Showing posts with label daan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label daan. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Yes, it is weird when strangers randomly invite you to things.

This shouldn't be necessary, but I feel the need to put out a gentle reminder:

If some perfect stranger approaches you on the street and invites you to something without knowing you at all, yes, that is an unusual thing to do and you should treat it as such.

Every few months or years, reports of this or that organization (there's more than one, with more than one intention) trying to recruit people through random street approaches start cropping up. It's a problem around the world but seems to me to be particularly bad in Taiwan, especially in Taipei (but that could be because I don't know other cities as well.)

No, the rules are not different because you're in Taiwan - if you're new here, Taipei is a normal city full of normal people who don't approach total randos to see if they want to attend some event. They have their own lives and their own stuff going on, and don't live to just befriend totally new people they know nothing about. That's not a thing anywhere. You wouldn't do it in the country you come from, so don't do it here.

If you would do it in the country you come from, good luck to you, but I'd advise against it.

And no, this isn't a thing that happens because the Western community in Taiwan is small. There are friendly fellow foreign residents who, if they meet you under normal circumstances, will be happy to make a new friend and show you how things work here. But they do not approach you out of nowhere on the street and they don't just happen to have fliers for whatever it is they want you to attend. They carry those on purpose, to find people and get them in the door. It is intentional - they are not new friends you made because of some happy accident of timing. They aren't just super nice people who keep their eye out for Westerners who seem new to help them out. Of course they seem nice. Of course whatever they are inviting you to seems cool, or just a chance to make new friends. Of course they seem really empathetic, perhaps to the fact that you're new here and don't know many people yet. That's the point. It wouldn't work if it didn't seem like a great opportunity.

It could be some "direct marketing" scheme, it could be some religious or spiritual thing, it could be whatever. It doesn't matter. It's no less unusual to approach strangers here than anywhere else. Same for parties and other gatherings. Normal people get to know someone first: if the purpose of the interaction seems to specifically be to invite you somewhere or show you some new product, and not to get to know you as a person, that's a sign. Heed it.

If it's a marketing/sales thing, then no, it's not an amazing new product. No, the way people sell things isn't any different here than anywhere else.

If it's "free lessons" - guitar, English, Mandarin, whatever - but the person inviting you doesn't know you, no, that's not how you get music or yoga or Chinese lessons. They're probably at a church or temple.

If they are nice white guys on bicycles wearing ties, no, nice white people who want to be your friend won't stop you at a traffic light, that's weird. They want you to join their religion, not to be their friend with no strings attached.

And if it's a religious/spiritual thing, no, it's not because you're in the "East" or whatever and so people are, like, so totally more spiritual here and they want to share that which is why they are so nice.

That's not a thing and it never has been. If you're into Dao or Buddhist philosophy, good for you. Enjoy! Even so, people who share your interest in these things, yet are normal people with normal lives, still don't just randomly go around inviting strangers to things.

Please keep that in mind.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cat Under A Hot Tin Roof: Looking for a living space as a long-term Taipei expat

As I wrote in a previous post...we have to move. And we're not happy about it. Thinking about it even 3 weeks after hearing the news still creates a sucking feeling somewhere around where my guts are supposed to be.

That post was more general - aimed, I suppose, at a wider audience. This one is more specific to trying to find a place to live in Taipei.


I prayed to Tu Di Gong (the Earth God, who's in charge of these things) once already and my fortune - after throwing fortune blocks - said that we'd have a successful move. It's about time I went back and thanked him for his continued help, although I'm waiting for a breakthrough that would justify doing so. So far that breakthrough has not come.

Side note: one thing I like about Chinese folk gods like Tu Di Gong is that they don't care if you're an atheist. They care that your issue or question is sincere, and that you show up to pray. Even if you don't pray, they may help you. If you do, they may or may not, it depends on their mood or whatever heavenly politics they're involved in at the moment. The idea that an atheist could go to an Earth God shrine in Taipei and pray, despite not believing, is not irreconcilable in this culture. To me this is realistic (either a god will help you or he won't, and praying may help your case, or you may get lucky), echoing how things work in the real world (either you get lucky or you don't). It's a way to make myself feel better, and feel more connected to life in Taiwan. I can do that, and be an atheist. Thanks, Earth God. You're cool.

So.

A lot of the advice out there on renting an apartment in Taiwan is aimed at new arrivals, Fresh Off The Plane folks who don't know how things work. And that's great - they probably need the advice. I want to talk more to long-termers in this post, though. Not necessarily to give advice - I don't have any - but to open up about my own experiences so far.

My own renting history wasn't that great until our most recent apartment, which is basically the best non-luxury apartment in all of Taipei. No traffic noise, a courtyard "view", a good window that gives the living room natural sunlight, attractive faux-wood floors, a bathtub, a dryer, in one of the best possible locations (Da'an district, well behind Technology Building station and near the southern terminus of Da'an Road). First, I lived in a horrible foreigner flophouse where new hires at Kojen English are housed until they can find something better, or at least marginally less disgusting. Kojen never bothered to clean it, and it housed a rotating crew of mostly twentysomething men who never bothered to clean (not necessarily because they were men; more likely it was also because they saw their residence there as temporary, and they were immatu....I mean young). The kitchen was so filthy I wouldn't cook in it, the roaches were horribly brave, the balcony had a Coke can full of rainwater and cigarette buts on the tumbledown old table, the glass panes on the shelving were covered in old Taiwan Beer labels that had been applied while still wet, and the most memorable feature of the place was a dartboard attached to a stolen traffic cone - one of the darts still stuck in the board had a pair of women's underwear on it. Nobody knew where they'd come from.

Then I moved into the Japanese room of an otherwise nice first-floor apartment near Liuzhangli. It wasn't bad, but it was tiny, not terribly private, and had no natural light. I wasn't allowed to have overnight guests but the apartment's owner (at least I presume she was the owner) sometimes did. I couldn't get the Internet there to work on my laptop and after a few cursory attempts, she gave up trying to help me. I wasn't allowed to sign an official lease, which made it impossible to follow the law and have my residence address updated on my ARC.

Then I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, Brendan, after his roommates in Nanshijiao agreed to it (I was spending so much time there anyway that we figured I may as well pay rent). It was a 6th floor illegal walk-up, and I hated it. The other "couple" had broken up but were still sharing a room for a variety of complicated reasons. I tried to help the girlfriend get her life in order as best I was able to support her, but in the end they kept fighting (as broken-up couples sharing a bedroom are wont to do), neither was able/willing to move out, and we all decided it was best if Brendan and I moved out so she could live in the other room (well, I'm not sure it was "best" but I really wanted out, so it didn't really matter). I don't miss that apartment - hot as hell in summer, ugly white tile, ugly fake blue leather couches, white walls, cheap construction, fighting roommates - or that neighborhood (Zhonghe...kind of sucks. I felt like an ant in an overcrowded colony), but I do miss the female ex-roommate's friendly Labrador. I still think about him. What a great dog.

We felt pushed ou---I mean had to move right as I was changing jobs - I really could not stay at Kojen, I was deeply unhappy there - and we'd planned a visit home and after a year of being Kojen's butt-monkey, I had basically no money. So we took the first acceptable, affordable place we could find which was another illegal 6th floor walkup with an ugly floor, bad construction, a roach problem, a kitchen that didn't even qualify as Third World and a tiny bedroom. The only natural light was in the kitchen - little reached the living room.

At least we were back in Taipei and liked the neighborhood - Jingmei - and the rent was very cheap. We decorated the living room, even with the landlord's dilapidated old furniture (it didn't even qualify as "vintage"), to be as homey as we could make it, painting the walls a warm creamy yellow and the bedroom in shades of blue. It was so cheap, and we liked the area so much, that we stayed for four years. We got married. We planned a trip to Turkey. We went to Egypt and India. Rent was so cheap that we had lots of disposable income.

But our formerly friendly landlady was starting to get weird, refusing to fix an obviously broken air conditioner (she blamed it on cat hair, but cleaning out the filter didn't fix anything). We baked all summer in 2011 under the corrugated tin roof, kept the faulty air conditioner at 19C, and our electricity bills skyrocketed. We couldn't turn it off - we'd come home to baked cat. I still harbor a suspicion that the bills, which went to the landlady, were artificially inflated but I can't prove it.

In Turkey we rented the first floor of a lovely old townhouse during our month-long course in Istanbul. We had an adorable living-bedroom combo, a sunny and inviting kitchen, and even a little back garden with a pear tree and friendly neighborhood cats. We also had slugs that would come out from a drain in the kitchen, but for one month we could live with that. When we came back, I huffed up the six flights of stairs to our ugly old place and my shoulders sank. I was glad to be back in Taiwan, but not glad to be home. I hated that place - I suspect now that the lack of sunlight and general uncomfortableness of it was affecting my mood to the point of near - but not clinical - depression.

And that was what it was like as expats renting apartments in Taipei. Your choices seemed to be old white-tile monstrosities with bubbling walls and no light, or apartments out in Taipei County (Xinbei - whatever) in ugly cities, or far from the MRT, or cat-under-a-hot-tin-roof illegal 6th floor apartments with no elevator, or tiny rooms in shared places with kitchens that were falling apart and furnishings on the wrong side of a bonfire (in that they hadn't been rightfully thrown in one yet).

No! I thought, three years ago. No no no no no NO! I WILL NOT DO THIS. "We have to move," I told Brendan. "Like...now." We decided to start preliminary searches, but decided we couldn't afford to move so soon after coming back from Turkey until 2012 at the latest. I was depressed, just thinking about a few more months in an apartment I'd previously liked for its location and cheapness, but had come to loathe.

It turns out we didn't have to look at all. I put a "yeah, right" ad on TEALIT describing my dream apartment - attractive floors, natural light, a goddamn elevator for chrissakes, I mean really - a kitchen that I wasn't afraid to use, air conditioning that worked. A dryer would be nice. How about a Chinese-style circular window, or one shaped like a bottle or peach or something? Why the hell not? A Japanese room! I want to be allowed to paint! A second bedroom, sure! In Taipei City! Near the MRT!

I didn't think for a moment that we'd find such a place, and in fact most of the replies I got were from people who had clearly not read the ad. "We have a great studio near Taipei Main" - nope, I want at least one bedroom. "We have lovely apartments for rent in Banqiao" - heh. Xinbei can suck it. I will not live in Banqiao.

Then I got an ad saying "I need to leave Taipei and I have basically exactly what you want. Come take a look." I thought, "probably not, but okay." We took a look. It was exactly what we wanted. Wood (well, fake wood) floors, natural light, a Japanese-style tea nook, a dryer (!!), three bedrooms, near the MRT, no weird architectural details or in-built shelving that we hated. Just a nice floor, good light and four walls that we could decorate as we wished.

Although we really couldn't afford it after such a long trip, we made ourselves broke for awhile and moved in just 2 months later. And we stayed happily for years, thinking that we'd make that place our home until someday, maybe, we either left Taiwan or bought our own place (which was not going to happen with the over-valuation of Taipei properties thanks to a massive real estate bubble that has not burst, but probably will).

Then, as you know, we were told we'd have to leave.

The first thing I noticed when we began searching for a new place is that people take really bad photos of the apartments that are available (something one of my Facebook friends also noted). A lot of photos are blurry, or don't show important features (a bathroom shot with no inclusion of the bathing area, so you have no idea whether you're going to get an Asian-style washroom with no separation between shower area and toilet/sink, a shower stall or a tub? Really?) or make places out to be darker or smaller than they actually are. Why would you do that if you want people to rent your space? Sometimes you get photos of what is basically just a corner of the room! What good is that? Sometimes the photos are even blurry - they couldn't take an extra 2 seconds to take a non-blurry photo? And sometimes the photos are oddly stretched or obviously manipulated, which I feel should be, if not illegal, at least considered so unprofessional that nobody does it.

The second is that people, even local friends, gave really bad advice. "Some apartments have flaws that don't become apparent until later," they might say. "So you should avoid that." Yeah, um, I don't see how that can be avoided if the flaws are not something you could know about when looking at a place. "You shouldn't pay any agent fees, the landlord should pay all of it" - well, when every single agent says otherwise, that the fee is paid half-half, there's not much I can do about it. "It's hard to find an apartment with nice floors, you can just get a tile floor apartment and cover it with a rug." Which is exactly what I don't want to do. First of all, it's still ugly. Secondly, especially with a cat but even without, rugs are a pain to clean.

"You can find newer places in Banqiao or Xindian." Except I don't want to live in Banqiao or Xindian. I really, really, really don't like Taipei County. Like, really. If it's not old and crowded - and ugly, and depressing - it's overpriced (Yonghe #4 Park), too far from anything interesting (places like Danshui) which would mean a race we don't want to run to catch the MRT home every night. '"Banqiao is actually an easy commute to work" - except I only teach one class at that place, and I don't intend to structure my life around work. I structure work around my life. Yonghe and Zhonghe are too crowded, with even worse pedestrian infrastructure than Taipei, and are deeply unattractive and inconvenient to get around. Linkou is too far away and horribly boring. I will not live somewhere that requires me to have a scooter to get around. And Xindian, I'm sorry, is just fucking ugly (for the parts that are not ugly, you need a scooter). No, no, no, no and no.

The third thing we've noticed is that while any numpty with a camera and an Internet connection can post an apartment for rent on 591, the majority of postings are from agents. We'd prefer to just deal with a landlord, but have come to accept that we may have to pay someone half a month's rent when they haven't really done anything to deserve it (an agent who can proactively look for us and introduce us to properties not online yet and keep our wishes in mind, however, would be worth the money).

We've also been looking on agent websites - twhouses.com, kijiji, House Fun, happyrent.rakuya.com, and on the foreigner sites (Taiwanease, Forumosa, TEALIT and Craigslist). The local sites tend to have more affordable listings, although they're often quite ugly. The nicer places are furnished - with furniture we neither need, nor like, nor want. The foreigner-friendly sites have better properties, but tend to be overpriced. I don't know what kind of money they think expats who need to rent their own places are made of, but an 18-ping non-luxury property is not worth over $1,000 USD a month no matter where it is in Taipei. It's just not.

What's more, we've realized how picky we truly are. I have a thing about floors - I'm *thisclose* to saying I have a floor fetish. Now that I've lived with floors I actually like, I'm not willing to go back to cold white tile. Now that I know what it's like not to fight wall cancer, I can't accept wall cancer. Now that I have lived in a place where, after showering, I can use the toilet without my feet getting wet, I won't go back to an Asian-style washroom. Now that I have furniture I like, I'm not willing to live with furniture I don't like. Now that I've lived in a great apartment near the MRT, I'm not willing to move far from the MRT and take the bus. Now that I've lived in a nice corner of Taipei City, I refuse to live in an ugly or distant corner of Xinbei. Now that I've had natural light I won't give it up. Now that we own a Whirlpool dryer, I won't get rid of it because it won't fit in a prospective apartment's new back room. Now that I have a real kitchen without having to put a refrigerator in the living room, and not had to fear that I'd walk in to find a rat in front of the sink, I won't go back to a dilapidated old kitchen with no refrigerator. Now that I've had an elevator, I won't walk up 5, or even 3, flights of stairs. Now that I've had good natural light, I won't accept a dark living room or frosted windows (in fact, I don't even want textured glass, nor do I want a window partly taken up by an air conditioner, making it hard to hang nice curtains). Now that we have had the chance to paint and decorate to our specifications, I can't accept ugly in-built shelving that I don't want, or light fixtures I don't like (I am, however, willing to paint any wall back to its original color whenever we move out of any given place, and make sure all lights are functional). I just want four plain walls, good light and a nice floor. A kitchen and bathroom that are not horrifying. I can tolerate a little traffic noise. I can tolerate a dark bedroom - it's for sleeping, anyway.

I know I can get all this, and about 30 ping of space, for $25,000-$30,000NT in Taipei City, in Da'an District even, because that's what we pay now. And now that I know that I can have that, I will not be the poor wand'ring expat living in some hot, leaky rooftop. And that's what I want. I will not let the sub-par rental market push me into a place I don't love.

And that's just it: locals, for the most part, either own an apartment and rent it out, living in a rental that they like (owning an apartment in Xinbei and renting one in Taipei to live is common), or rent apartments only when they're young and are willing to live somewhere that's not "home" because they're young and broke and see the arrangement as temporary, or do so because their ultimate goal is to buy real estate. Foreigners seem to be shunted into the worst properties by an apathetic market - it's easy to unload those shit-acular tin roof shacks to foreigners, or those privacy-lacking Japanese rooms, or those windowless spaces. I just won't let that be me. And you shouldn't let it be you. I've become accustomed to a more settled, prosperous life in a comfortable living space, and I am not willing to give that up.

We've considered starting a fund to buy a place (we don't have the necessary deposit money right now) so we could be as picky as we wanted and do what we wanted with the space once we owned it. And that's a great goal that we're going to start working toward - but for now, we're stuck in the rental market. And we will be until the real estate bubble bursts, because if I won't rent an apartment in an area where I don't want to live, I certainly won't buy one there.

So far, we've only found two places we could imagine living in. One was just a bit above our budget, which would have been fine if it hadn't been for a grand piano in the living room. Take out the piano, or lower the rent to account for the loss of space, and we'd be signing the lease right now. The other came with a pushy agent who wanted one month's rent as a fee (that's double the market rate - nope. Not gonna happen) and wanted us in by March 15 (one week from now). Not possible. I made a counter-offer - the market rate agent's fee and an April move-in, but haven't gotten a call back.

Which is yet another thing I hate about this whole process: it's deeply difficult, culturally speaking I guess, to deliver bad news directly. And so when the phone call must deliver a "no", people seem to prefer to not make the call. I was told, for the grand piano apartment, that the agent would try to get the landlord to lower the rent and she'd let me know. She never did. I asked one landlord of a Chenggong Apartments place we liked if we could put in our own faux-wood floor on top of the tile. He said he'd talk to his wife and call me back, but hasn't. The agent who wanted a preposterous fee said he'd "check" about my offer, and hasn't called me back.

I know this is the American in me talking - and is probably horribly culturally imperialist of me - but baby Jesus on a stick! Is it really so hard to pick up the phone, send an e-mail, even drop a text message - to let you know that something's not happening?

Finally, not long after we began the hunt, I was loitering outside of a rental agency - there was no agent present at the small branch office at that moment - and I got to talking to an older woman who was also there. She asked me what I was looking for - I told her my wish list. She said her kid had just such an apartment - same complex that we live in now, wood floors, a view of Far Eastern Hotel (meaning good light - I don't care about the view so much),  3 bedrooms, same rent, nice kitchen, bathtub. Sounds perfect. Available at the end of April. Great. We exchanged numbers.

Except...we can't see the place yet. We have to wait until April because the departing tenants don't want strangers barging in on their personal space. I find this odd - but maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe the Earth God is helping me out and it'll all work out. Maybe not. Maybe the woman I talked to has dementia and she doesn't even have a kid, let alone a kid with an apartment to rent.

I don't know. We'll see. Come on, Earth God.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Restaurant Review: Ikki Robatayaki (一氣爐端燒)

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Ikki Robatayaki/一氣爐端燒
Civic Blvd. Section 4 #101 (near Dunhua S. Road)
市民大道四段101號
02-2778-8662

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Time to intersperse all the doom and gloom of my previous two posts - after a long hiatus so I could wrap up Delta Module One and then get over the PTSD it inflicted (OK, not really, I hope nobody with actual PTSD gets super offended by that) - with a restaurant review.

I have to start by admitting that I am ashamed of myself. I believed myself to be someone who knew were all, or at least most of, the good restaurants in Taipei were. I really thought I had this city's culinary landscape in full view.

I was wrong.

Turns out that Civic Boulevard, especially between the northern terminus of Da'an Road (and possibly all the way over to Fuxing S. Road) and the Civic-Yanji Street intersection, is a veritable gold mine of good food...and I had no idea. What is wrong with me?! I'd always written off that part of town, and Civic Blvd with its bad feng-shui (and I don't believe in feng-shui) and ugly surrounds, as not worth spending a lot of time in. Crossing the city in taxis for work, I'd often end up passing that strip during the day, when it was all closed down and boring. It never occurred to me to venture up there at night and see whether there was good eatin'.

But there is.

Not only do you have San Jing Mitsui in the basement of the Fubon Life building, but a lot of the old standbys in Shi-da that moved when those racist, classist reactionary jerks had it all taken down have moved here (I'm not so sure I'd go so far as to call Shi-da "the heart of Taiwan", but it was pretty good). Across from Da'an Road you'll find 1885 Burger, which either has or had a branch on Pucheng Street back when Shi-da was good. Down the road a bit past the Dunhua Intersection you'll find Chicken in Bok and Beer, a Korean fried chicken place that has exploded in popularity since its move (we couldn't get a seat there on Friday night - by the way, get the chicken cooked in Korean red sauce, not the regular fried chicken). It, too, is of Shi-da vintage, now uprooted.

Beyond that, you'll find a popular tofu pudding (豆花) place, a branch of Tanuki Koji (my favorite creative Japanese izakaya), Urban 45 tapas parlor (which has terrible music on their website; I've never eaten there but will), Hutong (never eaten there either) and a string of Japanese restaurants that all look pretty good.

How did I not know this? Why did I avoid Civic Boulevard, viewing it as a food and entertainment desert, for all these years? Well, it's never too late to start exploring. We live near the southern terminus of Da'an Road, so we walked the entire length of it, past Xinyi, Ren'ai and Zhongxiao to get there. Da'an Road is an interesting strip - near us it's pretty local, with a school, some bakeries, a few small places to eat. It goes past some luxury apartments and a mini-night-market clutch of stalls. A bunch of small, non-pretentious shops (think cheap "everything" general stores) give way to medical shops as it passes Ren'ai Hospital (I recommend Florida Bakery on Ren'ai to the right). Then it turns into all-out Rich People Road, with an Aveda, Michal Negrin, several upscale boutiques and cafes and a fancy but generic hotel. North of Zhongxiao it turns into a Gongguan-like night market (think glittery hair accessories, weird hairy, drapey sweaters for young fashionistas and Korean socks rather than food), but probably more expensive. Then it ends in that great strip of restaurants. A fantastic walk through the many layers of commercial Taipei for a Friday night dinner (something we rarely get to do - our Fridays are usually booked out with work).

Unable to eat at Chicken in Bok and Beer - our original plan - we ended up at Ikki Robatayaki. It was really, really good - a mix of Japanese beer-on-tap dive bar, local izakaya and gourmet food. I like this kind of food more than Brendan (I'm pretty passionate about Japanese food and have been ever since I realized it was way more than noodles and sushi - hey, I grew up in a small town, forgive me. But I like noodles and sushi, too) but he was game.

I started with warm sake for a chilly night, but realized later that the food goes better with a nice tall glass of draft beer. I recommend starting and finishing (and going the middle) with Asahi.

Some of our food:

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Anyplace that not only has a dish that is just a grilled onion - really, grilled onion, nothing more, some salt on the side - but puts a picture of it on their menu, too, must make one mean grilled onion. So we got it. Great with beer. It takes awhile to grill through but once done, is delicious. And oniony. Would have been overkill without the beer. Definitely split this one with another person.

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We also ordered the gingko nuts, as I've never had them before. Loved the meaty, chewy texture and unique flavor, but was not so pleased with the bitter undercurrent and aftertaste. That's just how gingko nuts usually are, though - although I am generally averse and very sensitive to bitter flavors, this was okay. It added a complexity to the flavor, and worked well with the salt they were served in as well as the beer.

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Spicy bamboo shoots were a free appetizer, and entirely delicious.

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Tender bamboo shoots with a wasabi dip were also delicious.


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The wasabi taste in this raw "wasabi octopus" mini-dish was mild and subtle, but overall I enjoyed it. Not for those who can't take raw seafood or don't like the cold, slightly slimy sauce of many Japanese salad preparations.

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The Japanese fried chicken, served with an aioli or mayonnaise, was delicious (but needed salt - I recommend the spicy red salt preparation - it has a Japanese name that I don't know - provided on the counter).

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We got two sets of sticks - green onion chicken (above) and steak sticks (not pictured). Both were delicious and cooked on the grill to perfection. Both are served with a spicy mustard.

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We also got two salmon flake rice triangles (not pictured) and I got this scallop roll with sea urchin - delicious! Again, not for those who can't take raw seafood as neither the scallop nor the sea urchin is cooked. Add a tiny bit of soy sauce or tamari, roll up and eat. The final taste is a whizbang of hot wasabi that finishes off this delicious, fresh roll.

All in all I really liked this place and would definitely go back.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Most Atmospheric Coffeeshops in Taipei

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Ya Zhi Lin Coffee on Guiyang Street

A long while back I posted my rundown of the best coffee in Taipei. While it's not a comprehensive list, it's one borne of personal experiences. Those places are still all among my favorites, and I update it regularly.

That said, there are so many other great coffee drinking choices in Taipei that may not warrant making it onto the "best" list on the merits of their coffee, but still deserve a mention for their friendliness, atmosphere or both. From posh to studenty, from knickknacky and warm to cool and minimalist, from fashionable to so uncool it's cool, here's my list of the most atmospheric coffeeshops in Taipei. There is some overlap between these two lists - I think it's justified!

Caffe Libero (or failing that - it can be hard to get seats - any number of coffeeshops in that immediate area).
Jinhua Street Lane #243 #1 (金華街243巷1號), near Yongkang Street's Shi-da end

This one near Yongkang Street also makes my list of "great coffee" and "great desserts", so you know it's a winner. The atmosphere here includes a long porch with outdoor seating, eclectic vintage chairs (think Grandma's Victorian Good Red Velvet vintage, not meet-cute '50s vintage) and old milk glass lights.

Formosa Vintage Museum Cafe
Xinyi Rd. Sec 2 #178 3rd Floor (totally innocuous building)
信義路2段178號3樓

Really just a few tables in a small space crammed with one guy's personal collection of fascinating Taiwanese antiques and vintage items - free tour with an order of tea or coffee. The only food is basic cookies, but it's worth it to just hang out here among all the old stuff with a cup of something. Great selection of vintage-style postcards for sale.

8mm
Xinsheng S. Road Sec. 3 Lane 60 #1
新生南路3段60巷1號

A newer, artier place in Gongguan with odd fashion items hung below faux goat heads, low tables and an achingly hip staff. The food and coffee are good but not excellent, but it's a good place to meet someone for a non-alcoholic drink (although they can and do spike coffee and hot chocolate).

Booday Cafe
Nanjing W. Road Lane 25 #18-1 (along the park between Zhongshan and Shuanglian MRTstations)
南京西路25巷18-1號

Hipster-friendly cafe with warm, welcoming natural light above a boutique selling handmade-in-Taiwan items. Their best coffee is the India Mysore or the Taiwan coffee and the desserts are pretty good, too.

Old Tree Cafe
Xinsheng S. Road Sec. 1 #60
新生南路1段60號

Very old Taipei "institution" full of cranky old people - many of them Mainlanders - old wood furniture from the '60s and '70s, jet fuel coffee, right smack on an unappealing section of Xinsheng S. Road (somewhere in that stretch between Xinyi and Zhongxiao, I think past Ren'ai), but worth going to for the atmosphere once inside. This one's in the "vintage before it was cool" stage of hipster evolution.

Futai Street Mansion (actually tea more than coffee)
Yanping S. Road #26 near North Gate
延平南路26號, 北門附近

A very small cafe serving basic drinks and light snacks (think cookies) in, you guessed it, the Futai Street Mansion (Yanping S. Road, just southwest of North Gate, or Beimen - one old-style manse in an area that used to be entirely made up of such architecture. It's been renovated by the government and open as a public space. The wood inside is all Taiwanese cypress, so it smells divine. You can wander the house and have tea, and I think coffee, in the gift shop.

Whose Books
Roosevelt Rd. Sec 3 #308-1 2nd Floor (entrance at the back, in the lanes)
羅斯福路3段301-1號2樓

A used bookshop in Gongguan, smack at the end of Xinsheng S. Road where it hits Roosevelt (entrance from the back, in the lanes on the other side of Roosevelt). Small coffeeshop among a sea of used books (English books upstairs). Yes, you can grab books to peruse and order a coffee or tea in the cafe as you decide what, if anything, to buy. Discounted or free drink if you donate books. The coffee isn't great, but it'll do, and I like the verbena herbal tea. I like the old square Chinese-style table.

Cat's Got Nothing To Do Cafe
Maokong - turn left after exiting the Gondola and walk past the first bit of development, until you reach the place with the white umbrellas and great view.

A small outdoor setup on Maokong with a fantastic view of the Taipei Basin towards Guanyin Mountain and Danshui. Look for the white umbrellas (from Maokong Gondola station, the best view is at the tables on the right side of the road).

It's easy enough to find. Exit gondola station, turn left, keep going past the first clutch of stalls until you get to a coffeeshop, not teahouse, like setup of white umbrella-topped tables.

Shake House
Wenzhou Street Lane 86 intersection behind the Lutheran Church and across from Bastille, near Xinsheng S. Road, Gongguan

I mentioned this before under "best coffee", and am mentioning it again for its atmosphere! With decrepit mismatched chairs, upside-down flower pot pendant lamps, a floor that feels like it'll give out at any moment, a somewhat treacherous bathroom and an impressive collection of LPs (although they often just play music off of an iPod), the studenty vibe of this friendly place can't be beat.

Nancy Coffee
Near the Chongqing/Huating/Tianshui intersections south of Nanjing W. Road

I love this 1970s throwback so much that I wrote an entirely separate blog post on it, even though they have no wifi, terrible jet fuel coffee and very mediocre snack sandwiches. It's in one of my favorite neighborhoods - southeast of Dihua Street, not far from the Chongqing-Tianshui intersection, and shows its age, and the age of the historic neighborhood around it. Really just a retro place, cool "before it was cool", in that it's totally not cool but I think it's cool, which makes me maybe a proto-hipster?

Yongle Market Coffee
Yongle Market, Dihua Street

Head to Yongle Market (that ugly thing that looks like a municipal monstrosity attached to the lovely old brick and wood-screen market on Dihua Street), where the ugly building hits the lovely building there's an outdoor coffeeshop with plastic seats, umbrella-topped tables, terribly saccharine 1950s music, mediocre coffee but pretty good choices of fresh fruit smoothies and milk blends. I like this place because it's smack in the middle of the action on Dihua Street and outside, so you can watch the comings and goings of people who spend time or do business there, and it's a good choice for a pleasant day when you don't want to be behind a pane of glass.

Drop Coffee
Xinsheng S. Road Sec. 3 #149-11
新生南路三段149之11號
IMG_0009

I also mentioned this one in my "best coffee" post, because it really does have some of the best coffee in Taipei (also, some of the most caffeinated). Situated in an old Japanese house, across the street from another one that's still a private residence, with an open coffee bar that you can sit at and watch your siphon brew be made, it's also got a lot of atmosphere.

Coffee, Tea or Me
Wenzhou (溫州)Street north of Lane 86 and just south of Xinhai Rd.

This spot, across from La Boheme (which used to be great, but their food went downhill and they no longer have a cat) in an area rife with coffeeshops, has a scruffy, studenty vibe with an open-ish, woody seating area, mismatched lamps, an old-skool espresso machine, good wifi, artsy posters and postcards and a very grumpy cat who likes to sleep on that espresso machine.

Red House (Ximen, not the outdoor balcony bar I like in Shi-da - that's cool too, but they don't really do much in the way of coffee)
MRT Ximen, Chengdu Road #10
捷運西門站成都路10號

IMG_0313
The famous Red House Theater, with great coffeeshop inside

 Everyone knows this historic site near Ximen (MRT Exit 1), but not everyone realizes there's a lovely coffeeshop cafe inside. When I first moved here it was where the gift shop is now, with colorful chairs, the same CD played every day and very good focaccia sandwiches - and the market behind it was unused space. Then it became Cho West, which was classier but less welcoming. Now it's something similar (may still be Cho West actually) but has a more comfortable feel, with vintage tables, crochet throws and knickknacks. When in Ximen and not at Fong-da (which has great coffee, a cheap breakfast and good beans for home brewing) I like to come here to enjoy the atmosphere before shopping in the relatively new market area for entrepreneurial artists and designers.

Fong-Da Coffee
#42 Chengdu Road, Taipei (just up the street from Red House)
成都路49號

It would be blasphemy not to mention this old Taipei institution with its old school formica tables, huge plastic tubs of snacks, sundaes and delicious coffee (including a very good Taiwanese coffee) - it's modern and popular but with a fun retro kick. Also a great place to buy whole bean coffee, and they sell coffee cups and saucers with their name and logo. I have one!

Mono Cafe
Fuxing S. Road Sec 2 #349
復興南路二段349號1F

IMG_2971 This is a more minimal, eggshell-paint-and-blonde wood coffeeshop with a friendly, talkative cat just north of NTU on Fuxing S. Road. The music is usually pretty palatable, they seem to be somewhat into photography, the food is not bad - it won't change your life but it's pretty solid as food goes - and their Bailey's latte (not to mention their Cointreau latte) are both fantastic, as is their matcha milk (think like a milky matcha tea). I like the big blonde wood tables, excellent, if you can grab a whole one, for anything involving a group - and also fine to just grab a corner if you're a pair or on your own. There isn't a lot of seating but the place feels spacious thanks to the light colors and pretty minimal design.


Rufous Coffee
Fuxing S. Road Sec. 2 #333
復興南路二段333號 

Some of the best espresso in Taipei is brewed here - try the Irish coffee, the iced cognac coffee with ice cream, the iced banana mocha espresso, and for something lighter, the honey cinnamon latte. A total contrast to Mono's sense of space and light, this place is tiny, dark, with soft chairs and tons of knickknacks and arty bits&bobs - and they are practically right next door to each other! Good people-watching from the waiting-or-smoking seats outside. Hard to get seats - often crowded. Great place to hole up on a cold, dreary day.

Lin Family Garden Cafe
Ximen Street #9, Banqiao, New Taipei City (MRT Banqiao or Fuzhong)
新北市板橋區西門街9號

IMG_1168 This almost obligatory cafe in the Lin Family Garden in Banqiao feels like it was placed here by government decree, but you really can't beat it for outdoor style. You can dip a coffee or tea and enjoy the very (very) historic Qing-era surroundings in the cobbled courtyard. It was closed the last time we happened by, but had plans to reopen and should be in full swing now.

Little Chiu (Xiaoqiu)Cafe, Zhuzihu, Yangmingshan
陽明山竹子湖小丘咖啡

Sadly, I can't find an address for this place (but I can ask a friend and update later) - it's a lovely, not too twee coffeeshop on a hillside near Yangmingzhan's Bamboo Lake (the one where you can pick calla lilies). It's near, not on, the lake, but the view from the coffeeshop and lawn on a clear day is astounding and lovely. Pretty good sweets, coffee and tea, too.

Yazhilin Coffee (雅之林研磨咖啡)
Guiyang Street Sec 2 #133
貴陽街二段133號

IMG_1206

You want atmosphere? This place in an old wreck of a shophouse, with lots of local color, is the place to go. With local residents stopping by to drink and talk with their tiny dogs, a market-like area and Qingshui Temple nearby, this Wanhua Guiyang Street stop is one of my hidden-gem favorites. Shhh, don't tell anyone. What I love about Wanhua, Dalongdong and Dadaocheng is running into cool places like this...they're everywhere, but you have to walk by them by chance to find them, you can't usually look 'em up.

***

I wanted to add Zabu on Pucheng Street to the list, but sadly, they are closed. I blame the reactionary assholes in the Shi-da community (and who must have a lot of guanxi in the government) who got all the best places (except Red House) shut down. Fuck those guys, and fuck Hau Lung-bin, their idiot playtoy who went along with it.

Update: Zabu is back! You can find them at the tippy-top of Tianmu. Go all the way to the end of Zhongshan Road where it terminates in a traffic circle (somewhere above that, past very expensive luxury apartments, is the down-mountain entrance to Tianmu Old Trail) - heading uphill towards the circle, Zabu is on the left just as the road terminates and the circle begins.

#175, Zhongshan N. Road Section 7, Shilin District, Taipei, Taiwan
台北市士林區中山北路七段175號1樓

More Updates:

I also recommend:
Cafe Classic/Flying Cafe/品客經典咖啡
台北市大安區雲和街48之1 - Da'an District, Yunhe St. #48-1 (off Shi-da Road)

This place is not actually all that atmospheric, and they have neither good wifi nor good 3G service, but there are three adorable cats and all of them are basically friendly (one doesn't like to be picked up though). There's a fat grayish-white longhair, a puffy black longhair and a shorthaired folded-ear cat. The coffee's not bad either. But really I'm just a sucker for cats. A great place to study because you won't be distracted by anything on wifi or 3G!

Anhe 65 - a big comfortable space at Anhe Road Sec. 1 #65 (安和路1段65號) in the basement - great for days with bad weather - with two cats - one friendlier than the other, good coffee, excellent sandwiches and a little shop. Sometimes booked for events.

Cafe Prague
Da'an District, Wenzhou St. #50 (closer to Shi-da and Heping Road than Gongguan)
台北市溫州街50號

I can't find a website for this place, but the atmosphere - very European (or at least trying to be, and succeeding more than most places) with polished wood floors and furniture (including tables with delicate chairs that might make you feel like a bit of a hulking mass), a grand piano, one well-placed statement vase full of cut flowers, a long, shining wooden coffee bar and friendly, uniformed staff will make you feel more comfortable than you might at first think when you walk in.

Yaboo Cafe
台北市大安區永康街41巷26號
Yongkang Street Lane 41 #26

Comfy, hipsterish place with pretty good sandwiches and coffee. They have lots of big tables and some cushioned seating, 
too. Although there is lots of space, you may have to wait at busy times (on weekends, mostly) because its proximity to 
the main drag of Yongkang Street make it very popular. There are 2 cats - a big yellow one who hides a lot and a little gray 
one who likes to sleep in a specific chair and doesn't mind being petted. Good wifi, good service,
 good atmosphere.


Fleisch
Dihua Street #76 (迪化街76號)

Fleisch has food too, but you can definitely go there and just enjoy a cup of coffee. In a converted shophouse (which doesn't have that much of a historic feel from the inside, although interesting Taiwanese souvenirs - the handmade artsy kind, not the fake Chinese kind - are on sale on the lower level, with more seating upstairs), they're right on Dihua Street near the Xiahai temple, and serve good lattes in large bowls rather than mugs.

Film Studio Cafe
Xinsheng S. Road Section 3 Lane 70 #6
新生南路三段70巷6號

A good option in Gongguan - where all the best cafes have gone ever since those crusty old reactionary jerks ruined Shi-da, with big wooden tables that can seat a group. Bring your Macbook to look like one of the in-crowd, and if you're a large group I believe you can make a reservation.

A8 Coffee
Heping E. Road Sec. 3 Lane 67 #8 / 和平東路三段67巷8號 between MRT Liuzhangli and Technology Building


A8 Cafe's dark, chic space

This large, brick-walled, wooden-tabled coffeeshop with square windowpanes is run by Bunun aborigines and has basic coffee, alcoholic drinks, juices, meals (which smell pretty good), desserts (not bad) and large tables as well as sofas and cushioned chairs for groups. It's rarely totally full and has a cool aborigine/art/industrial/retro chic vibe that I like. A latte and a dessert (all desserts come with a free little pannacotta with fruit topping along with whatever you ordered) will run about NT300.

Cafe Mussion
Heping E. Road Section 2 #134 on the edge of the National Taipei University of Education campus, MRT Technology Building
(和平東路二段134號,國立台北教育大學裡面)

This place has floor-to-ceiling windows with a modern-shabby-chic look to it - a small dessert selection and weathered-wood tables of various sizes (some low with soft chairs, some regular cafe tables, some large tables and bartops for groups). I love the thick tables and kind of want one for my house. The "academic coffee" (no idea why it's called that) comes in the coolest two-layered clear glass cup ever.

Covent Garden Coffee
#8 Lane 18 Nanjing West Road - 南京西路18巷8號 - along the lanes bordering the old railroad park that runs along the red line MRT from Chang'an Road up to Minquan W. Road, south of Zhongshan Station (between Nanjing and Chang'an Roads)

This place looks like it was featured in a "Country Decorating - Back In Style!" photo spread in Better Homes & Gardens in 1976 or so. It's '70s retro meets "country" - think lots of dark wood, pumpkins and needlepoint and dried herbs and handmade wooden clothespin dolls and your mom's kitchen chairs.

And I love it for that! It's nothing like you'd imagine Covent Garden to be, but it hits that '70s vibe so well.

Coffee is pretty good, the desserts are "eh".

Confucius Coffee
The Confucius Temple, Hami Street

It's really just a coffeeshop in a temple, and not particularly special on the inside, but it's in the Confucius temple! And the last time I was there (a long time ago; they've since renovated), they had cute napkins with a cartoon Confucius on them that said "Confucius Coffee".

Temple Court Coffee (廟口咖啡)

 photo 10314482_10152489044786202_8216885456470851835_n.jpg

Yongji Street Lane 517 Alley 8 #12-3 (or, from Houshanpi MRT walking along Zhongpo Rd. to Wufenpu, walk past most of Wufenpu to Zhongpo North Road #50 or so...it's basically right at that temple).
永吉路517巷8弄12之3(種破北路50號箱子裡的寺廟左右)

South of Songshan Station you'll run into Wufenpu Fashion Market, bordered on one side by Zhongpo Road, which runs into MRT Houshanpi station, Along that road near Wufenpu is a small temple. In that temple, facing the road, is a small coffeeshop right between carved stone columns. LOVE IT.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A-Cai's Restaurant (阿才的店): 黨外國人!



This past weekend I put together a group outing to A-Cai's, a historic restaurant that is scheduled to be shuttered (and possibly, but not assuredly, relocated) when the building it's located in is torn down as a part of Taipei's ongoing, and controversial, urban renewal projects.


Mao Po Tofu - spicy, too!


Fish Scented Eggplant (Yuxiang Qiezi) 

 You can read about the history of the place above, and a review here - the place is hardly off the beaten track, as much as it looks like it.

I put this dinner together now because A-Cai's the window of opportunity to go is potentially so short: I asked upon leaving if the tear-down was still in the works and was told that yes, it would happen, but "not that soon". I hope they're fighting it, I really do, but the Taipei City Government is run by such buffoons that I don't hold out much hope.


All I can do is throw in my word as another recommendation for this place. Dirty walls, old Taiwanese knickknacks and memorabilia, old-skool wait staff and good food with strong flavors that practically begs you to drink large quantities of Taiwan Beer - what could be better?

Plus, despite not being a Sichuanese restaurant, the Sichuan-style dishes we ordered were genuinely spicy. Not as fierce as Tianfu, but they put on a pretty good show of chili.

I also loved the service. None of this cutesy Japanese-style welcoming or overly-attentive waiters. We came in and they knew who we were ('cause I sound like a foreigner on the phone, natch), said "over there". We sat, got a menu, and a few minutes later - "你要什麼?" No extra pleasantries or "我可以介紹一下喔", just, "Whaddya want?" I let them know that despite a reservation for 9, that actually 11 would be coming (two friends wanted to bring guests) - no muss, no fuss, just "好" and a few more sets of chopsticks dumped on the table. LOVE IT.

                           

So...go. Lend your support. Give 'em business. Throw a 加油 in at the end. Fight the power! Write about it. Enjoy good food. Drink beer. Beg them to re-open in a new location. Don't let this piece of Taiwanese history disappear.

                           

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lvsang (呂桑食堂): Delicious food from Yilan on Yongkang Street

Red Date Pork (紅糟肉) at 呂桑
Lv-Sang ("Mr.") Yi-lan Restaurant
呂桑食堂

# 12-5 Yongkang Street, Taipei
台北市大安區永康街12-5號
(02)2351-3323

(they also have a branch in Zhongshan: Zhongshan N. Road Section 2 Lane 59 #5-1)

What a fantastic restaurant! Along with my quest to find a suitable Japanese restaurant in which to SPEND ALL THE MONEY, I'm also on a mission to find a short list of restaurants to prove anyone who says "Taiwanese food isn't very good/flavorful/delicious/well-seasoned" wrong.

I also have to say that the past few weeks have really reminded me of how well I eat in Taiwan for such little money. People say "it's cheap to eat out" and usually mean the night market or hole-in-the-wall restaurants, but even nicer food is generally cheaper than you'd pay at home, unless you're going out for Indian, German or some other non-Asian "foreign" cuisine (and even then, prices are not bad)...and better. Washington DC was a mecca of good foreign food, but didn't have a lot of good "American" or continental fare - and yet restaurants charged through the nose for what they did have - bilking politicians, networkers, social climbers and foreign dignitaries no doubt. In Taipei I can enjoy quite literally the best the city has to offer and not  end up in the poorhouse. Sure, there are NT$6,000 per person restaurants serving birds' nest soup, but come on, that's not really the best Taipei has to offer.

It's places like this that remind me that, as well as I can cook, I can't really cook. Not like this. I couldn't turn out a perfect red date sliced pork like the delicious dish above. I wouldn't dare put cheese on a baked papaya. I can't create the dishes we enjoyed here.

Recommended by our friend Joseph and well-known in its own right, Lvsang is one of the restaurants that gives Yongkang Street its reputation for good food. Serving Yilan Taiwanese food, including plenty of lesser-seen or less-known dishes, this is also one of those places that kicks to the curb any notion that Taiwanese food lacks flavor or that it's all just the light&sound of soy sauce, chili oil and deep fryers.


Fatty stewed intestine
For our meal, we got the "liver flowers" roll, the fatty stewed intestine (above), the red date pork, the cold chicken, the vegetable salad and a baked papaya, and have agreed to try the liver next time (it's supposed to be great).

Other than the papaya, which was interesting and unexpected but not exactly something I'd try to re-create, everything was amazing. I'm not a fan of intestines or innards normally, but the intestine used to make two of the dishes we tried was soft and tender, not chewy and weirdly-textured. It's really the texture, not the flavor, that bothers me. This stuff was melt-in-your-mouth soft and savory without being too salty, served with slivered ginger to give it a spicy, dry punch.

The restaurant itself has an Old Taiwan vibe going, as well.
The salad has a bit of a wasabi vibe to the dressing, but isn't spicy (Brendan called it "decaf wasabi"). I'd prefer if it had the wasabi punch, but the fresh vegetables and tangy sauce were still delicious (although I can't say I'm a fan of the white vegetable, which I believe is 山芋 - biting into it releases juices that have the texture of runny snot).

Quick warning: they don't seem to serve water or any alcohol here - the only beverage available is tea, and the tea seems to be a slightly savory kumquat potion which I liked, but I wouldn't say it sated my thirst. It was made from dried kumquats and so had a bit of the salty-ish stuff they use to preserve fruit and vegetables in it.

和風沙拉
The eggplant, mushroom and other vegetables are delectable, though. Fresh, well-seasoned, delicate in a tangy dressing. Definitely not your standard stewed or fried fare.

Cold chicken (白斬雞腿)
I'm a huge fan of plain cold chicken in sauce (and the sauce at Lvsang is a bit different from the usual flavored oil this dish is served in - the dipping sauce has a spicy punch to it, as well) and this not-very-sexy but standard and good dish is a fine addition to your order. It's simple but they do it well.


I don't have a good picture of the stuffed "liver flower" (宜蘭肝花)but, served with a very Taiwanese "pink sauce" (the kind you get on sticky rice and Taiwanese tempura), it's cooked beautifully and delicious. Above is the 烤木瓜, which is a slice of papaya baked with cheese, underneath which are chopped vegetables in a creamy sauce. Although it was interesting and new, I'm not sure I'd recommend it, an I've never actually seen this dish in Yilan. It's...something. I'm happy I tried it - it was a new experience. I didn't dislike it, but I am really not sure I see the point.

Overall, though, I was thoroughly pleased with Lvsang - especially that divine red date pork.  Thoroughly and highly recommended overall!  

Tanuki Koji / 狸小路

Delicious (and expensive) beef skewers at Tanuki Koji

Tanuki Koji狸小路#93  Sec 2 Anhe Road, Taipei台北市大安區安和路2段93號(02)873-28555



Today shall be a day of restaurant reviews. I might write something thoughtful later, we'll see.

Since Dako went from being a lovely little hole-in-the-wall that served fantastic Japanese snacks and sake to being a boring paigu place with no sake, just Choya, beer and Calpis, I've been in the market for a good Japanese restaurant to add to my repertoire of place to eat and to take friends. Taipei has tons of Japanese food, but a lot of it could generously be called "fusion" (Taiwanese versions of "Japanese food"), or it's all sushi, or it's just not that good, or it's pedestrian (like the fried pork cutlets in curry sauce or the weird rice omelets), or it's way too chi-chi. I don't love dramatic lighting and black granite. I do love places that actually remind me of Japan: wooden walls and tables, large windows, screens,  high-low counters, charcoal wood, plain white canvas curtains, benches or izakaya tables. And that's Tanuki Koji.

So last week we went out with my sister to Tanuki Koji, a delicious but expensive restaurant and sake bar on Anhe Road (very close to the popular bars we never go to, and also close to Zoca Pizza). Yes, I do think it's funny that we live within walking distance of many of Taipei's expat bars, and you'll basically never find us in one.

Expensive but not impossible, well-appointed without being chi-chi, this place hits the spot.

I apologize now for the terrible quality of these photos: I didn't think to bring my camera (which is a massive older pro camera, not a teeny tiny pocket digital) so I just snapped a few shots with Brendan's iPod Touch.

I thought at first that we'd found a place that nobody had reviewed before, but of course, I was wrong, it was reviewed in the Taipei Times just a few months before I first moved to Taiwan in 2006, so I never saw it.

Tanukikoji's famous sea urchin
The sea urchin is rightfully famous -  sweet, subtly flavored, delicate, with just a tiny punch of salt from the bit of caviar set atop the slices that come served in a small martini-like glass. I'm really the sea urchin fan - Brendan merely thinks it's OK and doesn't see the point in spending that much money on something he won't savor. My sister likes it but not as much as I do. The two of us split this serving, leaving Brendan with none. NONE. Hahaha!

The sake we got was also excellent - NT800 for a small bottle but worth every penny, and served in a carafe with room for ice, which I appreciate. The staff can recommend sake based on what you order as well as what temperature you prefer your sake: I prefer it cold, although some sakes are better at room temperature or warm. This stuff went down super smooth and had a rich and complex flowery flavor (which you can probably tell from the label).


Another delicious and well-known dish is the cold tomato cooked in wine. It's topped with a mustardy, sesame-like cream sauce and is simple but delicious.


We also got the beef skewers (above) - which one rolls in the fried garlic provided - a grilled fish that has inedible skin (the skin, however, can be peeled off easily) but is meaty and delicious, and a plate of sushi that included an amazing tuna, a whitefish that was good but not memorable, a delicious cooked salmon, something else that was hard to identify (I think squid) and a few vegetable pieces with some egg pieces on the side. I appreciated that the wasabi was already added under the fish in the right amount for each serving - that shows attention to flavor and detail and is de rigueur in Japan. Finally, we tried the famous potato-cheese-roe dish, which I liked quite a bit but my sister merely thought was OK.

The restaurant itself is small - seating about 20 - and fills up quickly. We've walked by (we live in the area) and seen it packed, and they do take reservations. Even on a Sunday night we had to eat an clear out because they had a group coming. I love the atmosphere - this is the sort of place I'd expect to eat at in Japan itself, not a Taiwanese version of Japan. The sort of place I've been to with friends who live in Japan - where I've had more than one truly memorable culinary experience.

I'm not sure i'd call the food "fusion" as the review does - that kind of cheese/potato/roe dish is definitely the sort of thing I've come across in Japan (a place where I've had raw chicken sushi - yes you're reading that right - and chicken covered in caramelized onions and mayonnaise, and they cover all sorts of things in cheese and call it "foreign"). They serve food that might not fit someone's basic view of Japanese food, but that doesn't mean it's not the kind of food you can easily eat in Japan.

All in all a meal for 3 cost NT$3,250, so come prepared. That is a great price for eating out in Japan or the USA but is on the high end for Taiwan. Definitely in our budget (although we don't eat this expensively every week), but something that anyone looking to be economical should be aware of. I'm not surprised: good Japanese food does skew to the expensive side and it's not only in Da'an but on Anhe Road. You'll get a fantastic meal, but you'll pay for it.

Final word? Go here. It's amazing. If you're on a budget go for a special occasion. Take someone you want to impress there. If you're a little more free in your budget, just pop by.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

I went to a KMT rally, and it made me feel dirty inside

So I "attended", if you can call it that, a KMT rally tonight. I don't have pictures - my apologies, but I still don't have a working camera, even an iPod or phone camera. Mine traveled up to the great Canon In The Sky to meet its maker last week, and my good one was stolen in Turkey.

I didn't do it because I like the KMT - you all know how much I hope they lose the upcoming election and how strongly I dislike them in general - but because it was quite literally right outside my apartment. Two days before an election if you look outside and see people joining an ever bigger cheering crowd backed by blasting music, if you're interested in politics you follow them. So I did.  

Despite having no pictures I thought I'd recap here.

First, I couldn't help but giggle at the following things:

- Ma Ying-jiu, again trying and failing to speak Taiwanese. I may not be a speaker of Taiwanese but I've been exposed to it enough that know bad Taiwanese when I hear it.

- The giant bouncy castle - I don't know what else to call it -  with "馬到成功" across the top. I have to admit that was quite clever - it means "instant success", and it's President Ma, and the rally was where we live in our apartment complex and I'm not sure I could have resisted that one either. But a bouncy castle? For serious? You're the president of a nation with a population that rivals Australia and you gave a speech under a freakin' bouncy castle? Pull that  **** in the US and you might get elected hall monitor of your nursery school but that's about it.

- The sound kept cutting out. I hope it was the evil eye I was sending his way, mwahahahaha!

- Ma Ying-jiu being introduced and escorted offstage by the music from Star Wars. Wow. Just...wow. Dear President Ma: you didn't destroy the Death Star. You haven't even managed to get China off Taiwan's back. You are not a Jedi. The Taiwanese know that these are, in fact, the droids they are looking for. I sincerely hope the Force is not with you. You don't get to walk onstage to the music from Star Wars. 

- I kept giving him and his KMT cronies dirty looks and sending bad "lose lose lose" vibes their way. Just as I started doing that, the sound started cutting out. Maybe the Force is with me! Maybe I just changed history with the power of my mind!* :) 

- They did that rally call and response thing. It went something like this:

KMT Cronies: 馬英九
Crowd: 當選!**
Me, quietly:(下台)
KMT Cronies: 國民黨
Crowd: 加油!
Me, quietly: (幹你娘)
KMT Cronies: 馬總統
Crowd: 加油!
Me, quietly: (去死)
KMT Cronies: 馬到
Crowd: 成功!
Me, quietly: 口甲賽 (read that in Taiwanese)
KMT Cronies: 投給
Crowd: 二號
Me, quietly: (一號)

I couldn't really be loud about it, seeing as I live in the deepest of the deep blue parts of one of the deepest blue districts in Taipei.  Those old veterans might've killed me. I'm not even sure if I'm using hyperbole.


*I am joking, but if you didn't realize that, the problem's with you, not me.
** I think this is what they said but it wasn't clear - the Star Wars music hadn't ended yet


Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's in Taipei


Happy New Year everyone! I am sure some of the fantastic photographers blogging from Taiwan got better shots than me, but I thought I'd put this up anyway for friends and family back home.


 We used our  gorgeous tatami tea room to eat dinner (Thai basil chicken with brown rice) make tea (泡福壽山高山烏龍的老人茶) and catch up with our friends Cathy and Alex.


One of the great things about living where we do is that we can walk right up to a good view of 101 with minimal hassle - 10 minutes up Da'an Road, maybe 20 coming back. No muss, no fuss!


It's a bit far, but a good perspective from which to see how far back the crowd stretches every year.


We saw Cathy and Alex off on Xinyi Road, where they caught the train back to their place. We came home and enjoyed a quiet cute-couple moment with glasses of Bailey's. I bought the glasses, which look clear but actually have the slightest hint of Depression glass yellow in them, at Aphrodite: currently my #2 favorite secondhand/antique/thrift/vintage shop in Taipei. The other is near Guting.  (Aphrodite is in Neihu just next to where Minquan Bridge lets off, walkable from Costco).


A blurry shot. I expected more of a show, this being the 101st year of the ROC (not Taiwan!) and Taipei 101 and all...it was pretty average. Still nice though, especially as the view is now walking distance from my place without horrendous crowds.

Happy 2012!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Glue Dots



While we were in the USA, we bought the materials necessary to make our wedding album in Taiwan. We knew that similar materials would be hard to find and likely more expensive here, even though photo printing is fantastically cheaper.

It's true, too: just try finding a nice, classy photo album that doesn't have pictures of cartoon dogs and cats and stars and babies and dodgy English ("Forever My Always Friend!") and fluffy clouds made with the spray-paint effect of a mid-90s version of MS Paint. Try finding an album that doesn't force you to fit in exact rows of regulation-size 4x6 photos in little slots with no room for sizing, spacing, tableau creation, artistic scrapbook-like additions (I'm not into scrapbooking per se and can't stand the little theme stickers, but the papers are nice and some elements of it work nicely in dedicated photo albums) or any sort of classy presentation. Muji sells a few versions but they're all very plain. A few souvenir shops sell pretty Chinese-style decorated ones, but inside it's all 4x6 photo slots, not blank paper.

And just try finding acid-free photo glue, glue tape or glue dots. They exist, but are frighteningly hard to come by. It seems that in Taiwan you either buy a cheap album covered in puppies and kittens and stick your photos in there, or you get pro photos made and the photographer prints up a book for you - standard for weddings and pictures of daughters in princess costumes and occasionally over-indulged Maltese dogs. Although DIY was a big thing in Taiwan several years ago, these days people just don't make their own fancy photo albums and they certainly don't DIY their wedding albums (we ran into the same issues DIYing our wedding invitations. Apparently nobody does that) - so the materials are hard to come by.

What's my point?

Well, we go into a photo store - you know, similar to one of the Konica ones with the blue sign - which prints photos, sells camera batteries, frames and photo albums with puppies and kittens on them, and a few with roses ("The love is our special bonding") and ask about acid-free glue to make a photo album.

After getting over the initial shock of the idea that two people would make their own wedding album, they said that they did not, in fact, carry such glue.

The thing I noted was that one of the women immediately got on the phone and called not one, but three - three - other stores to find a shop that sold such glue for us. First she was sure that there was a place in Shinkong Mitsukoshi that stocked it (no). Then that there was one "around Taipei Main" (yeah, just try walking around Taipei Main asking random people "Do you know where that store is that sells acid-free glue?") and finally she found it at 誠品.

Now, in the USA it wouldn't work this way. You'd drive to Michael's in your gas guzzler, wander the football-field sized cornucopia of DIY goodies (including whatever you need to make a cornucopia), find your acid-free glue dots in the scrapbooking section, and pay for them. You might not even talk to the cashier. Then you'd hop back in your car, possibly get lunch at Panera, and drive home.

In short: zero social interaction.


In Taiwan, this stuff is harder to find, you're never sure which store or even which kind of store carries what (ask me someday about finding leaf skeletons), and half the time it's just luck or knowing someone who knows where to get it.

But then you walk into a place like this one, in some random lane off Roosevelt Road, and the clerk really helps you, and you chat with her, and she tells you how she'd like to make photo albums too but the materials are so expensive, and you pet someone's dog, and she makes a few phone calls, and the next time you come in she recognizes you and asks you if you found the glue you needed.

This is one reason why I love living in Taiwan.

It's easy to get in the car and go to Michael's, but it's infinitely more rewarding to actually talk to people. Forget real glue dots for photos - these small interactions are figurative, social glue dots that form community.

I realize you can do this in many parts of the USA, but my experience has been that it's just not that common anymore, especially with the rise of suburbs and the patterns of interaction they create between people (ie, no interaction). What I find interesting is that my experience is the opposite of what you hear many Americans saying: you always hear about friendliness and everyone knowing everyone in small towns, and the meanness of big, scary anonymous cities. My small town was OK - not too friendly, not too unfriendly. I couldn't go to the pharmacy on Main Street and have the guy behind the counter know me by sight or name. You can go out and be warmly greeted, but not because people actually know you, and rarely because they remember you. Whereas in cities where I've lived, sure, if you leave your neighborhood you're anonymous but if you are doing anything - shopping, drinking coffee, taking a walk, waiting at a bus stop - people from your neighborhood know you, recognize you and greet you. I think this has everything to do with the fact that in those neighborhoods people got in their cars (if they even had cars) a lot less.

But I digress. I haven't felt the same warmth in the USA as I do in Taiwan, and I don't necessarily think it's just because I'm a foreigner (all those old townies and obasans who sit outside gossiping in their social circles, deeply embedded in their neighborhood community, are not foreigners). I don't think the owner of a store in the USA would be likely to call three other stores to help me find what I needed because she didn't sell it (maybe in some places they would - it just hasn't been my experience). I'm not at all sure that same owner would remember me the next time I came in (although that, in Taiwan, might well have a lot to do with my being a foreigner, especially living in a neighborhood with so few of them around).

Now, I'll end on a sad note. We're moving soon (in a month, in fact). We're not leaving Taiwan, just moving from Wenshan to Da'an, to a gorgeous refurbished apartment that we fell in love with on first viewing (wood floors! a dryer! a water filter! a bathtub! stucco walls! a tatami-floored tea alcove!). I've felt really great about changing apartments but also sad about leaving my little Jingmei enclave and saying goodbye to all the vendors, old folks, shop owners and various loiterers I greet daily. Sad about leaving my favorite night market and knowing the vendors who I buy dinner from. Sad about not occasionally waking up to the sounds of the chickens squawking from the chicken vendor one lane over.

Near my apartment is another residential building of roughly the same era (when everything that was built was ugly), with an awning and old chairs by the entrance. I used to sit outside and gossip with the old ladies who gathered there. The nexus - the glue dot - of this octogenarian (and older) clique was Old Wu, who lived on the 2nd floor and had a decrepit old dog named Mao Mao. He was killed when a scooter hit him a few years ago (I was very attached to Mao Mao and I did shed a few tears). Even if the other old ladies were out napping or taking care of grandchildren or wandering around, I would often sit outside with her, and pet Mao Mao when he was alive, and shoot the breeze. Even when that breeze was the first hint of a typhoon blowing in.

Her health was deteriorating before we left for Turkey. I noticed that the glue was coming a bit loose: the old ladies no longer met under the awning, what with Old Wu in the hospital and not there to hold court. They moved to the temple goods store (you know, gold paper lotus offerings, incense etc.) next to Ah-Xiong's shop. I joined them there a few times, but there aren't enough chairs and it's too close to the chickens, which, frankly, stink.

I knew that Old Wu didn't have long, but I didn't think I'd never see her again. I guess I figured, those ladies are pretty tough, and most of them are surprisingly ancient. Old Taiwanese ladies never die, right?

Well, she succumbed to her poor health and passed away while we were in Turkey. I only found out when we got back, and suddenly those empty old chairs were a lot sadder, now that I knew their unsat-in condition was no longer temporary. I cried a fair bit on the way back up to my apartment and was extra winded when I got to the top from doing so (another reason to move: six floor walkup in this place. No more).

Old Wu was my glue dot in Jingmei. She and her group, whose ages totaled must have topped 500, made me feel welcome, like I was part of a community. I didn't feel like a foreigner, a novelty or something strange or different. They'd seen a lot in their lives (a lot - anyone that age in Asia has) and a young foreign girl was really nothing chart-topping. They just accepted me as another part of their life experience (and also told me all about my husband's arm hair and how many kids we should have, but that's another story).

I don't believe in signs. I really don't - but if I did, a case could be made that the end of an era has come and it's time to leave Jingmei - not because Old Wu passed on (I'm not so self-centered as to believe that the universe killed an old lady just to tell me to move!) but because my old lady gossip circle is no more, and because it's just different now. I feel released, pulled off a page, and it's time to find a new glue dot and adhere somewhere else for awhile...even if that somewhere else is technically just up the road.