The Boston Phoenix
October 21 - 28, 1999

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Wisteria House

A Chinese restaurant where you can Taiwan on

by Robert Nadeau

Wisteria House
204 Newbury Street (Back Bay), Boston
(617) 536-8866
Open Sun-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri and Sat,11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
MC, Visa
Beer and wine only
Down nine steps from sidewalk level, some outdoor tables one step up from sidewalk level
No smoking
After I reviewed the small but excellent Taiwan Café last June, I got an e-mail from Ju Chien Hsu. After the usual kind words about reviewing an ethnic restaurant, and the usual gentle remonstrance about ordering typical Cantonese dishes instead of real Taiwanese dishes, Hsu went on to make some specific suggestions for a return to Taiwan Café:

"Go for two separate meals. The first for 'dim sum,' ordering many of the small dishes for which Taiwan is famous. I would try the meat ball, oyster pancake, sweet rice cake (be warned, it contains pig's blood), an intestine dish, Taiwanese tempura, oyster thread noodle soup, spicy pig ear, small clams with garlic, chicken with wine sauce, duck chop and herb soup, and steamed small bun. Whether you take my suggestions or not, you must try the Crispy Smelled Bean Curd. This is uniquely Taiwanese and definitely an acquired taste (I consider tofu to be the cheese of Chinese cuisine; think of this as one of the rank ones).

"For your second meal, go after the main dishes. I would get the Taiwanese stir-fried rice noodle, fish head and vegetable soup in hot pot, ginger chicken casserole, kidney with sesame oil, something with yellow chive (whether conch, frog, shrimp, beef, or eel), and something with squash/loofah (scallop, shrimp, clams). P.S. A couple of other restaurants around town offer some of these dishes, as part of a Taiwanese brunch. They are Wisteria House (one of my faves), on Newbury, and Chung Shin Yuan (only been once, as it is tough to get a seating), in Newton."

Now you can take these ideas back to Taiwan Café, but reviewers move on, so I took them to Wisteria House, which I had not previously noticed. It turns out to be an excellent restaurant, with a full page of Taiwanese specialties on the menu. It thus enabled me to test my New England palate on the stewed pig ear -- and on a couple of typical Cantonese dishes, because you dance with the one what brung you.

Okay, the stewed pig ear ($4.25): this is stewed in the usual soy sauce and five-spice powder, and then treated with a little hot sesame oil. What's special is the way it is sliced into thin wafers of gristle, so that it makes for a delicate and delicious exploration of gelatinous textures (no fat) and shifting flavors. A very likable dish. "Steamed ravioli with leek chive" ($5.25) is made up of nine curiously sour vegetarian dumplings. The leek chives seem to be the flat garlic chives, of which "yellow chives" are a version with a blanched color and refined flavor. "Leek chive pie" ($5.25) is two large pasties (turnovers, empanadas, whatever) of the same general material, but not so sour. I would think vegetarians in Taiwan must be like atheists in the foxholes; if so, these dishes would encourage them.

Pipa tofu ($12.50) was my stab at Hsu's "Crispy Smelled Bean Curd," but this was not rank at all. Pipa tofu is a large platter of fried balls of fresh tofu and fresh shrimp, and it is delicious. There is a bit of sweet-sour-hot sauce, but this is a dish that I think most readers will love at first bite. "Taipei style rice stick" ($7.50) seemed to be as close as I could get to Hsu's "Taiwanese stir-fried rice noodle." It has some bean sprouts and mostly cellophane noodles, which I think of as "bean thread" rather than "rice stick," but what do I know? I know enough to guess that the seasoning, with touches of pepper and cilantro, must be the Taiwanese feature.

"Clams triple delight with basil" ($12.50) is something unique to Taiwanese cooking, with a use of anise basil as in Thai cooking, but much more distinctive in the absence of curry flavors. The strong herbal note goes very well here with beautifully marked Pacific finger-size clams, and could be applied to all kinds of New England seafood.

Back on typical Cantonese ground, "fried squid with mild pepper" ($12.50) got a good frying job (not superior, but good), with some not-so-mild pepper oil, ginger, and garlic drizzled on top. "Sautéed watercress with garlic" ($10.55) seems to be what are called "hollow greens" in some restaurants. Nothing sautéed with this much garlic can ever be bad, but we did think this was a little greasy. Rice ($1) is sticky, in what Hsu assures me is the Taiwanese style, but not so aromatic as I remember the rice being at Taiwan Café.

We were outdoors on a September evening, and service was very good. I noticed a higher proportion of Asian customers choosing the indoor (and below-street-level) tables, either to get closer to the kitchen or to avoid the breezes diffusing the aroma. Wisteria House is not obviously a regional restaurant, and it likely attracts many passersby with a quick Chinese-American-style meal. These people probably never notice -- as I never did -- that the restaurant provides a taste of home for Boston's Taiwanese student and immigrant population. I had thought that Taiwanese food was a somewhat fry-heavy version of the fine Mandarin cooking brought to the island when the Chiang government was driven out of China. In fact, it is a peasant cuisine of its own, taking some influences from the island's complicated history, which includes decades of Japanese occupation.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at

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