Formosa Bites food truck spotlights Taiwanese street food and fabulous red chili oil wontons | Food & Culture


The pork belly sliders, or gua bao inTaiwan, are a puffy, fatty delight.

Four words that will change your day: red chili oil wontons.

We were so enamored with our first order at Formosa Bites, a 3-month-old Taiwanese food truck, that we immediately returned to its window to place an order for more. They’re simply divine.

The dish — 10 small but powerful bites for $13 — starts with thin wonton wrappers filled with ground pork, minced shrimp, cabbage threads and chopped green onions seasoned with garlic and a base, house-mixed sauce that informs the flavors of four of the five items offered on Formosa’s tight menu. It’s made with soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine and white pepper powder. Truck proprietor and chef Terry Lim calls it his “core four.” After the wontons are steamed, they’re doused in Lim’s personal chili oil recipe that he makes by infusing vegetable oil with crushed red Asian chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns (which he toasts and grinds), powdered ginger and garlic, plus the white segment of green onions. That’s then stirred into a mix of soy sauce, black vinegar and sesame oil that’s seasoned with more Sichuan peppercorns and balanced by a bit of sugar.

Periodically, I reach for a chef friend’s hilariously fun descriptor “mouth hammer” to describe food that delivers impressive impact, outsized in this case, where so much flavor pops all at once, from salty, tart and acidic sensory inputs to sharp, biting and mildly spicy perceptions. Which is to say the wontons are well-rounded as a dynamic taste experience. Really, you’ve just gotta go get some. 


The Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken… aren’t your average chicken nuggets. 

I’m admittedly surprised when Taiwan-born-and-raised Lim tells me he has “zero food background” in the industry, coming from 12 years in the corporate world, where he worked in the relocation industry (handling the logistics of moving people and families for jobs). Before that, he studied law in college, completed his mandatory two-year military service, then opted not to take the bar due to the extreme difficulty of passing it in Taiwan, where he says the average person takes three to five years to pass. “I didn’t want that life, so I decided to come to the States to study English.” He stuck around to earn a master’s degree in business at the University of Colorado, Denver, and then went abroad to work in Singapore. There  he met his future wife Doreen, who now deftly handles Formosa’s social media and marketing while pregnant with the couple’s third child and homeschooling their two boys. They returned to the U.S. because of a better post-2008 recession market than back home in Taiwan.

All was going according to plan, then the COVID pandemic hit and Terry got laid off. After a 20-month work search for suitable managerial positions he was more than qualified for, and some “soul searching,” he and Doreen started pondering opening a bubble tea shop, a highly popular concept in Taiwan. But they found it cost-prohibitive to launch. A food truck made more financial sense, so they took the leap. Which still doesn’t explain why Terry’s a badass cook. Well, he’s always cooked at home, he says, making typical, family-style Taiwanese dinners that tend to feature two stir-fried veggies, a fish item, a turf-meat item, a soup, and fruits for dessert. He loves, and misses, Taiwanese food, and doesn’t find himself very satisfied when dining out in America. So he finds and adapts recipes for what he and his family crave, cooks for friends and neighbors, and “with a lot of trial and error” he ended up narrowing down to Formosa’s five-item menu — something small enough that he’s capable of executing it solo in the field. He’s a one-man show, maxed out at three service days weekly, where he takes orders and runs food inside to breweries, etc., while managing to cook. The rest of the week’s spent cleaning and prepping; he’s aware he’s going to have to hire soon in order to grow at all.

The name Formosa, by the way, was Taiwan’s former name (The Republic of Formosa) for only a five-month period between cession by China’s Qing Dynasty and occupation by Japan in 1895. Lim is proudly Taiwanese, calling himself “a patriot who would die for my country any day.” While on the phone with me after my visit, as he provides more info on his recipes, we digress into the history of Taiwan as it relates to China. I ask him his thoughts on recent news blips about China perhaps taking a cue from Russia with a possible invasion of Taiwan, depending on how Putin’s incursion into Ukraine plays out. He says he can relate to what the Ukrainians are going through, “because we faced a threat like that every single day,” with no small amount of missiles aimed toward Taiwan from mainland China. “I watch the videos from Ukraine and ask myself what I would do if this were happening in Taiwan. All my family is there — my parents, sister, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins.” If there’s a point of reassurance, Lim believes it’s that the rest of the world is so heavily reliant on manufactured tech components from Taiwan that China can’t risk failure, and disrupting it. “We’ve positioned ourselves so strategically,” he says. “We’re a niche market, very specialized.” He says that Taiwanese businesses represent more than 75 percent of Tesla’s auto parts suppliers, for example, and another statistic (which I can’t find to verify) that the world would run out of computer chips in just a few weeks should Taiwan cease manufacturing.

All this may have little to do with Formosa Bites other than contextual backstory, but our conversation is emblematic of just how preoccupied so many of us are these days with the Ukraine situation. And conversations like these serve to build cultural bridges that hopefully lead to a more empathetic global community. I won’t say that dining with Lim necessarily relates to Michael Pollan’s “eating is a political act” statement, but if you’ve never eaten Taiwanese food — to be able to compare it with common American Chinese dishes — perhaps it can at least be an enlightening and educational act here.


Those amazing red chili oil wontons. 

Today’s Taiwan is a smart international hub that draws influence from all over, but the Japanese colonization period left a significant legacy and Chinese cuisine fundamentals certainly inform the main body of Taiwanese cooking. Lim says Taiwanese stir-fries aren’t so heavily coated in sauces as American Chinese plates, but instead flavored more simply with sauces based in soy, rice wine and sesame oil. If Taiwan’s known for anything, he says, it’s street food, particularly lively night markets with “a crazy variety of finger foods, on-the-go” that Doreen’s a huge fan of. That’s what most inspires what we eat at Formosa Bites.

The (gluten-free) sweet potato fries — called “amazing” by two teenagers I’m dining with — are hand-cut, fried in tapioca flour and dusted in a bright red plum powder that coats them, gifting just a subtle added sweetness. I too call them amazing after dipping them in the remaining puddle of red chili oil from the wontons we’ve devoured. Ditto for the Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken, which are fried (also breaded in tapioca flour), “core four”-marinated nuggets Lim cuts from breast meat and seasons with a commercial Taiwanese dry spice blend that holds hints of cumin, clove and mildly spicy chili pepper. The truck’s potstickers hold the same filling as the wontons, but Lim buys a different, thicker wrapper aimed at being more chewy once pan-seared, and he serves them dry, with an optional packet of soy on the side if desired. These are a good way to taste the stuffing more cleanly, without the red chili oil sauce influence, but I’m of course hooked on that sauce for my aforementioned reorder.

Pork belly sliders — called gua bao in Taiwan, and also referred to as a “Taiwanese hamburger” — are the fifth and final dish on Lim’s menu, and they too are more of a mouth hammer, ticking all flavor sensations, including umami. They come as two open-face (taco shaped), puffy, starchy, tacky bao buns ($12) with slices of braised pork inside. The meat’s marinated with the “core four” minus the sesame oil, plus both regular and dark soy (thicker and less salty, used partly for coloring), and another commercial Taiwanese seasoning that includes star anise and peppercorn. Lim pressure cooks it in an Instant Pot and lets it slow stew for several hours afterward to pick up more flavor and further tenderize the meat and skin; indeed it chews delightfully unctuous and fatty. The sliders get a topping of sugar-sweetened peanut powder, fresh cilantro, and pickled mustard greens — a highly salty relish used in moderation to enhance stir-fries and soups. Lim cuts it with soy sauce, sesame oil and extra seasonings like white pepper, garlic, red chili and sugar to balance out the layered flavor. Behind the wontons, this proves my favorite offering. 

Again, for a home chef, Lim can COOK. I’m sorry it took a pandemic, but I’m glad he’s created Formosa Bites. Find it, and order everything. 

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