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The Secret Garden
If you don’t have a friend who reads Chinese, get one, and a whole new world of Taiwanese tastes will unfold for you at May Garden
The queen’s chicken at May Garden is one of the best in OC. A shame, then, that most people don’t even know it exists.
“Americans don’t really like this dish,” our waiter told us. Thus, the restaurant does not include it on the regular menu. Instead, it is hidden on another menu, a secret one printed on plain paper in Chinese characters.
1400 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Region: Costa Mesa
Once you see the chicken, you’ll understand why it is kept out of view from the kung pao-loving public. It is not for the squeamish. First, it’s served chilled, having been taken out of the fridge only moments after you ask for it. Though it is fully cooked, it looks almost raw, like barely boiled chicken. There’s no extra-tasty crispy batter to hide what you’re about to consume. You see it all: The skin is pallid yellow, floppy, pimply pores visible. It’s hacked by cleaver into chopstick-pickable chunks, but the bird’s skeletal structure is more or less intact, still fully recognizable as an animal. And—oh, yeah—parts of the neck are included, cut into coin-sized, cross-section nubs.
To enjoy the dish is to get up close and very personal with it. You use your front teeth to scrape meat from bone, to nibble off the wonderful jellied skin, maneuvering each piece of the poultry carcass around in your mouth to extract every scrap, spitting out any bone fragments that may have come loose during the process.
I’ve eaten the same kind of bird under other names, like drunken chicken and Hainan chicken, but almost exclusively in the Chinese-food mecca of the San Gabriel Valley, where it wouldn’t be relegated to the “secret menu.” So to discover the dish here in Costa Mesa seemed especially sweet, an affirmation of what’s possible when passionate people run the kitchen.
I had known for years that Eric, May Garden’s chef and owner, will do a special Taiwanese banquet upon request, given a few days’ advance notice. I knew this even as I visited multiple times to eat his crispy shrimp, a staple here that is among the most addictive substances known to humankind. But I didn’t have the whole story, it turns out. You needn’t make special arrangements: The Taiwanese menu has always been available, even if you walk in off the street. It is still, however, impenetrable for the non-Chinese reader since no English translations are offered. So, since I don’t know Mandarin, I did as any intrepid diner would do: I took a copy home, got a friend to translate it and went back for more the next day.
It was like seeing the Matrix from outside. May Garden, it turns out, is two different restaurants with two distinct types of customers. These diners may sit in the same room, but an invisible wall divides them. One group of tables had whole steamed fish served on lit chafing trays and plates of fresh sashimi. The others had pupu platters and egg rolls. One shoveled a stir-fry of bean curd sheets from their bowls with chopsticks; another raked up sweet-and-sour pork and fried rice with forks. There may be other Americanized Chinese restaurants out there with secret menus, but not many will be Taiwanese—or done with such care and detail.
We stayed entirely within the menu on which the queen’s chicken resides. Here, we also found the deep-fried soft-shell crab, which topped a refreshing salad of raisins, pineapple, tomato and field greens. Instead of the hot-and-sour, there’s a Taiwanese soup only described as “thick,” layered in flavors with crispy bits of fried shallots and diced bamboo shoots. We chose shrimp as the protein for it, but you can opt for cuttlefish.
Then, there’s an appetizer of chopped shrimp rolled inside a deep-fried seaweed stogie, served with its plate partner, breaded croquettes made entirely of mashed taro—both thrilling reminders that the egg roll is just an egg roll. After we took one slurp of the stir-fried rice noodles flecked with matchstick pieces of pumpkin, chow mein also became a distant memory. One dish joined crunchy jellyfish with crisp asparagus. Another dish, a roasted yellowtail collar, three times as large as a Japanese izakaya’s, was just as blubbery and just as good.
And for dessert? Another off-menu item: freshly made mochi balls—still warm, gooey and glutinous—buried under an avalanche of sugared, crushed peanuts. But don’t worry; even if you choose this Garden path, you still get a fortune cookie. Everyone gets a fortune cookie.
May Garden, 1400 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-9229. Call for hours. Full bar. Taiwanese dishes range from $6.50 to market prices for certain items.