as if it were served on a train. Not any train, but one traversing some of the thousand-odd kilometers of rails that run a loose circle around Taiwan. For while bian dang are found everywhere on the island, none are perhaps as beloved as those made for decades by the government-run Taiwan Railways Administration.
Millions are sold on trains each year. Once, they were hawked from station platforms and tossed through rail-car windows. Last summer, they were borne reverentially by models down a runway as part of the four-day Formosa Railway Bento Festival, and praised in a news release as “boxes full of love, story and human nature.” This month, an announcement that bentos can now be ordered online made the evening news.
At Taiwan Bear House, each bento costs less than $10 and is fuel for a day. (In Taiwan, it would be less than $3.) They come tightly packed in light, biodegradable boxes of poplar veneer. There are no compartments, as with Japanese bento. Arrangements are vertical, starting with a base of sushi rice and building up with minced pork, cabbage, egg and tofu.
Subtract any one part, and the meal is diminished. (Evidence: the vegetarian option, an uninspired muddle of bell peppers and mushrooms flung into a wok with oyster sauce.) Rice soaks up the juices so nothing is lost; cabbage cuts the edge of salt. The egg, darkened and meaty from stewing in soy paste, ketchup, scallions, garlic and ginger, would be welcome at any meal, anywhere. Dry tofu is more of an acquired taste, here almost candied in flavor.
Two of the restaurant’s young owners, Kris Kuo and Carol Wu, grew up in Taiwan and came to the United States for graduate school; a third, Christopher Chang, is from New York. Not one has a culinary background. Ms. Wu works at a hedge fund, Mr. Chang is an engineer, and Ms. Kuo studied accounting. So they enlisted a chef from a Taiwanese bento shop to come to New York and teach Ms. Kuo his recipes, which she taught her staff.
The fried chicken is inspired by the “popcorn” style of chicken sold at night markets in Taiwan, boneless hunks of meat perfumed with Chinese five-spice and slightly feverish, with a chewiness just under the surface. The pork chop is dredged not in the usual sweet potato starch but in panko. Purists may object, but the sheath of crumbs comes out well bronzed, somehow crispy and wispy at once.
Still, if I had to choose, I would forgo pork chop or chicken for a larger heap of that minced pork, the cheapest bento option, and the best.
Half the pleasure of the bento is demolishing it with swiftness and intent. One afternoon, a young man at the next table bent sharply, his face as close to the food as public decency would allow. He did not speak. None of us there, eating, had any interest in speech.