Get Your Morning on a Roll With This Popular Taiwanese Breakfast Food

Black pickled rice roll at Tao Rice Roll. Photo by Cindy Wang.

Fan tuan (飯糰), also known as rice rolls, are a quintessential Taiwanese breakfast and snack food, typically sold from carts in the streets or at night markets. They’re a perfect portable meal; a burrito-sized rice ball stuffed with a medley of ingredients to make a filling and satisfying bite on the go. While Houston isn’t a city that’s known for bustling street carts, Tao Rice Roll brings a taste of Taiwanese street food to the hungry masses in Houston (9889 Bellaire) and Sugar Land (4645 Highway 6, where, confusingly, the sign instead reads “TX Rice Roll”). Having had rice rolls when visiting family in Taiwan, I was excited to see this classic street food  available locally.

Ordering window at Tao Rice Roll’s Sugar Land location, with a sign that reads “Ya Xiang Military Village.”
Ordering window at Tao Rice Roll’s Sugar Land location, with a sign that reads “Ya Xiang Military Village.” Photo by Cindy Wang.

I’d visited Tao Rice Roll’s Bellaire location before, so this time I ventured to their Sugar Land location, and I invited the biggest critics of Taiwanese food I know – my parents. I dropped in with my mother to place a to-go order. As we waited, she educated me a bit on the history of rice rolls. She noted the signage over the ordering window that mimicked the gate of a Taiwanese military dependents’ village, and explained that rice rolls in Taiwan have a history associated with these settlements. Built in the 1940s and 50s, the settlements housed soldiers who retreated to Taiwan from mainland China during the Chinese Civil War. The result was tight-knit communities of residents from various Chinese provinces, all sharing their regional cuisines and adapting recipes with the ingredients available as they relied on each other to survive through war times. While the villages themselves now face near-extinction, the cuisine carried on into Taiwan’s culinary landscape. 

As my mother was explaining all this, a kind, elderly man overhearing our conversation asked if she grew up in a military dependents’ village, noting her accented Mandarin, which doesn’t carry a typical Taiwanese tone to it. She told him she didn’t grow up in one, but that she was explaining the history to me. He cheerily replied, telling me, with a look of nostalgia in his eyes, how good the food from military dependents’ villages was. A while later — quite a while later, to be honest — our food came out and my mother and I brought our order home to join my father for a family lunch.

Traditional rice roll from Tao Rice Roll. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Traditional rice roll from Tao Rice Roll. Photo by Cindy Wang.

We ordered the traditional roll ($5.50), the black pickled roll ($5.25) and a shaobing sesame pancake ($5.75) stuffed with youtiao (savory Chinese cruller). We unwrapped our rice rolls, and I awaited the verdict from my parents. We started with the traditional rice roll, made with an outer rice layer surrounding pork floss (seasoned Chinese pork jerky that’s been shredded into a fluffy, cotton-candy-like texture), twice-fried youtiao, zha cai (salted, pickled Chinese mustard stalks), shiitake mushrooms and a braised soy sauce egg. The outer rice layer was sticky without sticking to your hands, chewy, and tightly packed so that it didn’t fall apart — all good signs, according to my parents. The pork floss brings a savory and sweet flavor, while its fluffy texture makes it easy to get some with each bite, without having to gnaw on larger pieces to cut it loose. The shiitake mushrooms bring an extra layer of umami, and the crisp zha cai lends balance with its tartness. The youtiao brings a delightful crunch to it all, and as you get closer to the middle of the roll, you’ll get bites of the marinated egg. 

It’s the blend of different flavors and textures that makes a rice roll such a satisfying favorite, and equally welcome as a great start to your morning or as an anytime-snack. Put it all in a neatly rolled package, and you’ve got a well-rounded meal in the palm of your hand.

Black pickled rice roll from Tao Rice Roll. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Black pickled rice roll from Tao Rice Roll. Photo by Cindy Wang.

The black pickled roll contained the same ingredients as the traditional roll, but minus the shiitake mushrooms and the zha cai notably replaced with a generous amount of black pickled mei cai, a Chinese pickle made with greens that are sun-dried, salted, and fermented. The mei cai in the black pickled roll was a more herbaceous and fragrant addition to the savory flavors of the pork floss and braised egg, making the black pickled roll our favorite over the traditional roll.

Sesame pancake with youtiao from Tao Rice Roll. Photo by Cindy Wang.
Sesame pancake with youtiao from Tao Rice Roll. Photo by Cindy Wang.

The shaobing sesame pancake is every carb-lovers dream; a flaky, toasted flatbread studded with sesame seeds and stuffed with a sheet of fried egg and youtiao. While the youtiao in the rice rolls is twice-fried to add extra crunch, the ones in the sesame pancake are fried to produce golden crisp exteriors and soft, fluffy interiors. The resulting combination is a bready treat that is sure to leave you wiping flecks of toasted sesame seeds and crisp pancake flakes off your shirt. How can you go wrong with toasted dough stuffed with fried dough?

Tao Rice Roll earned a nod of approval from my parents. However, the one thing we weren’t as pleased with was the wait time. This is particularly baffling, as rice rolls are typically cranked out at lightning speed at busy street carts in Taiwan. Plus, these are not particularly time-intensive when the ingredients are already prepared in advance. The menu also isn’t as approachable for those who can’t read Chinese (I read at a second-grade level, at best), only listing the names of the rice rolls in English but not what ingredients are in them for the uninitiated. However, the staff is friendly and willing to help translate what’s in each roll.

Tao Rice Roll also offers various forms of customization, such as swapping out white rice for purple rice or adding salted egg yolk. It also offers soups and noodle dishes, and some items are served exclusively at one location or the other. While it seems counterintuitive to have patience for a dish that’s meant to be eaten on-the-go, if you’re willing to wait, you can get a taste of this unique handheld meal in Houston.

Tao Rice Roll’s Bellaire location is open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the Sugar Land location is open Monday through Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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