Lost in Mastication 

Fishi's fare is like that dialect you just can't quite figure out.

I got home from lunch at Fishi Cafe — a Taiwanese place in Fremont — and asked my friend Michelle what fishi means. Her family is from Fujian, the Chinese province that glowers at the island across the Taiwan Straits the way San Francisco stares down Oakland. "It can mean a lot of things or it can mean nothing at all," she said, trying to be helpful. "Depending on dialect and intonation."

For the novice, getting a handle on Taiwanese food is just like that: twisting a scrambled Rubik's cube of dialect and intonation. Taiwan is such a fusion of styles and influences — Japanese, ethnic Hakka, and pan-Chinese thanks to the Kuomintang, who fled from all over the mainland after civil war. Clicking the colored squares into place can be bewildering.

To make things even more confusing, probing the word "fishi" may not even be quite right. The sign out front reads "Fishi," in letters splashed across an arching cartoon skeleton. On the menu it's "Finchi." See what I mean? Hard to probe.

Tucked into a corner of the Warm Springs mall everyone calls Little Taipei, almost smack-dab next to the Lion supermarket, Fishi/Finchi has a contemporary vibe that's only slightly worn around the edges (except for the bathrooms, which you'll want to avoid except for emergencies — just sayin'). It was once the Shanghainese 3-6-9 Cafe, and the ghost of 3-6-9 still haunts the heading on charge receipts. Tall blue plexi cylinders filled with bubbling water anchor a room divider etched with fish — two out of three cylinders, anyway; the middle one seems to have leaked dry. Stucco walls are pitted and stippled like slabs of deep-fried tofu. The copper-trimmed bar bristles with bubble-lamp drip coffeemakers.

If you're limited to English, communication with the servers is strictly physical, a process of pointing to menu characters, smiling, and hoping for the best. Show up on a Sunday afternoon when the all-you-can-eat buffet is happening and it's a challenge even finding a server to mime with: They're all frantically busing plates or taking bubble tea orders at the bar.

For $7.50 you can stuff yourself with a few Taiwanese dishes, snacks like pressed tofu, anchovy peanuts, and cold tapioca pearl soup — pretty much an excuse for dunking fried dough. Chafing dishes offer Chinese generics: egg rolls, chow fun, and half a dozen brown and unsurprising stir-fries. A good deal, but for a wider-ranging taste of Taiwan, you'll have to search for a server who'll stand still long enough to translate your finger-pointing into lunch.

Despite the tricky communications, a dish like sautéed clams with basil feels like a peek inside Taiwan. It's got the outlines of boilerplate Cantonese: fat, meaty clams wok-sautéed with soy sauce and rice wine, ginger, and the salty, tannic pulp of fermented black bean. But there's something else going on here: a handful of Asian basil sprigs that ignites the dish the way incense charges a room. It's resiny and powerful, blurring the line between taste and fragrance in a way that collars your imagination.

Three-cup chicken gives you a similar sense of discovery. Bony morsels — stained chestnut brown from a good, long steeping in soy sauce — were meant for sucking, turning over in your mouth, and cracking the bones between your teeth. Rice wine added a maltlike, syrupy presence — not the yeasty, sherried kick of Shaoxing wine, but the sweetness of Japanese mirin. The bottom of the chicken's sizzling iron pot offered up bits of ginger, the odd fried basil leaf, and soft cloves of garlic saturated with soy and rice wine. Delicious. So was the Hakka special dish, a garlicky, chile-flecked stir fry of red-skinned peanuts and stalks of Chinese celery.

Wine chicken in hot pot was the kind of discovery I'd like to avoid next time. Chicken pieces, brick-colored Chinese dates, and white slices of lovage root simmered in broth above an alcohol flame. The home-style broth was unctuous and cloudy — I liked the texture, but the taste was medicinal: sweet with jujubes but numbingly bitter from the roots. I'm sure it was good for me, but spleen tonic wasn't quite what I had in mind.

Fortunately, the kitchen knows meats. In fact, you can see them all next door — buy some to take home if you want — at a takeout counter that connects with Fishi's kitchen in a little food court. In the restaurant, an appetizer of boiled, just-warm goose consisted of thick slices cut with the grain. They were tender enough in spite of it, glazed with a scant red sauce sweet enough to contain ketchup. The flavor was softly gamey, as mild and almost as lean as turkey thigh.

Slices of taupe-colored roast pork in the so-called pork potage noodle soup (listed under dim sum) were perfect: tender, mild, and sweet. The rest of it was a pale version of ramen, a clump of soft wheat-flour noodles steeped in mild chicken broth. The effect was too delicate — it needed more than a few drops of black vinegar to wake it up.

Simmered pigs' ears were just right, a flurry of thin, crunchy slices stained brown from poaching in black soy. They glistened with toasted sesame oil — the smokiness made them taste almost like bacon. But house special pigs' knuckles were so mild I thought they were chicken, especially since the bones had been pried out before slicing. They'd poached a long time, probably with at least one change of cooking liquid to leach out any whiff of pork funk. Served in a little pool of poaching liquid, next to fine strands of young ginger splayed like Pick-Up Sticks, they were boring. Another candidate for the vinegar cruet.

Oyster pancake had too much sauce — or maybe the sauce was just too ketchupy. On its own, the pancake was nicely crisp around the edges, delicate, like the lacy fringe surrounding a fried egg. The center was way starchy, a gluey dome covering a thin, flat oyster-studded omelet. The oysters were just right: small and plump, with a gently metallic sweetness. But the red, sugary sauce — unavoidable, since it covered almost everything — did its best to stifle anything even remotely gentle.

It's a slightly strange dish, one with wide-ranging flavors and textures that didn't quite translate. The kitchen did a clumsy job, or maybe it's an acquired taste, a question of dialect and intonation.


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