SAUTÉED SHRIMP: The shell-on whole-shrimp version with salt and pepper is sweet and delicious — well worth a few extra dollars.
Mu Lan opened three years ago and changed chefs and menus this past summer, but has maintained a good reputation in the increasingly competitive Taiwan subcategory of Asian food. If this is going to be your first attempt at a Taiwan menu, don't worry, be happy. Everything from the most familiar Chinese-American classics to the scariest use of spare pig parts comes to the table so quickly that freshness trumps all. The modern style of food from "Chinese Taipei" cuts down the oil, too.
|Mu Lan Taiwanese Restaurant | 228 Broadway, Cambridge | 617.441.8812 | Open Tues–Thurs, 11 am–9:30 pm; Fri and Sat, 11 am–10:30 pm; And Sun, 11 am–9:30 pm | MC, VI | No liquor | Street-level access | No valet parking, own parking in front|
The hot appetizer list has lots of dumpling variants. This suggests mastery, and so did our order of a dozen pork-and-string-bean dumplings ($6.95). They were fleshy pasta, but the filling was fresh-tasting and novel. A cold assorted platter ($11.95) was not all that assorted. Our night it had seaweed salad and sliced cold spiced beef, both exemplary.
Rice ($1) is fragrant and sticky enough for even me to eat with chopsticks. In some ways, the best things we put on top of it were vegan, like the eggplant with basil ($9.95) and stir-fried pea-pod stems with minced garlic ($13.95). The former is lavender Asian eggplant cut thick and fried too fast for much grease, with just a hint of the licorice taste of fresh basil, thin-sliced garlic, and a brown sauce to hold it together. The latter, a personal favorite, is snap-pea tendrils fried with garlic for one of the freshest green vegetable flavors of the winter.
I'd also highly recommend the sautéed shrimp with salt and pepper ($14.95). This is the whole-shrimp variation of the less expensive shelled shrimp so fried ($11.95). The unpeeled shrimp are so much sweeter and more delicious, well worth the few extra dollars. We broke off the heads but otherwise consumed the thin shells. The salt and pepper were mostly in the light breading. Watch out for the drizzle of fried chili peppers and garlic; there are some deadly ones.
The menu recommends "Shredded beef with crispy well veggie" ($11.95) — whatever that is — but I wasn't crazy about it. (Menu symbols can be confusing: recommended dishes are marked by hexagonal red silhouettes that could be mistaken for octagonal red stop signs. Spicy dishes — which aren't too dangerous if you watch out for the chili-pepper pieces — have a four-leaf dingbat that looks like a red hand.) There wasn't much beef in this dish, and the "crispy well vegetable" may be mysterious, but it sure wasn't crisp. It's brown, cut into long shreds or strings, stir-fried with shredded red bell pepper, and has a pleasant mushroom-y taste that must really evoke nostalgia if you grew up eating in Taiwan. There was more of it in a chicken and mushroom hot pot ($15.95) — another reason to suspect it is a fungus.
Cold weather always turns my thoughts to Chinese hot pots. The one on offer here has boney chunks of chicken, a few slices of ham for flavor, bamboo shoots, and a thin broth. It improved with the addition of rice, and so it might be even better as a congee.
The tea was so weak I could not identify it — though perhaps for this reason it goes better with food than more distinctive tea. Water was refilled rapidly. The only dessert was a complimentary bowl of sweetened bean and barley soup.
The service at Mu Lan is a hallmark: most plates are delivered quickly, by rapidly moving young women. It's fast, pretty accurate even under pressure, and informative. If you want authentic recommendations, ask about pig ear (a Taiwanese classic not on this menu) and a few of the stop-sign items. Not everything listed was in stock, so servers steered us to substitutes, and I liked the substitutes very much.
The décor is nicer than it looks from outside — walls are an unconventional pastel pink, lavender, and near-aqua — and there's minimal kitsch, other than some leftover Chinese New Year decorations hanging from the ceiling. The Friday-night crowd suggests that this is the number-one hangout for Taiwanese students from MIT and elsewhere. Knowledgeable customers always keep a restaurant in line.
Barry Popik, a tireless student of American popular culture and a contributing editor to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, has dated the first American reference to pizza to 1903, and the reference is to Boston's own North End!