Located near Columbus Circle, Zai Lai is a cozy Homestyle Taiwanese All-day Eatery Serving Family Favorites including Rice Bowls, Noodles, and Street Eats
by chef edward huang
What is the best meal you've ever had? For me, they were the family dinners I experienced when visiting Taiwan as a kid. My recollection floods me with feelings: the warmth of being welcomed in, the delight that someone is happy to see me, my wide-eyed enjoyment of fresh, delicious flavors. When I inevitably had to leave, my family's parting words were "Zai Lai" - "come back soon." If there's one thing I'd like to offer the city, it's a glimpse of how a simple meal served with love and care can nourish our lives. And maybe, if you taste just a bit of what I tasted, you'll want to come back soon.
At Zai Lai, we aspire to do three things well:
1) We serve homestyle Taiwanese food,
2) We welcome our guests like family, and
3) We source our ingredients conscientiously.
1000 Subterranean 8th Avenue
New York, NY 10019
Zai Lai is located in Turnstyle Underground Market. Go down the Turnstyle stairs at 57th and 8th and you'll see us on the west side.
What is Taiwanese food?
Taiwan is an island surrounded by clean waters with rocky mountains and fertile plains. It’s no surprise then that Taiwanese food emphasizes fresh ingredients, cooked quickly to retain as much flavor as possible. There's less of a focus on spice and more of a focus on texture. These techniques and flavors are exemplified through Zai Lai’s leafy greens, pickled vegetables, and stir-fried rice noodles.
Taiwan’s culinary tradition is diverse, influenced by Dutch and Japanese colonization and waves of immigration from various regions of China dating back to the 17th century.
For Zai Lai, I've curated our menu to offer authentic Taiwanese flavor using popular Taiwanese dishes. The quintessential homestyle Taiwanese dish is Five Spice Pork, with each family having its own recipe. I couldn't help but put Beef Noodle Soup on the menu; it is to Taipei what pizza is to NYC. And our menu wouldn't be complete without some street eats that are prevalent in Taiwan's night markets.
When I say this is "homestyle" food, what I mean is that this is straightforward, made-from-scratch cooking that results in clean, nourishing food. It's what I grew up eating and I'm glad to be able to share it with you.
What does Family Mean?
To me, family are the people who care about you, for no other reason than that you're family. They smile when they greet you. They call out your name warmly. They care about what you eat. That was my childhood experience.
Unfortunately, family is a complicated word for a lot of people. At Zai Lai, we look to keep it simple. We'll give you a smile when we see you. We'll do our best to remember your name. We'll make you some nourishing food. And over time, we can't help but start caring for you, just as you can't help but start caring for us.
A sense of family is formed over meals. And that means eating together. Because of that, I care deeply that people with dietary restrictions are able to eat well at Zai Lai. All our rice bowls are gluten-free and we have excellent vegan options.
To promote "family-style" eating, we've even come up with a Family Festival Meal (festivals = family time). Instead of our individualized ways of eating where everyone has their own food in front of them, Taiwanese family-style eating is communal, with shared dishes in the middle and a bowl of rice in front of each person. Gather some friends together, get a Family Festival Meal and share your lives as you share your food.
Since Zai Lai is homestyle food, there are stories behind our dishes. Come embark on a food journey through different moments in my life.
Ama's five spice pork
It was a rare treat when Ama (grandmother) would come to stay. She'd bring her special recipes with her. Using unrushed, deliberate movements, Ama showed me the beauty and skill in cooking. Whenever she made Five Spice Pork, I'd greedily down twice my normal intake. Ama would look on and smile proudly.
Mama's special chicken
My mama grows her own vegetables in her garden. “Only the expensive stuff,” she’s quick to interject. She couldn’t deal with the lack of power of an American kitchen so she set up her own fire-breathing wok in the backyard. “It keeps the oily smell outside,” she proudly beams. By stealing her chicken and rice noodle dishes, I hope to make her famous.
chef's lion's head meatballs
This was my favorite dish when I lived in Taipei. There was a cozy, neighborhood spot I'd go to every Sunday for my Lion’s Head Meatballs over rice. While traditionally fried then braised in China, my version is more akin to the meatballs I had in Taiwan: smaller, skipping the deep fry, with more nuanced, complex flavor.
Cousin's Beef Noodle Soup
One of my favorite memories from Taiwan was meandering down small alleys in search of the next great bowl of beef noodle soup with Cousin Ning. Cousin Ning taught me the ins and outs of a good Beef Noodle Soup: smooth, rich broth, just a bit of chew on the noodles, the perfectly tender beef texture, and just the right amount of acidity from the pickled mustard greens.
Auntie's Steamed Pork Bun
There was an Auntie (unrelated older female) with a blue cart near my apartment in Taipei and she would make just one thing: Steamed Pork Buns. The limited menu made ordering easy for me while I was working on my Mandarin. I loved to swing by on the way home from work for a pork bun appetizer before dinner. It was always tragic if she sold out early.
EX-GIRLFRIEND'S OYSTER OMELET
This was my childhood favorite night market dish. The first time I ordered it for my American-born girlfriend in Taiwan, she couldn't finish it. Oyster omelets have the bouncy “Q” texture that Taiwanese people love (imagine the chewiness of a soft gummy bear). However, as I learned, that texture is not revered by all. The relationship was not to be.
We believe that traditional recipes need traditional flavors. That’s why Zai Lai uses heritage pork and humanely raised meats. These ingredients were the only kind people knew a century ago. We’re conscientious in the responsibility we have to the land. We source local produce, as fresh as we can get it. Not only do sustainable ingredients taste better, they’re better for our world.
Our pork is humanely raised, antibiotic-free, vegetarian grain fed from local farms in PA. Our heritage pork is from Duroc pigs from Vande Rose Farms. It is antibiotic-free, vegetarian-grain fed premium pork. Our beef is humanely raised from local coops in Pennsylvania. As much as we can, our produce is locally sourced so we get the freshest ingredients available.
Our bowls are sourced conscientiously as well. Zai Lai uses compostable bowls that will be fully decomposed after ninety days In a composting facility. The city produces 12,000 tons of waste each day (That's 24 million pounds! Per day!). We want to do our part to minimize waste.
We recycle everything we can. Our drink pouches are reusable.
For a limited time, we're selling reusable utensils to help you minimize your waste. In the future, we’d love to carry reusable bowls as well.