Monday, March 19, 2012

My In-Laws' Culinary Tour of Taipei

The in-laws try Tiger Noodle (韓記老虎麵) on Jinhua Street 
I haven't had a lot of time to write about my in-laws visit or other things that have been on my mind recently - a busy work schedule has kept me consistently behind on blogging.

I thought, though, that this might be of some use, or at least interest, for anyone with visiting friends or relatives looking for places to take them for dinner. I should say straight out that I'm not a coddler: I'll try my best to find food I think people will like and will be sensitive to "I absolutely will not eat that" or "I really hate X" preferences, but I am absolutely not the sort to just cop out and take folks to Kiki, Ding Tai Fung and Gordon Biersch to avoid the possibility of them not liking something. 

And you know I'm a food freak, regularly writing and updating on the best eats in Taipei, even though I'm not really a "food blogger" (even if Forbes thinks differently, haha). Note that, despite being quoted in that article, Ding Tai Fung is one place I notably did not take my in-laws. Not because it's not good (it is great), but because it's overhyped, overtouristed and, honestly, too expensive for no good reason other than that they can get away with charging Japanese tourists such high prices. For your foreign visitors, unless they insist, you can do better in Taipei food-wise.

Fortunately, my in-laws aren't the sort who would want cop-out meals, nor are they the sort to say "I've never tried that, but I'm not interested in doing so", which is good (I can accommodate that sort of attitude, I'm not interested in forcing anyone to try something they absolutely do not want to try, but I don't have much respect for such an outlook). Even things that weren't on their list of favorites - things made of tofu, various seafood dishes, things that were spicy or unrecognizable or just weird, were all things they were still generally willing to try. Hooray!

For example:

Ginger tofu pudding (薑汁豆花), with taro and sweet potato QQ balls and boiled peanuts. I like hot tofu pudding, but not iced, and I *love* hot ginger tofu pudding - especially from Sanxia - but I knew it would be something novel, without much reference point for any other food, for the in-laws. The one we got wasn't that great - the stuff available in Sanxia is so much better - but fortunately they were game. Dad seemed to like it, Mom not so much.

Tangyuan (湯圓), in a meal that also included sweet potato leaves (地瓜葉), rice sausage (米腸) that pink fried pork with slivered ginger that foreigners tend to like and tofu was another novelty that went over slightly less well.  I like it, although it's not my all-time favorite, but it's so commonplace in Taiwan that I felt it was a good thing for them to try. We got this in Daxi, not Taipei, but really you can get it anywhere. The rice sausage also got a lukewarm reception (I love the stuff - like many Taiwanese, I have a thing for gooey foods).

What they really loved? The sweet potato leaves. They were a hit.

Another must on their culinary tour was traditional tea. We had this twice - once on Maokong and once in Jiufen. I would have loved to have taken them to Wistaria House but we didn't have time. Either way, if your visitors are at all interested in or even like tea, making sure they have a chance to try tea brewed the traditional way is a great introduction to one facet of Taiwanese culture (even if not many people actually brew this anymore). I do know how to make it, but it was easier to just let the attendant do it.

Tea at A-mei

Besides Wistaria House, I would recommend Mountain Tea House (山茶館) on Maokong - 2nd floor up, best place to sit is 3rd floor - it's to the left and past the first clutch of development from Maokong Station. It's also a good place for dinner, with tasty Lemon Diced Chicken (檸檬雞丁), mountain pig (山豬肉) and other good food, and they have a good selection of tea snacks. The Taiwanese dried mango and walnut cakes were a hit, and I've always loved the slightly crumbly, melty green bean cakes - they remind me of the texture of very fresh maple candy.

In Jiufen I rather liked Amei Tea House (阿妹茶樓) down the stair street, although the 100NT per person water fee is quite high. Down the stairs even further is another similarly beautiful teahouse with a more open outdoor area that I've also been to and like. Try the fried taro - so good!

Fairly early on in their trip, they ended up at two of Taipei's best eateries: Celestial Kitchen and Hui Guan Ningxia Restaurant. I would have personally picked Rendezvous (Longdu) for Beijing Duck, but they could get in to Celestial without a reservation for lunch, and honestly, it's basically as good (I just like the dim sum available at Rendezvous and find the duck fattier, which I like). Celestial is fantastic, and the mustard/wasabi (it's something between those two things) covered Chinese celery from Celestial certainly left an impression!

If you don't have the time or Chinese ability to make reservations, but want to take people for Beijing Duck, Celestial for a weekday lunch is a strong bet.

While I do feel that Taiwan and China are absolutely not the same, I have to admit that there is a lot of good Beijing Duck on offer in Taipei, and it would be a shame for them to miss out. As long as there is also a variety of Taiwanese cuisine served up for the eatin' on your trip alongside the best of the mainland, I figure, if it's good food and in Taipei, it's worth it to go.

As for Hui Guan, well, you know it's one of my all-time favorites. They didn't have the spicy cold chicken or dong fen I usually like, but the sour vegetable and noodle salad, Central-Asian style bread with minced meat and lamb skewers were delicious as always. This is a kind of Chinese food that is not easily found in the US, especially in rural Maine, so being able to take them out to try the cuisine of oft-forgotten Ningxia, with its many Chinese Muslims and strong Central Asian influence, was a real treat for everyone. It's also a great place to try Chinese chili-pepper heat when it's mixed in a big cultural mortar and pestle with Middle Eastern spices.

Stinky Tofu Fried with Thousand Year Old Egg at Chia Chia
 I couldn't let my in-laws leave Taiwan for the second time without trying Hakka food, which is such a big part of food culture in this country. We weren't really able to go down to Hakka areas like Xinzhu or Miaoli just to eat (although with another free day we might have taken them to Beipu), so we just went for Chia Chia (家家客家), widely regarded as the best Hakka food in Taipei.

Unsurprisingly, the hearty pork dish we ordered was popular, as was Hakka stir fry (客家小抄). The cuttlefish cooked in vinegar was a hit with everyone but my mother-in-law, who just doesn't do seafood.  We avoided the ginger intestine because I figured we'd hit our limit of "try this new thing!" dishes with the famous stinky tofu deep fried with thousand year old egg above.

Surprisingly, it was a huge hit. I loved it, and so did my father-in-law. Mom...not so much. Definitely a good place to take people. You could even surreptitiously order the ginger intestine...mwahahahaha.

Medium-spicy lamb with puffed rice at Tiger Noodle
My mother-in-law was keen to try different kinds of spice, even though she's generally not an eater of spicy food. Little did she know that the wasabi celery at Celestial was just the beginning! We took them  for a Trial By Fire to Han Chi Tiger Noodle and got Dad the medium hot, which we usually get, and Mom the "xiao la" or "mild" it were. Tiger Noodle's "mild" is still pretty damn hot. This was their introduction to spice including hua jiao, or flower pepper - which tingles the lips and numbs the tongue. A great choice, but only take people there if you know they can basically handle it. Basically. Mostly.  Crying might happen. I love that place.

Taipei Snow King
Eager to  put out the fire in their mouths and bellies, they were happy to hop on the 235 bus and head for Taipei Snow King on Wuchang Street - an old Taipei institution near Zhongshan Hall (along they way they got to see a good chunk of Ximen and the more attractive parts of Wanhua, including my favorite building in basically the entire city of Taipei:

...all before hopping into a taxi to Dihua Street (the distance between these two points is not great, but the transportation is tricky and it was just easier to take a cab).

We got chocolate and chocolate chip (the two normal ones), rose wine, wasabi, basil, egg (which tastes like the custard in Macau egg tarts) and mint (my favorite) - we'd gotten the Kaoliang before and didn't think the in-laws would take it well (we didn't take it well!), but if we could have eaten more I would have gone for ginger, honey, cinnamon or chili pepper.

Kung Pao Chicken at Tian Fu
Back to "best of Taipei, even if some of it originated in China", that night we were not kind to their digestion. We met some friends and all went to Tian Fu in Yonghe - hands-down the best Sichuanese in Taipei, if not all of Taiwan. Don't even bother with Kiki ever again: this place has it goin' on. If you've got visitors who want good food, and care about that more than fancy ambience, this is the place for you. I can't hawk it enough. I don't even want a commission: leading people to such great food is my reward for all of this free advertising they get, because it's just that good.

I was eager to take them here, not only for more hua jiao, but also as an example of what real Sichuanese food opposed to very-different-but-good-in-its-own-way "Szechwan Palace Garden Gate Panda Buffet" from the USA. No General Tso's Chicken* here! We got them shui zhu niu (水煮牛 -beef in spicy broth), kung pao chicken, chili chicken, mouthwatering chicken (口水雞) deep fried bread (銀絲捲), ma po tofu (媽婆豆腐), green beans (四季豆), fish-scented eggplant (魚香茄子) and pork with sweet potato cooked under sticky millet (I've forgotten the Chinese name but it has 排骨 in it) as the token not spicy thing.

Oh, the fear that must have shadowed their hearts as the giant bowl of angry red broth full of tender sliced beef came out!

If you've got visitors who are OK with some spice but might be overwhelmed by Tiger Noodle, the selection at Tian Fu is varied enough that it's still a good choice.

"niu bang" and peppered salty pork at Auntie Xie's

Back to typical Taiwanese food:  the place to take your guests is, without a doubt, Auntie Xie's (#122 or thereabouts on Bo'ai Road). Afterwards you can buy them some pineapple cakes at Olympia across the street (#3 Bo'ai Road) and show them Shanghai Dispensary on Hengyang Road, Taiwan's most famous gray market pharmacy, where I get my Imigran semi-legally. A national treasure, that is! 

Auntie Xie's has no menu, is closed on Sunday and is always packed, and the hair-netted old ladies who work there will totally talk about you in Taiwanese as you're eating: but it's totally worth it and they don't really mean any harm by their "hey, white people!" gossip. You show up, pay NT 300 per person for lunch (might be more for dinner), and they bring out whatever they're cooking that day. There's always taro congee and thin noodles in thick broth as well as white rice available. We got a delicious fish, the above fried "niu bang" plant (not potato but had a potato-ey taste and texture) with peppered salty pork, cold chicken in a sour oily sauce (油雞), a green vegetable, some appetizer plates (小菜) and young bamboo with tree mushroom.

Basically, it's food you'd get if someone's Taiwanese grandmother invited you over for dinner. Home food. Simple but delicious. 

A lot of foreigners in Taiwan are unimpressed by the food in Taiwan (read the comments - and this is just one example post. Laowiseass has said similar things, but I can't find the link). I happen to like it: the flavors are light and clean, and yes, they can be hard to discern if your palate is swamped with my much-beloved hua jiao and chili oil, but they are there if you taste carefully.

So, I was really happy when both my in-laws had a positive reaction to Auntie Xie's: along with Hui Guan, the most positive reaction I saw regarding any restaurant we tried. Taiwanese food is good if you are discerning and willing to suss out those delicate, clean flavors and willing to seek it out in places like this where it's made right, and it's a whole different experience from the more famous night market snacks and stinky tofu.

I, too, love pungent food but find Auntie Xie's cooks up something entirely different, but just as delicious. 
cold chicken with cilantro at Harbin Dumpling King
Last time they were here, we took the in-laws to Shilin Night Market - which is really not one of my favorites, but was convenient at the time. We did want to take them back to another market, but didn't really have any more space in our eatin' schedule for eating at one (and at this point even I was starting to get a woozy stomach from all the rich and luscious restaurant food we'd been enjoying. I don't eat out at actual restaurants quite so often as I did that week). But, a night market is a must-do, so we walked through Tonghua Night Market ("Linjiang Street Night Market") near our apartment and did some light shopping (I got a lobster claw lighter that, when you click to open the claw, it spits out flame from the middle. Awesome!).

On our final night we took them to Harbin Dumpling King - another kind of Chinese cuisine you're just not going to get in rural Maine, or basically most of the USA. The food isn't really "Harbin" food - it's pan-Chinese, from Xinjiang to Sichuan to the northeast - but has that distinctive flavor that northern Chinese, especially Beijing, food takes on, regardless of where the recipes originated. It is one of my favorites. I'd been hearing about it ever since I attended a house party in my first few months in Taiwan and a bunch of guys (one of them a formerly prominent Taiwan blogger) were talking about going. It was years before I actually went myself, but I'm sure glad I did.

Apparently it is also a favorite of Wu Bai (伍伯) - yes, that is him above my eyeball. Not joking. Not someone who looks like him - that's Wubai and he wouldn't take a picture with us. Which is fine; I'm not out to pester rock stars!

We got cold chicken with cilantro, slivered meat with onion, the delicious and famous spicy lamb skewers - another thing you can get across Taiwan in different restaurants - Hui Guan, Harbin Dumpling King, Xinjiang lamb skewer stalls in night markets, Shao Shao Ke - and each is delicious in its own amazing way. We got Q-bing, which comes with  plum sauce and cucumber and is wrapped not unlike Beijing Duck, two kinds of dumplings (green bean chicken and fennel beef - I highly recommend the fennel beef. Yum!), glass noodles with cucumber and pig's ear, more flower pepper chicken (辣子雞), some really good eggplant...and probably some other delicious things as well. I forget. I was so stuffed and excited to have spotted Wubai, who has very good taste in food!

(Of course my in-laws were all "Who's Wubai?")

This was a good place for some not-so-spicy dishes, but also to try more lamb seasoned with hot pepper powder and cumin, which provide a kind of earthy heat when mixed together, and to get a taste for real northern Chinese fare.


One thing about the restaurants I've been mentioning is that they're generally better with larger groups - because you can order more types of food. This was an excellent opportunity for my in-laws to get to know our friends in Taiwan, both local and foreign. This is me with two of my closest Taiwanese friends, Cathy and Sasha, at Harbin Dumpling King!

At Wendell's Tianmu

With all of our Chinese and Taiwanese food exploits, the in-laws also wanted to try some of what Taipei has on offer in terms of "ethnic food" (hey, in Taipei, "German" counts as "ethnic"). We took them to Wendell's - although Cafe Goethe is just as good for many dishes - and Calcutta Indian food, which is reliably delicious. At Wendell's, enjoy the great bread, and don't miss out on the exquisite beef tartare (ask for extra bread to eat it with, trust me). At Calcutta,  make sure to get lamb samosas and butter chicken, and the garlic naan is wonderful. This was another kind of spice to try - Indian spices, fried in ghee, and slow-cooked with a gravy and meat or vegetable to produce a much more rounded spice that settles in your gut and then seemingly spreads through your veins to create a sort of happy, ethereal, "high on spice" feeling (you can get a similar feeling by eating a massive amount of red chili peppers). These, along with Zoca Pizza and The Diner, are all reliable choices for non-Chinese/Taiwanese food in Taipei.


Shrimp Roll Rice on Dihua Street

Of course, there are places we didn't get to enjoy. We didn't eat my favorite shrimp roll rice on Dihua Street, even though we did go there for fabric shopping, because my mother -in-law just would not have been able to do the seafood. I don't think it would have appealed to them.

We didn't make it to Shao Shao Ke, with its Shaanxi food featuring a cross between the Central Asian influenced spices of northwest China and hua jia and chili spices of Sichuan, but next time they visit, we certainly will (and we'll call ahead to pre-order some of their specialties that they need notice to prepare).

They didn't get to try Zoca, because the restaurant was closed for an extended break while they were here. That was really sad, because it's literally a few minutes' walk from my apartment.

We didn't get to Nan Chuan, which has great noodles and an amazing cold chili sauce chicken xiao cai that you absolutely have to try.

*As for that General Tso's Chicken, there's a restaurant run by the son of one of Chiang Ching-kuo's chefs, known as the "inventor of General Tso's Chicken". I can't find a link now but will update with it when I do: I would have definitely taken them there, just for kicks, if we'd had time.

And finally, sadly, we missed out on aboriginal food, which I see as a mainstay of good Taiwanese cuisine.

Needless to say, there's still enough great uncharted food territory for my in-laws when they come back, and plenty of options for friends I'm hoping will visit...which are also options for your friends and relatives who visit, too!


Catherine Shu said...

As I was reading this, I kept thinking "oooooh, I should have told Jenna to take her in-laws to Chiachia!" And then I saw that you did! Yay! That stinky tofu/pidan combo is in my dreams every night.

Kathmeista said...

Awesome post! Absolutely brilliant.

I still think anyone who does not like Taiwan's food is crazy. The range and the flavours is just fantastic.

Nick Herman said...

Well, I still think most of the food in Taiwan is pretty mediocre, uninspiring, and contains too much oil and sugar, but I'm also spoiled by way of coming from the Bay Area.
By the way, there is a hole in the wall Indian Halal restaurant next to Da An park on Heping that is as good or better than anything I've had at Calcutta, and about half as cheap. I think it's just called "Halal Indian Food." It's right next to a Halal Thai restaurant (also some of the only authentic-esque Thai food I've had in Taiwan), and down the street from an excellent tea shop, Dignitea Gardens.

Jenna Cody said...

Nick - I've never once seen a Halal restaurant (Thai or Indian) around there, and I live in the area. I know they must be around because there's that mosque, but I was unaware of one on Heping itself. Is it right on Heping or is it in one of the lanes?

If you think Taiwanese food uses too much sugar and oil, go have a meal at Auntie Xie's. The flavors are generally not that strong - the key is delicacy - but I doubt you'll come out thinking that your meal was "mediocre" or "contained too much oil and sugar".

Anonymous said...

I moved back to the US after 16 years in Taiwan and one of the things that I miss most about Taiwan is the food. I never could understand why some people dissed Taiwan's food so much. The so-called Chinese food in the US is the pits!

Nick Herman said...

Yep, they're both halal. I'm pretty sure it's Heping...but I could be wrong..I know how to find them walking from Da An Park or from Guting station. I want to go back again soon--let me check the exact location for you when I do, or if you like, I'd be happy to show them to you--I sometimes don't know exact addresses, but my legs still know how to find places, if you know what I mean..
Anyhow, I'm leaving Taiwan soon. Have always enjoyed reading your blog, would be glad to meet you. Or if not, I'll get the address of those places for you. That tea shop near there is quite excellent, as they harvest on Alishan year round from their own farm, so I'll definitely be returning there within the next week or so, as I need to stock up before I go back to the USA..

I will check out Auntie Xie if I have a chance. I HAVE eaten good Taiwanese food that was not heavy on oil and sugar, and I know where to go to find some of these places, after a lot of trial and's just taken a lot of trial and error. It's just that most of what's out there and what people cram down their faces seems not much better than me than a lot of middle-American "cuisine."

Nick Herman said...

Ok, I went back to that Indian place and had a shrimpy curry. Not bad. Although the chicken breast curry I think was better for the price. It's just off of Heping Dong lu, at Wenzhou Street. Both the Indian Halal place and the Thai Halal place are next to each other. The thai place I remember being quite good with proper flavors. Neither of them dumb down their flavors for Taiwanese tastes. They're both across the street from Bastille Cafe.

Jenna Cody said...

I feel terrible not getting back to you earlier - actually i would really like to go to one of those places and it would be fun to meet. Are you still in Taipei?