Kai Eatery owner Allen Yeh. Photo / Dean Purcell
Amanda Saxton visits the Taiwanese street food restaurant, which has grown from food stand to franchise.
Kai Eatery is best known for its juicy, face-sized fried chicken breasts, but I’m here to rave about what should
to be nicknamed the Taiwanese Happy Meal. It’s also a burger (sort of), fries and drink, but a million times more interesting than anything from old McD’s. This is what you might eat while strolling through the street markets of Taipei.
Gua bao (pronounced “gwa bow”) replaces a hamburger. These perfectly moist steamed buns taste better bursting with pork belly, pickles, crushed peanuts and cucumber (the Taipei, $10.50). So many textures and flavors galore, biting into it is deeply satisfying. Kai Eatery’s fries are cut from Beauregard kumara orange ($8)—the same type used in Taiwan—and taste oddly sweet. Indeed, instead of salt, they are coated with plum powder. Embrace them like dessert, I say! The crispy interiors contrast beautifully with the crispy casings. Your drink will be milky bubble tea ($7.50), fitted with an extra-wide straw to suck up the tapioca pearls (the bubbles). My favorite flavor is brown sugar, but the matcha, taro, and dreamy egg pudding are also great. Everything is very nice to take away.
I really like the picture on Kai Eatery’s solid gua bao boxes. What looks like a dead bear is draped between the jaws of a bao, alongside the words “no pain, no gain”. At first, I took it as a refreshing characterization of meat eating: animals are dying, which is sad, but they’re delicious.
Restaurant owner Allen Yeh, who is also a pharmacist, says that’s not the message he’s trying to get across. The bear, a black Formosa — endemic to Taiwan, named “Formosa” by Portuguese sailors — is actually sleeping (there are actually three telling Z’s). And “no pain, no gain” is a Taiwanese mantra adopted by those who fled mainland China for the island after the defeat of the Communist Party in 1949. “These guys started from scratch and made Taiwan a place very successful, so we did that’s our mantra as well,” says Yeh, 37. The sleeping bear is a cheeky acknowledgment that even the hardest working people have to sleep sometimes.
Yeh and his wife, Tanya Huang, 31, emigrated from the city of Taichung in New Zealand when they were children. As adults, they yearned for Taiwanese street food – devoured on family trips to the homeland – and felt it was underrepresented in Auckland’s gastronomic diversity. Everyone knows bubble tea, but Taiwanese food tends to be poorly executed gua bao at generic “Asian fusion” restaurants. The light bulb went out shortly after the couple got married.
In late 2015, as newlyweds, Yeh and Huang flew to Taiwan on a foraging mission. They spent three months eating it all and returned to Auckland with their favorite recipes in hand. Yeh’s mother helped them perfect their recipes.
Kai Eatery started out as a stall in Auckland’s night markets, with Yeh working full-time in a pharmacy. Each evening, he drove across town to where the market was held, met Huang, and served authentic Taiwanese street food to a growing crowd of eager customers. Afterwards, the couple would clean up, put their things away and return home – often after midnight – exhausted.
“It was like moving every night,” Yeh says. “Our dream was to give Kai Eatery a permanent home.”
In 2017, a shipping container the color of ripe tangerines was outfitted for this purpose – on Rutland St in the CBD. That same year, Yeh and Huang were kicked out by Precinct, the developer of Commercial Bay, and agreed to move into the swanky new mall. “It was our ‘we made it,'” Yeh says.
Yeh and Huang consider themselves true Taiwanese Kiwis and have subtly fused the two cultures into their brand name. While kai is obviously the Maori word for food, it’s also the sound of “savor” in Mandarin, says Yeh. You will spy the Chinese characters of the verb inside the dot of the i of kai.
Level 2 Commercial Bay, 7 Queen St, CBD
09 222 2689
1 Rutland Street, CBD
11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Saturday
09 948 2192
74 Taharoto Rd, Smale Farm, Takapuna
11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday
09 930 0751
Millennium Centre, 604 Great South Rd, Ellerslie
11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday
09 222 3332