Café 88 is a Taiwanese restaurant that brings a slice of the East to Virginia. This culinary haven is owned by a Taiwanese couple who, after years running a restaurant in bustling Flushing, N.Y., chose Charlottesville as their new home, largely for their sons’ education. The couple, who single-handedly run the restaurant, bring an intimate, home-cooked essence to each dish served. The menu offers a range of delectable choices from dim sum and snacks to the classic single serve bento box, showcasing the couple's culinary expertise and deep-rooted love for Taiwanese cuisine. Café 88 offers a delightful opportunity to experience the culinary heritage of Taiwan right here in Charlottesville.
Last weekend, after being away from home for three months, my friend and I wanted to seek tastes of our East Asian homeland. Open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday and a five minute drive from Central Grounds, Café 88 immediately stood out to us at 923 Preston Ave. We went there around 5 p.m. Saturday, and the seats filled up quickly. Upon entering the restaurant, we were enveloped in a cozy ambiance. The walls, adorned with elegant calligraphy, spoke of a rich cultural heritage, with potted plants by the window adding a touch of life and vibrancy.
Our culinary journey began with their signature stir-fried tomato, egg and shrimp for $18. A classic Asian dish, it blended the soft textures of tomato and eggs with a gentle sweetness and sourness added by ketchup. The inclusion of small, succulent shrimps added a briny depth. This dish was a medley of flavors that melded perfectly with a side of steamed rice. For me, each bite evoked the nostalgic warmth of a mother’s home cooking.
Next, we savored the stir-fried ground pork, priced at $18. It seemed modest at first glance, but its appearance masked a masterful play of flavors. Ground pork made up the heart of the dish, providing a tenderness that juxtaposed the crisp, fresh bite of onions. These onions not only added bright colors to the dish but also cut the pork’s savory richness with a freshness that elevated the dish to new heights.
The third dish we tried was stir-fried bok choy for $13. Often found in Asian cuisine, this dish epitomized the culinary philosophy that the best dishes are those that accentuate the natural flavors of their ingredients. In Café 88’s chef’s hands, this vegetable was lightly fried, as the bok choy retained its vibrant green hue and tender texture. Upon the first bite, it released a burst of juice. Such a straightforward dish gave me a surprise for its pure natural flavor.
The star of the table, was undoubtedly the popcorn chicken priced at $8 — a popular Taiwanese street food item known for its crispy texture and flavorful taste. The chicken was coated in a mix of cornstarch and sweet potato starch for its crunch. It was seasoned with salt, pepper and sometimes five-spice powder, garlic and basil leaves. Remarkably, it was not oily — something that’s hard to achieve in such a complex dish.
Overall, the price at Café 88 is affordable, making it a great spot for the average college student, with a plethora of dishes to share and individual plates. The restaurant doesn’t require reservations, though it's advisable to call ahead and place an advance order during busy times.
Café 88 is an ideal spot for friends to gather and immerse themselves in authentic Asian cuisine. It’s a cultural experience through the flavors of Taiwan, brought to life by a couple's passion and culinary expertise, and as you step out of Café 88, you leave with more than just a satisfied palate — you carry a piece of Taiwan with you.