Owner Sandy Liu has never run a restaurant before. Though she worked in the financial services business for 10 years, that is not say she was naive. Her father was a chef in China and she grew up with the calling in her bones.
She found a prime location in downtown Palo Alto, then took over an existing restaurant, saving her a fortune on a new kitchen and other renovations. Finally, she brought in an experienced Chinese chef to carry out her vision. The menu is staggering, with 132 choices plus an additional 51 lunch specials. Everything I ordered was appetizing, with layers of flavors, large portions and decent prices.
Taste just might stick around awhile.
There were dishes that I recognized, like twice-cooked bacon, salt-and-pepper calamari and eggplant in garlic sauce. Then there was the more exotic: numbing spicy entrails, brown braised pork trotter and spicy burst pork intestine. Delicious, no doubt, and appreciated by Taste's clientele, who seemed to be mostly Chinese — a reassuring sign of authenticity.
Liu said she wanted to introduce "new elements" into the Chinese restaurant scene, unique dishes that don't often appear on local menus. While most of the dishes originated in Sichuan, the menu does stray to regional cuisines of Beijing, Shandon, Chongqing and Hunan.
Sichuan cooking methods include stir-frying, steaming, braising, baking and the most popular, fast-frying. At Taste, the kitchen has not only mastered but is proficient in the techniques, cooking a broad array of dishes and quickly getting them on diners' tables. We didn't wait 10 minutes for food to arrive even when the restaurant was packed.
We started one meal with the spicy fish fillet with pickled vegetables ($18), which was served in a tureen. The loads of white fish — plenty for two — came with shreds of greens in a soupy broth with a hint of vinegar. The griddled chicken ($16), served in a wok-like hotpot with a flame beneath it, was brimful of red bell peppers, onions, cauliflower, pea pods, mushrooms, broccoli, pieces of chicken breast, chilies and a half-dozen more ingredients. It was a colorful presentation and slightly spicy but not hot — comfort food, Sichuan style.
The griddled beef ($18) was presented similarly with many ingredients but tasted bolder, with more Sichuan peppers that left a tang on the tongue.
Possibly my favorite dish was the twice-cooked bacon ($16). Bursting with bacon flavor, the dish also had Sichuan peppers, green peppers, onions, scallions, black bean sauce, sugar and soy sauce.
I also loved the eggplant in garlic ($13), sautéed in a rich, thick, mahogany-colored sauce with a multitude of accompanying vegetables. Stir-fried pea sprouts ($15) with sliced garlic was a perfect accompaniment.
I couldn't wait to eat the spicy vermicelli, made with glass noodles and tossed with bits of pork, peanuts and garlic. The dry-braised Szechuan shrimp ($18), salt and pepper calamari ($16) General Tso chicken ($14) and the vegetable fried rice ($13) were equally delicious.
Next month, Taste will introduce a hybrid happy hour/high tea time. High mountain teas will be flown in from specialty growers in Taiwan and offered with pastries unique to our area.
Liu's vision of introducing "new elements" is gaining momentum. Reasonable prices, generous portions and the Asian community embraces its authenticity. Check, check and check.
423 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
Reservations: phone only
Credit cards: yes
Parking: street and city lots
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: patio
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
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