Though it is located in a strip mall just 10 minutes from campus, Zha Nan Taiwan Bistro feels a world away from Lewis & Clark. Soft Taiwanese pop plays over the speakers inside and brightly lit bottles of soda, sake and imported beer sit in neat rows on long, wooden shelves. The atmosphere is relaxed and choosing what to order from the lengthy menu is both the most exciting and difficult part of the experience.
Unlike some restaurants that offer a smattering of Taiwanese food alongside other cuisines, Zha Nan Taiwan Bistro’s menu focuses solely on Taiwan. While this means there are dishes that might be unfamiliar to non-Taiwanese customers, Gloria, the chef and server, is quick to explain the menu and offer suggestions.
For LC students scarred by the Bon’s version of bao, a trip to Zha Nan Taiwan Bistro is bao bun therapy. The pork belly filling is melt-in-your-mouth tender and well-seasoned, along with crunchy peanuts and fresh cilantro. The white, pillowy buns themselves are not made in-house, but I quickly forgave that after the first bite. Equally delicious is the lu rao fan, a bowl of rice topped with soy-braised pork and a hard-boiled egg. The saucy, minced pork is so flavorful that it turns this quite simple dish into something rich and comforting. It is one of the most filling and economical dishes as well, making it a no-brainer addition to your order.
The Taiwanese chicken wings come covered in a sweet-salty-spicy dry seasoning that is pleasant, but less interesting than other dishes.
The huang gua, or garlic cucumber salad, is a nice, light mix of cucumber, minced garlic and herbs tossed in a spicy dressing. It is good on its own, but especially refreshing in between bites of richer dishes. On the other hand, the dou ya cai, or bean sprout salad, is a bit herbaceous and bitter.
Perhaps the most interesting dish is the di hui gui, or black rice cake. Made by soaking rice in pig blood, it is wonderfully chewy and dense with a meaty but not overpowering flavor, almost like the savory cousin of Japanese mochi.
Vegetarians will be happy to see the many meat-free options on the menu. The hua gan fried tofu curd is sweet, savory and oddly addictive. A less exciting but still pleasant dish is the alluringly named “Hundred Layered Bean-Curd,” or bai ye, that pairs chewy and silky tofu with crisp greens and a mellow sauce.
It can be fun to order a selection of small plates ($3-8), but Zha Nan Taiwan Bistro also offers “Chef’s choice” specials ($20-25) for one to four people, or bento box meals ($11-14) for one.
There is also a wide range of drinks available. In terms of non-alcoholic drinks, soda cans ranging from Sprite to Salt-Sarsaparilla are offered for $3.50, in addition to the more expensive — and more Instagrammable — house specials such as boba (weekends only) or mango rose green tea ($5.50). A selection of wine, sake and Taiwanese beer rounds out the menu ($5.50-11.50).
Zha Nan Taiwan Bistro does not currently have dine-in seating, although hungry customers can choose to sit on run-down picnic tables next to the parking lot. A better choice might be getting takeout or delivery, both of which have wait times that do not seem to exceed 20 minutes, even during weekends.