The platter of house-made Taiwanese sausage is set before us, and we’re suddenly aware we’re not in the Kansas of Chinese restaurants anymore.
I spear an oval of the coarse-ground meat that’s pocked with precisely the right percentage of fat and I munch. I’m getting garlic-scented pork, a little something sweet to counter the garlic, a bit of crunch from the seared edges, and a warm feeling spreading from my hairline to my toes. I’m falling in love.
David Shen, the master of ceremonies at Red Onion Chinese Restaurant in Edison, comes by to smile. We’ve tilted our order in the direction of the Taiwanese specialties at this modest funhouse for food that has—slipped under the layer of glass topping the tables—a mini menu of chef’s specials. David, who fronts for his brother, Kyle Shen, the owner of Red Onion, has approved of our dining plan and wants to make sure we’re enjoying the sausages made on the premises.
Yup, we are. And we are aware we not only have left Kansas, but are entering the world of a veritable Oz of Chinese restaurants.
Take the sakura shrimp fried rice: Tiny, pale-pink, dried sakura (which means “cherry blossom”) shrimp pop in every bite of the very lightly fried rice that’s also studded with peas, carrots and scrambled egg. Everything takes a backseat to the dried shrimp, which have a minerality and something that approaches fruitiness. I catch my breath: I want to have this dish again with a glass of top-notch Loire Valley muscadet.
Maybe alongside the chicken roll, which is a kind of Asian version of braciole, the classic Italian rolled beef dish. This one’s tender and very juicy and given a flaky, whisper-thin pastry crust that makes me wonder if a French patissier is hanging around Red Onion’s kitchen.
Because there’s also a Taiwanese meatball that’s curiously encased in a puffy round that looks like a ball of mashed potatoes but slices like a chewy bun. No matter; it keeps the smiles on our faces with its patented Red Onion mix of great fun and great flavor.
Carry that over to the Taiwanese-style burger, which David Shen recommends and we find ourselves hailing its worthy spin on the now-ubiquitous pork-bun sandwich: It’s got a pillowy, fluffy roll that’s steamed and served warm, of course, only it’s layered with a slab of beef brushed with soy and given a scant sprig of greens to brighten the package. Pretty? Not particularly. But we want to eat the whole thing.
If all these dishes seem like snacks or preludes to a main event, well, that’s entirely possible and up to you. Red Onion, to be sure, has some seductive entree options to explore. Diminutive clams, sauteed with snips of musky basil in a thick wash of oyster sauce and soy sauce, take to the hints of garlic and ginger in the mix.
Strips of pork, stir-fried with batons of smoky, firm tofu and scallions, are energized by slivers of Chinese celery that give an herb-like edginess to the dish.
A Taiwanese dish called Three Cups Chicken might be my favorite of the big-dish brigade, coming as it does in a small cauldron of a pot with large bone-in nuggets that have been braised in a soy, rice-wine bath generously infused with garlic, ginger and chilies.
We snag, for the sake of getting some vegetables in our meal, a side of silky eggplant in garlic sauce and a tofu dish emphasized as home-style that comes with baby corn, mushrooms and bell peppers. At this end-game point, we’re not thinking about dessert, but then we get a wink from Shen.
So we get the passionfruit jello, which is not—NOT—your grandmother’s or great aunt’s jello, but something light and ethereal and should be instituted in hospitals nationwide as required eating for patients recovering from surgery. We get the bowl of cubed fresh mango set over shaved ice that’s piercingly cold and inordinately refreshing. It almost makes me ready and able to eat this whole Red Onion supper all over again. Why not? It’s Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dog, and I have a new love in restaurants.
Red Onion, 260 Talmadge Road, Edison. BYO. Open daily for lunch and dinner. 732-287-0202; redonionc.com.Click here to leave a comment