Kanpai Cafe

February 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kanpai Cafe
Taiwanese Grill Restaurant

3466 Holcomb Bridge Rd.
Norcross, GA 30092

(770) 840-8999
http://www.kanpaicafe.com/

Writing about my experience in Taiwan and staring at many pictures of food has left me with the desire to seek out some authentic Taiwanese food in the Atlanta area.  It’s certainly not a style I’ve seen or noticed much in my experiences eating out, but it does exist.  Unfortunately, it often exists mixed in with other more approachable styles to cater to a wider audience.  A large part of what made the food in Taiwan and Japan so awesome was that many places only really focused on a handful of related items.  Their dedication and expertise established over time reflected in the quality of the product.  I was willing to set aside my general bias against large, scattered menus to see what I could find.

After a positive experience making my own Taiwanese beef noodle soup (niú ròu miàn/牛肉面) at home, I figured it would still be nice to try to find something nearby for those days when I don’t feel like simmering down broth and bones all day.

 

Kanpai Cafe is located near a Blockbuster and Papa John’s where a Frontera Grill used to be.  There are still strong elements of Tex Mex decor lingering in the interior as you can see from the picture of the bar.   There were a few touches of Japanese decor here and there including a maneki neko bobbing in the background.  The lighting had an eerie and unappetizing yellow-ish brown tone which contributed to a dingy effect.  I was disappointed to note that it didn’t smell particularly great as the most prominent scent was stale frying oil.  I generally found the ambiance to be a major distraction.  It must be noted that while I can appreciate a variety of environments and can even find certain mismatched decor charming, I mention this because I predict plenty would also not find the ambiance here appealing.

Fortunately, the food is much more important than the ambiance.

There was one very large table of teenagers celebrating a birthday and one couple in a booth towards the back, but otherwise it was pretty quiet for a Saturday evening.  In fact, it took a few moments for us to be noticed when we entered.  The service was perfectly fine once we were seated, so it was no issue for me.

The menu was updated from the version on their website with a few additional snacks and dishes, but I glazed over most of it and went for a few things I’d already had before elsewhere figuring it would be best to keep it simple and sample their version of familiar flavors.

braised bamboo shoots, pickled daikon, and sesame cabbage

Along with the bamboo dish came some standard pickled vegetables.  The cabbage was softened from marinating in sesame oil, but still had a crispness to it.  It was quite simple, but enjoyable.  Also simple was the picked daikon which had a small bite of  spice, heat, and some familiar funk.
The bamboo was braised in pork belly much like a few other vegetables I experienced in Taiwan such as the cabbage at Formosa Chang, and had a really simple yet familiar flavoring.  It was clearly nowhere near as fresh as the bamboo could have been, but it was reasonably good.  I don’t know what it was about this dish in particular, but my desire for this grew over the course of the meal, and I had no problem polishing it off.  I am partial to this treatment, but I liked that the flavors were simple and reminiscent of other enjoyable flavors.

green onion pancake (cong you bing/葱油饼)

I tried some other variants of this sort of thing in Taiwan, and the combination of crispy and chewy dough with oily scallions is simple and delicious.  This version clearly had quite a bit of grease on the surface, but since the name translates to scallion oil pancake, one cannot argue its inauthenticity to its own name.  There was a very slight sweetness to the dough at points from the caramelization of the onions and it had the telltale chewy texture and bubbled, crispy edges somewhat similar to a good pizza crust.  I prefer a bit more scallion in the mix, but I couldn’t deny that despite the greasiness, this was an indulgent little snack.  They even happily reheated with a little more sear in the pan the next day.  A wash of garlic chili oil made this additionally delicious and conjured pleasant memories of street food snacks.

braised beef noodle soup (niú ròu miàn 牛肉面)

The main anticipation, niú ròu miàn, came with the option of flat white noodle or handmade noodles.  I went with the handmade noodles for better comparison purposes since the only versions I’ve had of this were served with handmade noodles.  I could detect the heavy notes of star anise from a distance, and I thought it had a beautiful appearance with a nice deep reddish brown broth and plenty of napa cabbage and pickled greens.  The flavor of the broth was more on the milder side, but it was still nicely developed and the complexity revealed itself as I continued to taste it.  The noodles were nice and chewy, but they were extremely uneven in thickness and lumpy in texture.  I wasn’t particularly bothered by this since it added to the homemade element of the dish, but it was very much worth nothing and might not be the best choice for some.  The meat had a nice concentration of the broth flavor and was quite tender.  The portion size was quite generous as well and it was easy to make another meal out of the leftovers.

All in all, I was pretty pleased.  This certainly felt authentic and was a good facsimile that I’ll likely revisit unless I find a version I prefer locally better.

Was it the best I ever had?  I certainly preferred the first time I had niú ròu miàn because the flavors were so much more intense especially due to the broth being much thicker and spicier, but seeing as I can’t hop on a plane and go there when I’ve got a craving, this will work for me.

Final verdict:  Based on my experiences, I found the food I tried here to be credible and more authentic than I was anticipating.  While I have no real intention of straying too far from Taiwanese cuisine off of the menu here,  I will likely return to this place to test more of their Taiwanese goodies & hope to add to this post as I do.  I certainly recommend their beef noodle soup and scallion pancake for those curious although be aware that their handmade noodles have a reputation for being quite uneven, and the scallion pancake is naturally oily.
I encourage you to share your experiences with Kanpai or at other Taiwanese-serving establishments with me as well.

Kan Pai Cafe on Urbanspoon

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