Originally from Danshui, Taiwan, Taiwanese American Peggy Shih of TK Kitchen initially held a corporate job in marketing. When the opportunity arose to take a three month sabbatical in New York to study English, she jumped at the chance – and those three short months have now become almost a decade.
TK Kitchen, located in St. Mark’s, is known for its variety of drinks and traditional, light Taiwanese fare, serving classics such as gua bao, braised pork rice, and stinky tofu. TAP-NY swung by to learn the inspiration behind this classic St. Mark’s establishment.
Shih initially took a job at TKettle, one of the few Taiwanese restaurants in the city at the time. Even bubble tea shops were few and far between.
Shih recalls, “Back then, TKettle was a small space that only sold bubble tea, and I’d often finish my shift and crave a good, home-cooked Taiwanese meal. I was wondering why I couldn’t get a simple biandang.”
An opportunity soon arose in 2009 when the owner decided to sell the place and move back to Taiwan. Shih pitched the idea to friends and bought out the store and an adjacent space, allowing her to build a full kitchen and seating area to open today’s TK Kitchen.
“The idea was to have a very casual space for people to grab a bite with friends and hang out – much like the roadside shops lining the streets in Taipei.” TK Kitchen’s Facebook page references the “culture and vibe of Taipei East District”, an area known for its variety of shops, cafes, and boutiques and the casual gatherings it draws.
As Shih puts it, “We’ll always be a homey and cozy spot, a place where people can return to and unwind after work. That’s what I love about this place.”
Beneath its friendly, cozy surface, TK Kitchen takes its mission to be a “home away from home” seriously.
“Some people ask why our menu is so complicated,” laughs Shih. “We actually started with only four or five variations of biandang.” But over time, the menu gradually expanded as customers stopped by with nostalgia for certain dishes from home. She explains, “Every person’s background is different; every perspective of the Taiwanese experience is unique.”
Some of the dishes associated with TK Kitchen regulars include the braised pork knuckle and the spicy stinky tofu with intestines. Elaborating on the home-cooked emphasis, Shih adds, “Our recipes are intentionally not super fancy.” The dishes on the menu – from the niu rou mian to the pork chop over rice – are not overly complex, and can evoke that “tastes like mom’s” reaction from diners.
The interior of TK Kitchen is similarly reminiscent of one’s home, where collections of not-fully identified mementos hang alongside grade school art projects. Many of the walls feature odds and ends from Taiwan, from the Tatung Boy to chui pao jiao (吹泡膠) to Bull Head shacha sauce.
For some observers the history may be lost, but for others those knick-knacks bring back childhood experiences and fond memories. Even the red-striped takeout bags are notable for being the bag of choice of elderly Taiwanese grandmas shopping at local wet markets.
“People sometimes ask me, what exactly represents Taiwan? And you know, it’s hard to describe Taiwanese culture in words. It’s a feeling – like if I see something I can point it out and say, that’s Taiwanese.” Indeed, some of the items commonly associated with Taiwan originate from across the world, like Ramune whistle candy.
On the rest of the walls features a rotating selection of art from various Taiwanese artists and students – very similar to the framed art projects in the shopping corridors of the Taipei Metro. Shih explains, “I feel that many people simply need a chance.”
Part of the inspiration for this decor stems from her desire to share all angles of the Taiwanese identity. “I want to bring out all of these cultural icons and pass on their significance, so it’s not lost in the next generation.”
When asked if she misses Taiwan, she laughed. “From a three month stint to living here almost ten years now, I think about moving back every year. But then I think about all of my customers and I just can’t leave.”
Images by Kevin Wong for TAP-NY