|A buzzer lets you know when your takeout is ready at Well Tea.|
There's a whole genre of Taiwanese eateries scattered across town, referred to commonly as "bubble tea joints" or "Taiwanese-style cafes." Both of those terms don't accurately describe these restaurants, and I'm doubtful that any general term can apply to their organized chaos. Bubble tea plays a large part, in that they are invariably offered in variables; equally important are snacks, noodle bowls, set dinners and fried things of all sorts. If there's any one common theme that ties any of them, it's the voluminous variety.
The only other common feature - which depends heavily on the bankroll of the proprietors involved - is the environment. A modern, albeit very Asian, sense of design is usually involved, in a glamourized contrast to hole-in-the-wall wonton noodle shops. If one refers to Wong Kar Wai's 2046, then we're dealing with 2015 (or a 2005 version of it). There's a sense of movement, a sense of displacement at each, as though eating at an airport or train station, with the volume of traffic, the volume of patrons, to match. They're places of flux.
And so it is with Well Tea, one of the more popular Taiwanese eateries in town, with locations in Richmond, near UBC and in the BCIT building downtown. It's the latter that we went to, where the interiors are the least stylized, not having changed significantly from the former Hon's experiment that it replaced. The constant movement is there to great effect: no one seems content to stay in one place except for the large number of students present, and even they're only stopping for a quick breather. This is reflected in its staff, all pleasantly functional and no more, not that anyone should expect for something grander.
This chaos is reflected in the menu. There's pages and pages of it, on the walls, on a television screen, on the takeout menu. They're not all Taiwanese options (teppanyaki and other faux Japanese fare is avail) and in that sense they are all Taiwanese options. It seems like more of a map to everywhere and nowhere than a menu, and remember the annoyance you are causing if taking a minute to decide what to order. There's surely a protocol in place as to what one orders and what one doesn't, but don't for one second assume anyone should explain it to you.
There are noodle dishes, rice dishes, set dinners, and more deep-fried options than a KFC. A deep fried pork chop in red "fermented" sauce ($7.25) is far more sweet than its mouldy translation may imply, is expertly crisp with the right amount of batter and without being overly dry, and comes with toothsome yellow noodles in a MSG, dong choy (preserved, salted vegetable) flavoured soup. Peek below the batter and the pork is a delirous pink, technicolour, which would be shocking at most other restaurants but fitting in this context.
Of the Taiwanese 'snacks,' Taiwanese sausage seems ubiquitous, and offered in multiple variations. It tastes somewhat like the common lap cheong or red Chinese sausage, though sweeter and as fatty as a chorizo. For $7.45, one is served a (un)healthy dose of it, hiding a bowl of soup and noodles beneath.
Well Tea's website makes mention that its chicken with three spices ($7.95) has won a Golden Chef Award at the 2010 Chinese Restaurant Awards, which is somewhat hard to confirm given the CRA's confusing website and more confusing award categories. The dish is also commonly referred to as "three cup chicken," referring to the three liquids that go into the marinade: soy, Chinese rice wine and sesame oil. There's competing origin stories for the dish, with some simply claiming that it arose as a Taiwanese peasant dish, and others claiming it was brought down to Taiwan by Shanghainese emigrants. A more elaborate tale places it in the Song Dynasty, when an admired general was taken prisoner. An elderly woman or man (depends on what website you end up on) either brings a gift of chicken and wine, asking the warden to cook it with the only other ingredients - sesame oil and soy - that he's got, or the elderly person brings it completely finished, and the warden is in such admiration at the gesture (and presumably the taste) that he makes the same dish on a memorial day set aside for the general. Well Tea's version isn't quite as history-making, though it does show off a nice balance of flavours, with an subtle, underlying taste of peppercorn, and cooked with spring onion and fried leaves of Thai basil. Why Well Tea chooses to offer three side dishes - bean sprouts with tofu, napa cabbage with egg, and more egg with carrot - that are as bland as they grey-toned is beyond me.
Of course, one can't go to a place like Well Tea and not try, well, a bubble tea. The sheer number of choices offered are dizzying: flavoured green teas, black teas, fruit juices, slushes, pearls, sago, grass jelly, kanten…it'd be almost breathtaking if you don't consider how much sweetener is involved. A simple honey lemon black tea ($4.00) tastes much like a Flintstone vitamin, and ended all curiosity about the other variations.
551 Seymour Street