Taiwan Meets Sichuan at Formosa Bistro

Milkfish soup to mapo tofu—Formosa Bistro has it all.

By Katharine Shilcutt December 27, 2013

Formosa Bistro's wontons in chile oil, front; mapo tofu and dan dan noodles, rear.

Sometimes Atlanta's loss is our gain.

This time last year, it was Chris Kinjo and his brother moving from Buckhead to the Bayou City to open MF Sushi. What had previously been one of Atlanta's best sushi restaurants before closing in early 2012 was reinvisioned as a new restaurant in Houston; MF Sushi quickly rocketed to the top of most critics' and diners' lists as one of the best new sushi restaurants in years.

Now, it's Formosa Bistro, which opened on Bellaire Boulevard this past summer but is just now garnering attention for its mixed menu of Taiwanese and Sichuan favorites.

Atlanta's Little Szechuan restaurant flourished under chef Yu Chang Chung, earning it rave reviews from the Journal-Constitution's chief food critic John Kessler and a place on Martin Yan's list of "Top 100 Best Chinese Restaurants in the U.S.A." For well over a decade, Little Szechuan was one of the most popular Chinese spots in the city.

Then Chung left. These days, Little Szechuan is run by chef Kong Ko, who's having problems keeping the restaurant clean enough to pass health inspections and busy enough to stay open. I think it's safe to say Chung was the brains behind Little Szechuan.

When Chung moved to Houston and opened Formosa Bistro, he named it for his homeland of Taiwan (historically known to Westerners as "Formosa," Portuguese for "beautiful") but kept the Sichuan dishes he'd perfected at Little Szechuan. The result is a hybrid menu that offers both milkfish soup—a rarely seen Taiwanese specialty—and the spicy Sichuan peppercorn-laden mapo tofu.

I won't say that neighboring Mala Sichuan (in the Metropole Center next door) has any stiff competition from Formosa Bistro so far, but those who find Mala too spicy or its oddly named dishes too off-putting will likely find Formosa more accessible. The peanut-sweet dan dan noodles and gently crimped pork wontons in chile oil were both sturdy, well-executed examples of the genre at Formosa, although their counterparts at Mala have more oomph. The ma po tofu, too, could have used more of that signature ma la flavor.

Dan dan noodles, before mixing.

The best dish during my first visit to Formosa was one of Chung's Taiwanese dishes: milkfish soup in a clear broth that was filled with thickets of lemongrass and soft, fatty slices of milkfish belly. The white fish is incredibly popular in southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines and in Taiwan, where large-scale farming operations keep the countries stocked in their favorite fish. Along with lemongrass, the milkfish soup offered big, sinus-clearing bites of ginger and green onion—all in all, the perfect palate cleanser between creamy bites of dan dan noodles and mapo tofu.

Milkfish soup.

One thing that stood out to me, however, was the kitchen's reluctance to send out the milkfish soup. Only a few seconds after placing our order, the waiter returned to our table with a question from Chung: "He wants to know if you've ever had milkfish soup before."

"Yes," I lied. I'd only read about it. The waiter could tell I was lying; he hesitated a few seconds, realizing that I wasn't going to give up the lie, then shuffled back off to the kitchen. He threw one last odd look my way as he went.

"What did you just order?" my dining companion hissed. "I don't know now!" I squeaked back. "I thought it was just plain old milkfish soup!"

Surely enough, the soup I'd read about arrived as expected. It was so delicious, so innocuous, I couldn't understand why a warning had been necessary. It was the favorite dish of our meal, in fact, and I intend to order it again and again at Formosa Bistro. Next time, however, I'm asking chef Chung what the big deal is—the milkfish soup may just be his best-kept secret.

Formosa Bistro, 9252 Bellaire Blvd., 713-778-0910 

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