Be brave when visiting FORMOSA CHINESE RESTAURANT in Lake Forest. Ignore the trepidation in your heart when you pull up and realize it’s in a Best Western hotel. Grin and bear it when the waitstaff nicely but assertively dissuades you from ordering certain dishes. Most important, be prepared to jaw with them and insist they translate the Rosetta Stone that is the two whiteboards hanging on a sparsely decorated wall with Chinese characters that hold the restaurant’s true culinary treasures.
Don’t get me wrong: Everything at Formosa is delish. And in these Depression-era times, few other places will fill your gut for five bucks with an entrée, steamed rice, soup, and unlimited tea and water. But most of the 154 or so items on the regular menu are the dishes your grandparents found exotic—crab Rangoon; chicken, beef, and pork cooked any number of ways; soups, rice, and noodles. The advertised chef’s specials provoke just a bit more excitement—macadamia chicken is nothing more than hen sautéed with the nuts, and the Three Sizzling Musketeer (shrimp, scallop and beef) is just a Sino-ized version of our surf ’n’ turf. Hardly reasons to hop on the 5 and brave traffic in a city as boring as Lake Forest, ¿que no?
Flip over the menu and look for the Taiwanese specialties. Let your salivary glands ache at the idea of deep-fried chicken; Satiate them by ordering it, and slather the stuff with Formosa’s honey-like sweet-and-sour sauce (be careful with the hot mustard—more than one dot at a time will incapacitate you like a knee in the ‘nads). Try the tripe with sour mustard—bitter, chewy, brilliant. This is one of Orange County’s few Taiwanese cafés, which differ from those on the mainland by focusing on sauces and spices to draw out flavors. I don’t think I’ve seen so many different sauces in one gathering—garlic, spicy bean, ginger, soy, chili, and the ever-mysterious brown—since Aisle 8 at Ranch 99.
Then there’s those whiteboards. They list at least 20 dishes, and most of the ones I’ve tried aren’t on the regular menu. The green scallion pancake is perfect—soft inside, slightly burnt on the outside, fat with scallions that provide verdant joy at the most unexpected moments. Crispy, slightly sour Chinese sausage tastes even better by biting into the slices of raw garlic provided. And the weekends bring a Chinese breakfast of soy milk and fried Chinese donuts—not that the menu tells you that.
FORMOSA CHINESE RESTAURANT, 23702 ROCKFIELD BLVD. (INSIDE THE BEST WESTERN HOTEL—IF YOU DON’T KNOW THIS, YOU’LL GET LOST), LAKE FOREST, (949) 458-7125.