Asia Taste and Tapioca

Asian, Chinese
$$$$ ($14 and under)
Asia Taste and Tapioca photo
Leah L. Jones/The Post

Editorial Review

Taiwanese Specialties, and Bubbles to Boot

By Moira McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 22, 2008

At first glance: Unlike the saying about pizza, "Even when it's bad, it's good," the same cannot be said of Chinese food. Good Chinese food, on the other hand, and the mix of flavors -- sweet and sour, fried and steamed, crunchy and soft -- can introduce your taste buds to delicious combinations. Asia Taste and Tapioca, a small Chinese and Taiwanese restaurant on the corner of a Rockville small strip mall, is good Chinese food.

You could look at Asia Taste in one of two ways. You could see it as a very small, brightly lit restaurant off Route 270 that shares a parking lot with a tile shop and an auto parts store and that lacks a decorative theme, real silverware and tablecloths. Or you could see it for what it is and what it wants to be: the real deal in Taiwanese food.

Kathy Wen moved to Rockville from Taiwan in 1994. She and her husband, Johnny, opened Asia Taste (also known as Jumbo Jumbo) in 2003, and they also own Jumbo Jumbo Cafe in Gaithersburg and Bubble Express in Rockville.

It's clear that the Wens are more focused on the food than on the ambiance. On the walls are pictures of the dishes and drinks, a map of Rockville, food service certificates and a big calendar with Chinese characters. But looks can be deceiving.

At your service: Order at the counter and the friendly worker will explain the menu or make recommendations. (The food is also available for carryout and delivery.) The charming staff will happily entertain your queries, whether about the food, the Chinese language or the Chinese newspaper that some of their patrons read. Unless you know Asian cuisine, the names of the dishes won't give themselves away and might include food items that you don't expect (such as a pork chop that comes with a hard-cooked egg), so don't be afraid to ask. Servers will bring your meal to your table in less than 10 minutes.

On the menu: Asia Taste has two menus, a pink one for the Taiwanese food and an off-white one for the Chinese food.

You know the old adage "When in Rome." Well, when in a restaurant owned by a Taiwanese couple, order the Taiwanese food. A great meal is the Taiwan-style combination noodle soup, which includes fish cakes that look like slices of egg, squid, pork and shrimp in a broth that you could almost drink by itself.

Or if you would like to stick with something more familiar, order the sha cha pork lo mein. It's more spicy (and flavorful) than your average lo mein.

Asia Taste also offers American-style Chinese food, Wen said. Among these are the crispy shredded beef, sweet and so crisp you can pick it up to eat. Although pan-fried noodles are supposed to be a little burnt, some of the noodles were a bit overdone (as in: black). But the dish is filling and includes nicely cooked beef, chicken, pork, shrimp and vegetables.

The spicy-sweet sauce on the General Tso's chicken is a deeper red and a bit thicker than you might expect. The white chicken is moist on the inside and crispy on the outside, as it should be. And for the perfect comfort food, try a heaping plate of fried rice.

The entrees are big, so you may not need a prelude. However, the large spring rolls are definitely worth the $1.35.

Johnny Wen, whose family runs restaurants in Taiwan, trains all his chefs himself, so your meals should be consistent.

What to avoid: I was disappointed by the Taiwan chicken, also known as popcorn chicken. The breading was too thick and the chicken chewy. In the same vein, the Taiwanese pork chop was overbreaded.

Wet your whistle: Don't bother going to Asia Taste without experiencing the bubble tea, the Taiwanese answer to the iced latte. Order one of the 16 flavored milk teas made with real tea leaves. Flavors include almond, chocolate and honeydew. Ask for the addition of soft, chewy balls, or "bubbles," of tapioca, Jell-O or pudding. The balls provide for a fun drinking experience as you suck them through an oversize purple, pink or yellow straw and chew. If you get really into them, pick up a drink card good for a free tea after you buy 10.

Asia Taste also offers 15 iced teas, 16 smoothies and a few hot teas.

Bottom line: This relaxed place will take you beyond the standard Chinese fare, and it may even inspire you to give up your latte for bubble tea.