From The District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
It starts with the menu, Formosan’s bilingual list of meats so long it leaves you susceptible to almost any suggestion. Then, after a quick pick, you wait, watching with an anxious appetite as steaming meals are sent to every corner of the dining room. Finally, it ends when a sizzling iron skillet is set in front of you, emitting the kind of culinary white noise that can wipe away nearly all personal power. And it’s then that you fall fully under Formosan’s control—the place is well practiced in hypnosis.
Even in that trance, Formosan is something of an anomaly in the American mind: It’s a Taiwanese steak joint where A.1. is every bit as common as soy sauce. But the restaurant also feels fairly familiar—the place even stocks kitschy astrological place mats for those unsure of their canine loyalty or serpentine logic. Indeed, Formosan, named by the awestruck tongues of Portuguese sailors who christened Taiwan “Ilha Formosa,” meaning “beautiful island,” is in part an American experience, a fusion of flavors where T-bone steaks and pork chops dominate.
There are a number of ways to make a meal here (stewed pork feet, Taiwanese sausage, a platter of crispy tofu, noodle soups), but Formosan’s success is fully and completely indebted to its use of the iron skillet. Every sense is magnified because of this metal—sauces bubble with a hungry rhythm, and starches begin to pick up satisfying scents. It also helps that you have a choice of everything from calamari and sole to lamb chops and short ribs.
After you pick your proteins, two important decisions must be made. The first is a matter of tenderness: It’s an issue of pure preference, but keep in mind, the skillet keeps the meat cooking long after it hits the table, potentially turning orders tougher than expected. The other is one of multiple choices, deciding between the restaurant’s black pepper and mushroom sauces. The black pepper sauce is a more than suitable substitute for the finest pepper crusts, though you can take an easier way out and combine the sauces for the best balance.
With all those variables out of the way, the rest of your time at Formosan should be focused on admiring the restaurant’s meat-heavy meals. Of the beef-based options, the tenderloin and filet eat great, lean slabs that are a perfect match for the restaurant’s constant cooking. The squid is good, too, scored with crisscrossed cuts that soak up the sauce better than any other order. There are also combination plates with surf-and-turf-style pairings of hearty hunks of steak and lighter bites of fish.
Served alongside any skillet-cooked order is a salad, a diner-like wedge of iceberg topped with Thousand Island; a pale but altogether good corn chowder; a few slices of garlic bread; a mound of rice or noodles; and an egg cracked right on the iron surface and fried on its way out of the kitchen.
Quantity is key here, but more important is all that food adds up to give Formosan an obvious edge: value. Only a few of the meals break double digits, and those that do—namely, the filet—are well worth it, multi-course meals that satisfy on all the basic culinary levels.
On the back of the menu is the restaurant’s long list of “exotic” drinks—shakes blended out of taro, watermelon, plum and even green beans. The options are uniformly excellent, but suck sparingly through Formosan’s fat straws—the shakes can be incapacitatingly icy.
Though that’s a physical response suited to these dwindling days of summer, it’s not something you necessarily want at Formosan. Here, when your brain seizes up in a slushie-based shock, you lose all sense of portion control.
FORMOSAN RESTAURANT 18846 NORWALK BLVD | ARTESIA 90701 | 562.924.0366 | OPEN WED-MON 11AM-10PM | FOOD FOR TWO $15-$30