WHAT'S IN a name? In the case of Bob's Noodle 66 in Rockville, only a hint, because "Bob" is Taiwanese journalist Bob Liu, the brains (the noodle?) and presiding sprite of the establishment; and there are so many intriguing dishes that it takes a strong head indeed to sort through the menu. (Not 66 -- in Chinese, that number's a homonym for "prosperity" -- and in fact there are three times that many choices.) But never fear; Bob is here.
In Taiwan, noodles are of prime import, and Bob's range from flat rice to round egg to rice cakes to wontons and the Japanese wheat udon. The menu has a slightly awkward but interesting description of the influences on Taiwanese cuisine, which is most closely related to the light, fresh Fukien style but, thanks to the post-Mao flight to Taiwan of mainland Chinese from many regions, has some interesting quirks. (The menu also notes Japan's half-century occupation of the island, but the Japanese influence is limited mostly to the odd flash of miso, a few "tempura" dishes and the presence of sake on the bar.)
And what a menu. You could spend a couple of months just working your way through the printed dishes and never get to the specials, either the ones on the handout or the dozen or more written -- as yet, only in Mandarin, although Bob continues to promise translations -- on the signboard. Fortunately, despite the occasionally giggle-making translations ("crispy smelled bean curd," a seriously understated name for the tofu equivalent of a corpse flower), Bob and most of the staff speak quite enough English to explain the difference between "seafood combo thick noodle soups" and "seafood combo hot spicy noodle" or the relative merits of crispy vs. steamed intestines. And ask about the untranslated dishes and you may find treasure: One night's special of soft-shell crabs, cut into large bites and tempura fried, were the best in memory.
Start slow: Servings can be really generous, even those listed as appetizers (and also because "entrees" aren't necessarily held back by the kitchen until the first orders are finished). Fried duck tails, which have tiny bones like quail, are so crunchy they could be Chinese chips. The oyster pancake, which is as soft as scrambled eggs and rich in equally coddled oysters, covers a plate. (It comes dressed with a sort of soy-flavored ketchup, which might strike one as American; but ketchup is originally Chinese as well.)
The fish hot pot, which is on the more or less regular special list, is huge and fantastic, even larger than the seafood noodle soups. At $10.95, the ginger-scented chicken casserole makes even those bargain family cook-in/carryouts look expensive.
The food tends to be quite light, even the dishes marked spicy, and some of the ones you might be wary of by name are so delicate you would be embarrassed to duck them (so to speak). Fried squid balls are nuggets of a bouncy seafood mousse. What looks like a plate of frozen Ore-Idas is the "Taiwanese-style tempura," not actually vegetable but that sort of gelatinous combo sometimes called fish cake. Steamed intestines are extremely mild, though identifiably pork; without the dipping sauce (which unfortunately is how the leftovers arrived home), they were almost tasteless. Ditto the five-spice squid; the anise was all in the sauce, which was also left behind by the kitchen, and the squid -- in this one case only -- was a little overdone.
The number of dishes featuring loofah might startle an habitue of bed and bath stores, but it's not quite the same creature; it's a softer cukey monster. Squid with sour mustard is a low-fat, clean-flavored delight, delicate scored cylinders of calamari stir-fried with the stalks of baby greens in an easy sweet-and-sour marinade, like bread-and-butter pickles. As the menu points out, "so many Taiwanese food are colored by all sorts of sea produce," but Bob's is no meat-free zone. Beef with basil is slightly spicy but, well, tastes meatier than its Thai cousins. The so-called veal chops with black pepper or scallion are thin, pan-fried rib slices you pretty much have to eat off the bone. And of course there are all those fabulous organs, kidneys and livers and stomachs and blood and -- eeewwwww, chow mein! (Actually, it's a good one). Obviously, there are long lists of soups and noodles (often soups in larger portions), rice bowls and congees (the soupier rice porridges) and a half-dozen tofu dishes as well. Bob's has another oversize specialty: huge mounds of shaved ice "snowed" on the top with red, green or kidney beans, litchis, yellow or black (herbal) jellies or a combo order. They're meant as desserts but tempting as a hot-weather meal.
It's rare that I say this, but there will be a lot more Bob's in my future. Ginger frog casserole; bitter melon with anchovies; duck chop and dried cabbage soup; five-flavor red snapper; sea snails with basil; scallops with loofah; shredded pork with bamboo tips; duck blood with leeks. And despite my previously disappointing experiences, Bob could even get me to try the sluggish sea cucumber again. Maybe it'll be like loofah.
Note: Bob's takes only cash.