Taiwanese Food Is Taking Over Union Square — For One Day, Anyway

Anyone who has ever searched for Taiwanese food in the Bay Area knows that this is mostly an exercise in wandering far-flung suburban strip malls, chasing some obscure tip about savory soy milk or stinky tofu. Where you don’t expect to find any noteworthy examples of the cuisine is in one of San Francisco’s most touristy neighborhoods: Union Square.

But at least for one day, that’s exactly what downtown San Francisco visitors will experience, as the annual Taiwanese American Cultural Festival returns to Union Square for its 30th edition on Saturday, May 13. Organizers say it’s the largest festival of its kind on the West Coast, with upwards of 10,000 people expected to at least pass through — even if it’s just on their way to ride the cable car or browse the Apple Store.

And if you’re wandering through anyway, why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to snag a plate of spicy noodles or lu rou fan?

That’s been the hope of the Bay Area chapter of Taiwanese American Professionals (TAP), the volunteer-run group that organizes the event. According to org president Jennifer Chen, one of the main functions of the festival is to raise public awareness about all aspects of Taiwanese culture — including, of course, the food. Even as the cuisine’s profile has risen over the years here on the West Coast, a lot of folks still don’t know much about it.

“People might only be able to think about bubble tea, and I think there’s so much more depth to that,” Chen says. “Showcasing the diverse set of food that’s related to Taiwan is really important to us.”

A crowd of people sit eating noodles from paper bowls on a set of stairs outside in Union Square, San Francisco.
A scene from last year’s festival: Visitors sit and enjoy a bowl of noodles on the stairs outside in Union Square. (Courtesy of Taiwanese American Cultural Festival)

Somewhat controversially, perhaps, it turns out that bubble tea — or boba, as Californians tend to call it — will not be part of this year’s food and beverage lineup. And because the venue doesn’t allow deep-fryers on site, classics like stinky tofu and Taiwanese popcorn chicken won’t make an appearance either.

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