Friday, January 21, 2011

Breeze, Taipei Main!

Last Monday, I spent several hours in Taipei Main Station. For Chinese New Year, we're going to Kaohsiung to spend a few days with our friend Sasha and her family. After New Year, we're going to move to a hotel in Kaohsiung city to spend a few days mooching around down south, eating Donggang seafood and enjoying the balmy weather.

To do that, we'd need a hotel, meaning I spent a few hours at the tourism information desk finding a hotel that still had room, was near the Kaohsiung MRT and wasn't charging $5000NT a night and offered private rooms with private baths (I don't mind shared bathrooms for a night or while on a long trip, but for a two day jaunt, I want something nicer). We did find one in the old part of town after quite a long and painful search.

I then went upstairs to Breeze Taipei Main to seek out dinner, and ended up at Lacuz (a branch of the Thai restaurant reviewed by Hungry Girl). I thought while eating there that it was not just worthy of a review of Lacuz but of the entirety of Breeze Taipei.

In a later post, I will address some of the design flaws with Taipei Main itself, but I do feel that is something of a separate topic.

Breeze Taipei focuses on food-based souvenirs (you know, the ones people buy to bring back to their home cities or countries to share with colleagues...and tea) and food, served in a food court layout not unlike the average Taiwanese department store (hence the name "Breeze Taipei": it's run by the Breeze Center of Zhongxiao Fuxing fame).

I am all in favor of this: food courts in the USA are rather Kiosk after kiosk of chicken or beef served in various sugary sauces and a load of lard. Greasy pizza, nasty burgers, horrific hot dogs.

In Asia, the same food courts in department stores - the Asian version of shopping malls - are generally pretty good. I never feel trepidation about eating in one.

The same is true for Breeze Taipei Main: food offerings are divided into food-court like areas with kiosks and shared tables, and individual restaurants dotting the square set of aisles in between.

One side offers night-market style snacks and inexpensive Taiwanese fare. Most of the food here is pretty good (I've tried a few) and inexpensive, though of course you can get the same thing more authentically and for less money at an actual night market. It's a good option for a quick local meal when a true hole-in-the-wall with folding card tables, plastic plates and a 90-year old woman in a stained apron dumping duck tongues into a metal vat isn't an option.

For good standard Chinese-Taiwanese fare, keep walking around the bend and eat at stand-alone restaurant Xiao Nan Men (小南門) - no drinks, but you can bring your own. Good, solid dumplings and small snacks (小吃) in a nice atmosphere with a good view over the first floor train station concourse.

Another concourse is dedicated to curry - mostly Japanese, but some Singaporean and Indian curry vendors can also be found. This area used to have a Sai Baba, and I was quite sad to see them close up shop and be replaced with yet another egg-rice omelet with curry shop. The Japanese curry is basically what you'd expect - nothing terribly special but not bad. The Indian curry is unfortunately not very good despite having an Indian cook, and the Singapore curry noodles are good but they don't really compare to the amazing food in Singapore itself.

For good Japanese fare, there are many stand-alone choices. There's a "various pancake" (okonomiyaki) place that looks good (I haven't been), a Genki sushi that is a few steps above Sushi Express, and a few well-appointed restaurants that I figure would all be fairly good. The okonomiyaki restaurant replaced a Vietnamese pho place that I was partial to, so I am quite disappointed about that. You can still eat the same pho in the Taipei 101 food court, at least.

Yet another concourse, decorated with futuristic white egg-shaped booths and colored lights in interesting arrays through Swiss cheese apertures, is for "foreign" foods.

This includes a tasty Japanese kiosk with noodle soups, a fairly good Korean-style place (not authentically Korean) and a few Western options - Asian-style Western, not genuine Western. Your best bet here is the Japanese kiosk: I'd steer clear of the Asian-style-Western places.

The chef's board for the Japanese place I recommend.

Lacuz itself, off in a corner near one escalator across from Beard Papa, is quite effeminately decorated and nowhere near cheap, but the food is quite good. Especially given their limited kitchen space and the fact that much of it is obviously pre-prepared. Stick with the easily-transported and served red and green curries - the red beef curry is quite good - the spicy meat salad, which is excellent, and the easily-prepared vegetables. The wok-fried seafood we got was good, but the sauce was a bit syrupy and nowhere near the "three chilis" indicated on the menu. Fish and seafood are fickle: you need care and space to prepare them to delectability. I just don't think you can do that in the space that Lacuz Taipei Main has.

Do get dessert - the mo mo cha cha is a great choice for culture-shocking friends and relatives who have flown in to visit and want to eat before heading to your apartment or their hotel. With blue tapioca (sago?) balls the color of a Ming Dynasty cobalt paint and tiny neon green balls at the bottom, slices of jackfruit and other tropical delights, you really can't go wrong.

Terrifying Mo Mo Cha Cha

They do have a good beer selection, so if you don't want to while away the time before your train leaves at the Starbucks or Mr. Brown at Breeze Taipei Main, you can always stop in here with friends and have a few beers. Even if you don't order food, I don't think they'd begrudge the business, and you're not going to find a bar up there.

You can also pick up snacks - mostly sweet ones - at Breeze Taipei Main. I strongly recommend cream puffs by Beard Papa, a Japanese brand. They are seriously the best cream puffs I've ever had, and I've been to France! You can really taste the vanilla in the custard and they have a perfect texture. I am sad that the Japanese dessert place with those delicious matcha muaji balls is gone (I used to get them before an HSR trip), though. It's a good place to buy vacuum-packed food gifts for friends and family back home, including muaji, dried meat and tofu, tea and Taiwanese biscuits, cookies or other baked goods.

Beard Papa's: The Perfect High Speed Rail Snack

There is some shopping at Breeze - two stores, Hands Tailung and Muji - both Japanese and both good for a wander.

I just have one question after spending so much time up there (I work in Xinzhu anywhere from one to three days a week, see)...

For serious, Taoyuan. Get your bleepin' act together. All Breeze Taipei Main needs to be an excellent, Singapore-Changi-Airport rivaling food court is a bar.



Kath said...

Awesome post, love it. I really like eating at Breeze when I have LE there once a week - the dumpling place is a fave. I totally agree on TaoYuan needing to get it's act together and no-one would more loudly agree than my hubby who works there. It really is very sad, having a train station kick the butt of our international airport. Seriously.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I am very tempted to write a letter to the Taipei Times saying, basically, just that. I bet they'd publish it (because let's face it, NOBODY likes the food - or lack thereof - at Taoyuan Airport) and it might get the two foreigners fighting over whether Taiwan is a racist country to shut the **** up already.

Kath said...

Excellent plan. I like.