Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to all my American readers! I trust you all gave thanks, over-ate and over-shopped.
It’s been exactly a week since I’ve returned to London after having spent 9 days in Taiwan and 3 days in Hong Kong. I’m still jetlagged beyond belief, which is yet another annoying sign that I’m getting old.
I spent several happy childhood summers in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, so take this next sentence with a grain of salt: Taiwan is a *superb* place to visit if you like to eat Chinese food in all its many-regioned glory. Thanks to 50 years of Japanese rule, as well as the ocean bounty that comes with being an island nation, the sushi’s delish, too.
There are dozens of direct one-hour flights between Hong Kong and Taipei each day, so the next time you’re planning your fab long weekend in Hong Kong, don’t overlook little ol’ Taiwan.
Small eats, xiao chi, is a major aspect of dining out that Taiwanese peeps are justifiably proud of. In every city we visited (and on this trip, we visited Taipei in the north, Kaohsiung and Chiayi in the south, and Yingge on the outskirts of Taipei), storefront shops, street vendors, and stalls in nightmarkets sold, at all hours of the day, xiao chi. My two favorite examples of xiao chi are gua bao (braised pork belly sandwich in a mantou, a steamed yeast-risen bun) and jien bao (pork-and-soup-filled buns that are steamed and pan fried).
In Taipei, my favorite gua bao was to be found at Shi Jia Gua Bao (special thanks to Taipei local, Wei-Ming, for this tip). The shop is at 21 Tong-Hua Street, which you’ll find close by the Tong Hua night market. A bite of the melt-in-your mouth braised pork belly filling, garnished with pickled mustard greens, fresh cilantro and crushed peanuts is to experience savory, sweet, crunchy and soft all at once. At the shop, you can order a gua bao that’s mostly fat, no fat, or half-and-half. The best part: each costs NT 45 ($1.50 or 95 pence at current exchange rates. Namely, $1 = 30 NT; £1 = 48 NT). Closest metro stations: Liuzhangli and Da’an (both on the brown line).
My fave jian bao of this trip was a version I picked up at Shilin night market, which is such an extravaganza of delicious food, crazy carnival games and random things for sale that I’ll do it more justice in a separate post. The jian bao had a perfectly crispy bottom, soft, fluffy bun wrapping, and juicy, meaty-porky filling. They differ from similarly-soupy xiao long bao because the dough is fluffier/thicker – it might even be yeast-risen, actually. Like the dough of a mantou. In any case, I’m pretty sure I bought five jian bao for 60NT ($2/£1.20) or something ridiculously cheap like that. Closest metro station: Chien Tan (red line)
I could wax lyrical for ages and pages on Taiwan’s xiao chi, but instead I’ll cover more of those in my planned Shilin night market post and move on to restaurant meals.
We ate at a couple of fancy, relatively-pricey restaurants while in Taipei and Kaohsiung, and most of those meals were Chinese banquet style, meaning we’d sit at the table for hours and be served a dozen different courses. It’s an interesting dynamic to be the guest of honor at a Chinese banquet — everyone’s counting on you to eat everything and register appreciation. No pressure, of course.
Among the sea of banquet meals, though, the restaurant meal that stands out was at a popular neighborhood place, Si Hai Yi Jia, whose name translates to “Four Seas One House.” Sort of a “we are the world” kind of saying.
There, we ate some outstanding Beijing duck, dumplings of all varieties, the best scallion pancakes I’ve had in years, and memorably-good sweet-and-tart ribs. On the Beijing-heavy menu were also delicious examples of local specialties like drunken chicken. I’d highly recommend dropping by this place for tasty, good-quality food in a bustling, casual setting. Also a plus were the servers, who weren’t shy about sharing [strong] opinions (in Chinese, though) on what you should order.
Si Hai Yi Jia, Lane 36, Ba De Road, Section 4, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 2 2873 9288; closest metro station: Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall (blue line)
Second-fave restaurant meal in Taipei was actually somewhere in the middle of Yang Ming Shan National park. No lie, though. It’s a pain to get here without a car. We took the underground/MRT to Chien Tan station and then took a 30-minute bus ride to the national park visitor center, followed by yet another 30-minute long shuttle to the restaurant. The only plus side about the journey (which would probably take an hour, total, by car) is how every form of public transportation in the Taipei metro area accepts the EasyCard – a sort of mega Oyster Card. I know this isn’t a food-related tip, but definitely get yourself an EasyCard the minute you get to Taipei. It’s so much handier than (a) having to figure out what the fare is; and (b) digging around for change all the time.
The restaurant is no great shakes to look at. It’s basically a shack near the bus stop at the top of a mountain. But here you’ll find some of the freshest and most interesting greens of your life. Nothing is cooked until you order, but it comes to the table fast.
We loved the fresh mushrooms, braised tofus, sweet yam-and-ginger soup and variety of greens (including a melt-in-your-mouth dish of sweet potatoe shoots). But I will always remember the colorfully-named “dragon’s beard” greens, which were crunchy, slightly sweet and just refreshing. It was great mountaintop eating.
Finally, quick notes on two restos in Taipei that fell short of the hype:
Shin Yeh restaurant has several branches in Taipei, including one inside Taipei 101 (which we couldn’t get a reservation for). The resto got a rec in this New York Times article from March 2008, and we ended up at a Shin Yeh location not far from Taipei 101, close to the Taipei City Hall metro station, inside yet another luxury goods shopping mall.
The restaurant was huge and decorated in that generic beige look that’s all the rage among luxury hotels around the world. That said, the service was great — attentive and helpful — and the food, while enjoyable, wasn’t anything special (see e.g., Shin Yeh’s version of drunken chicken and their crab-and-sticky rice). The restaurant’s “thing” seems to be to use good-quality ingredients to prepare typical Taiwanese dishes. Prices are relatively high, but still affordable by US/UK standards. Shout out to Shin Yeh’s fried oysters, though, which ought to be served in bars everywhere. Juicy, briney and battered-and-fried with a deft hand. Probably a nice place to get oriented to local specialties if you don’t speak or read any Chinese, or if you miss the tidiness and calm of a fancier restaurant.
Jon and I had an afternoon to ourselves in Taipei (the trip to Taiwan had been to attend a wedding, so most times, we were not alone). So we set out to find premium sushi in a city that claims to have more Japanese restaurants than any city outside of Japan.
Cue Mitsui, which I’d read about on London Eater’s site earlier this year. It sounded delicious, high-end, but cheap by London standards. We ordered a lot of items a la carte, and strangely, the sashimi was underwhelming. Maybe we went on a bad day, but my fatty tuna was still part-frozen, rather than silky-smooth, melt-in-your-mouth. The salmon belly had a slightly better (less frozen) texture, but it was flavorless. Grr. Jon and I did better with the “cooked” items like grilled eel, but that’s so wrong in a sushi restaurant with a great reputation.
Service was nice, and the room is sleek and chic in all black. But we ate much better sushi when we were in the southern port city of Kaohsiung (if you’re down there, the horribly-translated-into-English restaurant “Sea World” serves some mean sashimi). At least our meal cost only 2600 NT (£28/$43 each), including drinks.
Mitsui, No 30, Nong-an St., 1F Taipei City, Taiwan; +886 (02) 2594-3394; closest Metro: Minquan West Road (red line).
- This September 2008 NYT article also gives a handy overview of the joys of eating out in Taipei.
- To read about *the* Din Tai Fung restaurant (and rival Kao Chi), click here.