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#1
Posted December 15th 2010, 1:40am
Something very strange is happening in Evanston. Between the loathsome Scylla and Charybdis of Koi and Joy Yee, there are suddenly tiny isles of authentic Asian cuisine: First Phoenix Inn and now 527 Cafe.

At first glance, one could be forgiven for treating 527 Cafe with suspicion. The menu promises "Asian inspired sandwiches, salads, pastas, and more", which translates to dishes like "Mongolian cheesesteak", "Bourbon chicken pasta", and the quickly becoming a cliche Korean taco (for some reason served on laver instead of tortillas). The employees wear shirts with the slogan "Mi so hungry" -- offensive on so many levels. The place practically screams "marketing concept".

But take a look at the "Specialty" portion of the menu and the paper signs taped to the walls, and you will see the names of actual Taiwanese dishes. And I'm here to tell you that the niu rou mian here is very, very good.

Let's get this out of the way: This isn't Katy's. The noodles are not homemade. I wish they were, but they're not. They're properly cooked, but they will certainly not have the texture of the fresh, hand-pulled stuff. If this is a deal breaker for you, so be it, but I think you're missing out. Because in all other respects the dish is at least as good as Katy's. The soup is very flavorful and thick; it's really almost a stew. The beef shanks are meltingly tender (not always the case at Katy's). And it's topped with crunchy bok choy.

Plus, they were playing Plastic Beach all the way through. Let's see Mr. Red Shirt (if that is his real name) do that.

I also tried the lu rou fan. Some may quibble that it's not made with pork belly, but I thought it was delicious. Lots of star anise and five spice.

Other Taiwanese dishes are also starting to be offered. Salt and pepper (aka popcorn) chicken, and dishes featuring Taiwanese sausage are being added. And who knows, maybe the Mongolian cheesesteak is life-changingly delicious when served with their sweet potato fries and chipotle mayo. But I'm going to find it hard to order anything but niu rou mian every time I'm here. And I plan to be here often.

527 Cafe
527 Davis St
Evanston, IL 60201
(847) 332-2233
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#2
Posted December 15th 2010, 11:16am
I was wondering if anyone else had stumbled across 527. I've been there 4-5 times, lured in by the hand-written promise of Taiwanese pork taped to the window. Yum. I concur on the beef shank -- metlingly tender and flavorul. The Korean tacos are really exceptional -- not the kalbi-in-a-torilla variety you find at Del Seoul, but but a spicy grilled chicken over rice on seaweed -- sort of like a chicken hand roll. The popcorn chicken is crispy, peppery and salty -- what could be wrong with that?

The place is run by a family from top to bottom (daughter, son, mom, dad, granpa), which goes against the grain of its slick interior (bright plastics and digital menu). It has been filled with Taiwanese ex-pats, mostly from the Northwestern community, each time I was there, which seems like a solid endorsement.
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#3
Posted December 16th 2010, 5:39pm
I had a working lunch here today and also the bonus of running into an LTHer. The bowl of beef noodle soup was a treat (and huge).

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I thought the broth was rich and complex, peppery and kind of smokey, with a decent kick. (The woman who served us also pointed out the hot sauces on the counter, but I forgot to try them.) The beef was plentiful and as tender as described upthread, and I enjoyed the sourness provided by the minced pickle garnish. I do want to talk to the owners about the noodles because I think changing them would make an already very good bowl of soup maybe excellent. Not only are the noodles not handmade, I'm pretty sure that my soup bowl was filled with a box-worth of regular pasta, not even rice noodles. The noodles seemed very out of place.

My colleague had the Korean and salmon teriyaki tacos, which I didn't try but he enjoyed very much. I thought the Korean taco would be difficult to pick up and eat piled as high as it was on the seaweed, but my colleague ate it just like a handroll, made it look easy (and delicious).

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527 is a nice addition to downtown Evanston. I'll probably go back next week and try more of the Taiwanese specials, the list of which I've heard will be growing to include more small plates.

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#4
Posted December 17th 2010, 10:46am
though i love a homemade noodle, my guess is that most places don't have the talent or kitchen space/demand to have them.
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#5
Posted December 17th 2010, 11:01am
dudefella wrote:though i love a homemade noodle, my guess is that most places don't have the talent or kitchen space/demand to have them.


Evanston does have a homemade noodle alternative. Zoba, located a couple doors south of Edzo's isn't bad at all.

Zoba The Noodle Bar
1565 Sherman Ave.
Evanston, IL
847-328-7866
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#6
Posted December 17th 2010, 11:04am
dudefella wrote:though i love a homemade noodle, my guess is that most places don't have the talent or kitchen space/demand to have them.

I agree. I'd just like to see a better packaged noodle in their soup.
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#7
Posted December 17th 2010, 11:07am
H_s, glad you liked it. To me, rice noodles would be a bit strange in niu rou mian (miàn means wheat flour noodles). I think they use the boxed, dried stuff you find at Asian markets. If you can convince them to switch to a higher-quality product, I will nominate you for a Nobel.
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#8
Posted December 18th 2010, 1:26pm
I'll 'fess up, I was the other LTHer :-)

I had the niu rou mian and liked it as well. Enough left over to make for a filling lunch the following day. I'll definitely be going back since my office is only two blocks away. If anyone wants a lunch buddy, send me a PM!

grace


happy_stomach wrote:I had a working lunch here today and also the bonus of running into an LTHer. The bowl of beef noodle soup was a treat (and huge).
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#9
Posted December 23rd 2010, 11:30am
I went back to 527 yesterday with some colleagues. Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling that great so I didn't eat very much, but I took photos. Here's a clearer shot of the Korean BBQ taco:

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One my colleague orders orange chicken whenever she can. She concluded that 527's version is not much different than that served at Joy Yee's next door or Koi down the street. It looked that way to me.

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Another colleague ordered the Mongolian cheesesteak, which was gigantic--piled with beef, pleasantly light on the sauce, perfectly melted provolone and bread that looked fresh and up to the task of supporting all of that filling. The sandwich was served with a large salad of mixed greens.

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On the menu, the miso shrimp salad is described as, "chilled shrimp with red cabbage, edamame, fresh avocado, carrots, green onions, and cilantro on a bed of hearts of romaine lettuce, tossed in a miso dressing and topped with crispy wonton noodles." The shrimp indeed were chilled, tasted like just-defrosted bagged shrimp. The greens were plentiful but also tasted bagged. Peas seemed to stand in for edamame, and I saw no avocado, green onions or crispy wonton noodles. I thought the dressing had a nice miso-y tang to it, but a colleague thought it tasted just like honey mustard.

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We also split two orders of fries. I think Evanston has become the French fry capital of Chicagoland with WSC, Edzo's and bopNgrill (or at least before bopNgrill changed their fries). The regular fries at 527 were crisp but also tasted once-frozen and from a plastic bag.

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This was the first time I had crinkle-cut sweet potato fries. They had potential but could have stayed in the fryer longer and benefited from some seasoning. I'm pretty sure they weren't even salted.

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527 also has a nice selection of Taiwanese (?) beverages in addition to more common soda and juice.

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The owner told us yesterday that 527 will start offering a regular lunch special next week. My colleague from Taiwan was translating for me, so I didn't get all of the details, but the special will be $6.99, Monday through Friday, 11am-2pm for an entree, soup and salad. I believe new dishes will appear on the menu next week, too. Finally, if anyone gets the Shop Evanston booklet, which the owner gave us, the Winter-Spring 2011 issue has coupons for 527 on page 36.
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#10
Posted December 23rd 2010, 8:09pm
Thanks for investigating. It confirms my suspicion that the authentic Taiwanese dishes are the way to go.

By the way, the lu rou fan is made with pork belly -- I'm an idiot. (All of my posts should include this disclaimer.)

As far as Taiwanese beverages, they also have almond tea. Made from a powder, I'm sure, but I love the stuff.
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#11
Posted December 23rd 2010, 9:13pm
cilantro wrote:As far as Taiwanese beverages, they also have almond tea. Made from a powder, I'm sure, but I love the stuff.

They also carry, I think, two different brands of white gourd juice. (Is there another name for this stuff? It sounds kind of obscene now that I spell it out.) It's definitely an acquired taste, but I like it.
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#12
Posted December 24th 2010, 10:59am
happy_stomach wrote:One my colleague orders orange chicken whenever she can.
Dinner a few weeks ago at MingHin with suburban cousins, one of whom questioned why anyone would order whole fish when Gorton's fish fillets were so much better, and our table was littered with American Chinese classics, including sweet and sour chicken. MingHin's s&s chicken was surprisingly tasty, crisp coating, lightly sweet, not sticky/goopy with subtle vinegar zing, quite different from the typical sugar coated trailer park version.

While of course not the dish in question, if MingHin produces a tasty comparatively restrained version of one of the most mismanaged dishes in the American Chinese playbook one might surmise their orange chicken is worth a go for your colleague.

MingHin Sweet & Sour Chicken

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#13
Posted December 24th 2010, 2:20pm
happy_stomach wrote:They also carry, I think, two different brands of white gourd juice. (Is there another name for this stuff? It sounds kind of obscene now that I spell it out.) It's definitely an acquired taste, but I like it.

It's also called winter melon tea. Like almond tea, it's not really tea, but whatever. ("White gourd juice" doesn't sound that obscene to me, but my relationship with gourds is mostly platonic.) It seems to be a surprisingly polarizing beverage, but I enjoy it a lot. It's my drink of choice at Ba Le. You can get it all over the place -- Argyle, Fresh Farms, Chinatown, etc.
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#14
Posted February 21st 2011, 8:23pm
So I'm still liking this place (though I'll admit that the best bowl of niu rou mian was the first). They're now offering more Taiwanese dishes and I've managed to sample most of them.

Pork with rice noodle was the only dish that didn't work for me... just didn't enjoy it at all. I much prefer the lu rou fan.

On the other hand, Pork chop rice (pai gu fan) is really good and the quintessential LTHForum dish: pork with a pork garnish!

Sausage fried rice is delightful, as is the Mustard green fried rice (though the latter is much more subtle).

I even got to try a couple of sweet potato fries. Happy_stomach, your order was messed up. They are (well) seasoned with salt and plum powder and garnished with nori. Not the kind of thing I want a lot of, but I thought the few bites I got were pretty tasty.

They are planning to offer shaved ice eventually.

Entrees are generally $8.99 and portions are pretty big. (A bowl of niu rou mian is enough for two.) So happy this place opened.
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#15
Posted February 25th 2011, 10:20am
This place is definitely worth a stop for the beef noodle soup (niu rou mian) if you're in the area. Happy stomach's photo upthread portrays it well. Tender beef, noodles that aren't mushy, bok choy for textural balance, and a broth that has some heat, herbs and spices, and is greasy in the best way--full of flavor. Really hit the spot on a winter night.
My friend had the orange chicken, which seems to be overrepresented in this thread :? and found it very ordinary.
Service was efficient. I found it amusing that the color scheme is somewhat similar to that of Joy Yee next door -- are they hoping people walk in by mistake and decide to stay?
But a nice addition to the area.
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#16
Posted February 25th 2011, 12:12pm
Evanston Lunch Group™ visited 527 yesterday, and overall, I think all came away impressed (and sated). We ordered quite a bit of food, yet it was relatively light - personally, I ate a lot but didn't leave feeling stuffed.

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I started with the Almond Drink. It was light, a bit sweet, with a depth of pleasing almond flavor. It could have been an appetizer on its own.

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Cabbagehead had the Longan and Date Drink; I didn't try it, but he seemed to enjoy it.

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Korean Tacos made a good starter. Using nori instead of a tortilla, the fresh ingredients (with Asian mayo) were a very good combination.

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The Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup has been discussed above ... I'll just confirm that the beef was super-tender, without being disintegratingly so. The noodles were appropriately al dente, and the bok choy was a refreshing addition to the complex, slightly spicy broth.

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Kimchi Fried Rice was probably the better of the two fried rice dishes. It was a last minute addition to our table, recommended by one of the owners. The slightly runny egg made it, although it wasn't as spicy as I expected.

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"This doesn't seem fried," said Cabbagehead, of the Taiwan Sausage Fried Rice. The sausage was a bit on the sweet side, and the thin slice were exactly used liberally. At any other place, it would have been great, it just paled a bit in comparison to the other dishes.

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The sauce in the Taiwanese Pork with Rice Noodles was interesting, and brought all the ingredients - mung beans, rice noobles, scallions - together. Note the egg garnish - it came with several dishes.

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The Taiwanese Pork Chop was perfectly tender in an interesting coating. And garnished with more dead pig - who could ask for more?

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I didn't get much plum flavor from the Plum Sweet Potato Fries, but they were nicely crisp (a few more seconds in the fryer and they'd be even better) ... an interesting presentation with the serving vessel and seaweed garnish.

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I found it interesting that the Taiwan Popcorn Chicken was categorized by the sophisticated POS system as "bar" food ... could a liquor license be in the future? (My guess, unlikely for a counter-service place like this.) Juicy chicken, crisp crust, would go great with a craft beer.

We should make the point that no one in the group has spent much time in Taiwan, so we can't speak to authenticity, but the owners seem to be trying to make the food as non-Taiwanese friendly as possibly, with the Anglicized descriptions of the dishes. That may be in part a result of their previous experience, running an Asian restaurant in the (now being remodeled) food court at Old Orchard. At any rate, Old Orchard's loss is Evanston's gain. And speaking of rate, for the seven of us, the tab (including a nice tip, excluding a few of the drinks) came to $11 each for a lot of food.

I'll be back.
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#17
Posted February 25th 2011, 2:32pm
does anyone know what that dried hair like stuff is on the Taiwan sausage fried rice is? They put it on the imperiall fried rice at siam splendour. I looked for it at fresh farms but i couldnt find it.....
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#18
Posted February 25th 2011, 2:39pm
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#19
Posted February 25th 2011, 2:58pm
notob6 wrote:does anyone know what that dried hair like stuff is on the Taiwan sausage fried rice is? They put it on the imperiall fried rice at siam splendour. I looked for it at fresh farms but i couldnt find it.....


Pretty easy to find at the asian groceries (I've bought it at Tai Nam and seen it at Viet Hoa and Chinatown Market.)
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#20
Posted February 25th 2011, 4:49pm
I think it is sometimes referred to as "pork floss"
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#21
Posted February 25th 2011, 4:54pm
globetrotter wrote:I think it is sometimes referred to as "pork floss"


Hundreds of LTHers just got hard nipples reading that.
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#22
Posted February 25th 2011, 11:57pm
nr706 describes our meal well and provides excellent pictures--as always. The Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup was very good with nice pieces of tender beef shank in a fairly mild but deep broth; I'd probably be more enthusiastic if I weren't still thinking about the tom yum beef ball and tendon soup at Aroy Thai we had a few nights ago. I also liked the tacos very much--the nori was a really great substitute for a tortilla with this filling--although I think picking it up and eating it like a regular taco would be pretty difficult. The "fried" rice did not taste fried in a wok at all, although the two types we had were tasty if you weren't looking for that wok's breath taste. The kimchi fried rice was surprisingly mild, and in fact nothing we had was very spicy at all. The sausage in the sausage fried rice was somewhat sweet, although not as sweet as longanisa. The almond drink was quite sweet and smelled, as you might guess, like marzipan. The Longan and Date Drink was less sweet and not overpowering, according to Cabbagehead, and the pieces of fruit floating in the drink, which our host made sure to point out were extra tasty, were very good. Both drinks are served warm.

I liked 527 and will likely be back because I'm often in downtown Evanston.
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#23
Posted February 26th 2011, 9:09am
notob6 wrote:does anyone know what that dried hair like stuff is on the Taiwan sausage fried rice is? They put it on the imperiall fried rice at siam splendour. I looked for it at fresh farms but i couldnt find it.....


Noto, I'm pretty sure I've seen it at Fresh Farms in the aisle that also has Filipino foods, across from the aisle with all the Thai sauces. It's in a jar as shown above, but the jars are fairly small...it would be easy to confuse with fried onions. I know for sure that I've seen it at Mayflower market in Chinatown (I know because I did a little jig in the aisle once I realized what I'd found.)
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#24
Posted March 23rd 2011, 7:14pm
So glad that the ELG and happy_stomach turned us on to this place: Sparky and I went and had a large meal - I had the mustard green fried rice, he had a salmon taco and the korean taco, and their miso soup which is rapidly becoming his favorite.

The fried rices aren't really fried, more like a stir-fry with white rice, and needed the embellishment of chili oil and the other condiments they offer (black vinegar and soy went well, too) I've decided that they aren't really my thing, though they're considerably healthier than most standard northshore fried rices. Next time, I'm going to have one of the delicious-smelling soups I keep seeing other people get.

The tacos were both very good for asian-fusion sorts of things: both were overstuffed and a little challenging to eat, but very tasty, lots of crunch from fresh veggies, nice sesame oil flavor on both...Sparky finally gave up and used a knife and fork (a serious concession for him to eat a finger food with utensils) to eat the korean taco; the nori just isn't up to holding that much weight unless you eat it all in one go.

Sparky is also in love with the Taiwanese sarsaparilla which is available in red cans in the cooler.
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#25
Posted March 29th 2011, 8:03pm
Wow. Just had my third visit to 527, and I've come home satisfied each time. First time I got the Lu Rou Fan. Man, words can't describe how much I love braised pork belly. The star anise, what I assume was cilantro, and the braised egg completely put it over the top. So great. Second time I figured I had to get the Niu Rou Mian. Other sites really bad-mouthed the broth, but I didn't find it overwhelmingly bland. The meat though was great. SO TENDER and delicious. Pickle garnish and bok choy were a nice little touch. All in all, I enjoyed the soup, but maybe not as much as the Lu Rou Fan.

Then tonight I just had the hunkering for 527. I was debating whether I should try something new or just drown myself in pork belly (well they don't give you that much, but a guy can dream, can't he?) I decided I'd try something new and narrowed it down to either the Pork with Rice Noodles or the Pork Chop with Rice. (Hey, I said I would try something new. I didn't say it wouldn't be pork.)

Asked the guy at the register which of the two he preferred, and he really talked up the pork chop. WOW. So glad I asked that guy. The pork was not over-breaded. Instead it was breaded and spiced in a way that added without overwhelming the pork. And then to top it all off, they actually garnish the rice with the LU ROU FAN! Holy Cow. When I opened the take out box I felt like my prayers had been answered. Add in the braised egg, bok choy, and pickled garnish, and dang, that was a really great meal. I loved the Lu Rou Fan, but now I think I've found my stand-by, runaway favorite item on the menu. Pork chop and pork belly? That's the end-all-be-all for me.

On a side note, the take-out box was cool but unwieldy, and I had to transfer it all to a plate when I got home. Also, I'm sure the presentation got screwed up on the walk home, but things were jostled everywhere. Eggs, pickled veggies, pork, more pork were all mixed together by the time I got home. But on second thought, maybe that's a good thing. In conclusion, Pork Chop with Rice is SO GOOD.
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#26
Posted July 12th 2011, 11:26am
I've been obsessed with 527 lately. The menu has grown a lot since my first visit last December. I finally had the pork belly and agree with the glowing reviews above. I think it looks excellent even in a mediocre phone picture.

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I also recently tried the mustard greens soup. This is very delicate, but I appreciated the mild pickling of the greens. I also think the noodles at 527 have gotten better since my first bowl of niu rou mian there--thinner--but maybe it's just me.

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Finally, a colleague from Taiwan suggested we try their Taiwanese ice. This is a gigantic dessert and not cheap (I think $7.50), but enough for four people to share (or just two, if you're us). I'm not sure if I've ever had this kind of Taiwanese ice before with brown sugar and condensed (?) milk. I've had shaved snow ice, which is very different and, in my book, not as good. The fresh mango was plentiful and excellent.

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On another recent visit, I also tried the kimchi fried rice, which had some nice fatty bits of pork but lacked heat (as the ELG noted above) and was quite oily. I hope to work my way through the rest of the menu this summer.
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#27
Posted July 19th 2011, 11:15pm
Fans of the carbopalooza that is Chinese breakfast should check out 527. On weekends (but lately some weekdays as well), they serve up many breakfast items in addition to the regular menu. Of course you can get youtiao, shaobing, soy milk, tofu in syrup, etc. These are all good, but you can certainly find better versions in Chinatown. What I highly recommend are the chive pockets and especially the awesome stuffed rice rolls -- man, I could eat a dozen of those things. Which is a problem, because in reality I can only eat one. :(
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#28
Posted July 20th 2011, 6:04pm
I stopped by for a late lunch today, and I must say I was underwhelmed. I had a bowl of Taiwanese beef with rice noodle, and a glass of "home-brewed" honey citrus ice-tea.

I am not in a position to talk about their authenticity due to my low exposure to Taiwanese cuisine (however, I do know a lot about Southeast Asian cuisine). The broth was bland, really bland. It felt as if they forgot to salt in. That said, the beef was fairly good.

I highly, highly doubt that their honey citrus ice-tea was "home-brewed". I love Korean honey citrus tea, so I always have several jars of them bought from HMart, and I am very familiar with the taste and the texture of the citrus stuff inside. The ice-tea I got here is exactly the same. I dont know, does mixing a couple of spoonfuls of teamix with water count as home-brewed?
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#29
Posted July 20th 2011, 7:52pm
theskinnyduck wrote:I highly, highly doubt that their honey citrus ice-tea was "home-brewed". I love Korean honey citrus tea, so I always have several jars of them bought from HMart, and I am very familiar with the taste and the texture of the citrus stuff inside. The ice-tea I got here is exactly the same. I dont know, does mixing a couple of spoonfuls of teamix with water count as home-brewed?


In a word, yes. If you were expecting them to make the tea base themselves - preparing, preserving, storing the fruit base, then you were looking for home made tea, which I've never had even at good Korean restaurants.
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#30
Posted August 9th 2011, 12:13pm
Enjoying another delicious lunch from 527 today (korean bbq beef sandwich, and the Taiwanese Fish Balls which are quite tasty). My jaw just about dropped though when I saw one of the specials they're offering right now - Taiwanese Brown Sugar Shaved Ice - for $7.50! I mentioned to the cashier (and possibly one of the owners?) that this didn't seem like a reasonable shaved ice price point, and didn't get much in the way of a justification for it. Anyone tried this? Is there something I'm not understanding about Taiwanese shaved ice?
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