“I like rice,” the late, wacky stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg famously said. “Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2,000 of something.”
This is funny because it’s a presumably true statement about a reality that we’ve probably never considered before, and yanks a laugh out of our bellies before we suddenly come up short with the obvious follow-up: “So what?”
Still, I do love rice, even by the thousands, and I love pasta, bread and potatoes, too, which makes me a very poor candidate for the Atkins diet. I also love Asian food, which often comes with rice, even though – as Mitch Hedberg might have said, if he had only thought of it – “kids hate Asian food because everything touches on your plate.”
Recently I’ve been in a mood to eat thousands of things – okay, a ration of rice – and to enjoy the colorful, flavorful array of tasty Asian things all touching on my plate.
So, eating Asian it is, as we report today on good ethnic eats from the East: Bentuhua Teahouse and Taiwanese Small Eats is an excellent recent arrival in Crescent Hill. It has been flying under the radar since its launch last November, word of its arrival on a residential-looking block of Frankfort Avenue spreading mostly via a colorful but smallish sign out front, plus a growing buzz of word-of-mouth advertising.
It occupies a large room – perhaps once a family’s living room and dining room – with room for just 24 diners in an old, nicely kept bungalow that Bentuhua shares with the funky, fun folks who broadcast low-power Crescent Hill Radio.
Proprietor Veronica Chang, an affable and smiling 26-year-old, was born in Taiwan, but her perfect English reveals a life spent mostly in the U.S., where her parents have a restaurant in Arkansas.
She is a joyful ambassador for things Taiwanese, and seeks not only to feed Louisville wonderful samples of Taiwanese street fare but also to gently let us know about the food and drink, art and history and culture of Taiwan as well.
Even the name “Bentuhua” – pronounced “bent-wah,” approximately – has Taiwanese political resonance, coming from a modern phrase that symbolizes “localization,” Taiwan’s continued efforts to express Taiwan’s autonomy and independence from the People’s Republic of China, from which it separated after World War II.
Reflecting this approach in its name, Chang says, Bentuhua Tea House is designed to bridge Taiwan’s past, present, and future so customers can truly experience a little piece of Taiwan right here in Louisville.
The short but intriguing menu features about a dozen Xiao Chi (“small eats”) patterned after the street-food snacks sold at Taiwan’s popular public night markets. They range from $7.50 to $9 for dishes that aren’t all that small; a few dim-sum-tyle items are $3.50 to $5.50.
A good share of the dishes are vegetarian or available meat-free as an option, although the signature Buddha Jumps Over the Wall ($9), a meat-lover’s stir-fry containing pig’s feet, pork, chicken and squid, is said to be sufficiently tempting to convert even the Buddha himself into a carnivore.
Jiao Zi (dumplings, $4.50) are available steamed or fried; we chose fried, of course, because crunchy and delicious, and enjoyed five fat wonton purses loaded with a savory, aromatic mix of nappa cabbage and other veggies, corn, dark mushrooms and tofu, with a thin, soy-based dipping sauce to make things even more interesting.
Veronica recommended O-a-mi-sua (oyster vermicelli, $8), as a particularly characteristic Taiwanese dish. Fair enough, that’s what we came for! A broad, shallow bowl bore a good ration of somen noodles (fine wheat noodles very similar to angel-hair pasta), swimming in a hearty brown ginger-scallion broth, topped with two large, perfectly fresh oysters cloaked in “velveted” coating, flavored with a shot of Taiwan black vinegar and a garnish of fresh cilantro. It made for an exotic flavor combo, particularly with the earthy, smoky vinegar flavors that reminded us of a walk in a damp woods, but it quickly grew on us, and we cleaned the plate.
Ga-li Fan (Taiwanese curry rice, $7.50) is Japan’s gift to Taiwan. A scoop of steaming white rice is surrounded with a pool of thick, spicy brown sauce loaded with carrot coins, onions, potato chunks and bite-size bits of your choice of boneless chicken or tofu. It looks a lot like good old American-style stew, but when that potent, almost fiery pepper and curry flavor hits your taste buds you’ll realize that we’re not in Kentucky any more, Mr. Moto. This one’s a great way to work up a sweat on a cold winter day.
Bentuhua also offers an attractive selection of curated Taiwanese teas – we loved the earthy flavor of 1982 Sun Moon Lake aged black tea ($3). Boba milk bubble teas are also available in a variety of sweet and fruit flavors for $3.75.
Our filling lunch for two came to a reasonable $28.62, plus a $6 tip.
Bentuhua Teahouse is open for lunch only Wednesdays and Thursdays, and lunch and dinner Fridays. Saturdays and Sundays are reserved for private parties and special events.
2520 Frankfort Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 90 points