Showing posts with label drinking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label drinking. Show all posts

Saturday, June 8, 2019

My favorite Taipei cafes: 2019 rundown

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In the past I've done reduxes of my favorite cafes for atmosphere - which is mostly accurate still, though a few places have moved (such as Nancy), rebranded as restaurants (Anhe 65), are now noisy tea shops (Red House Theater), or closed (Mono Cafe). I've done one for good coffee in Taipei as well - though that's a bit more outdated: My Sweetie Pie is long gone and there is now more than one George House in the Yongkang Street area. I don't think Naruwan Indigenous People's Market is still a thing anymore, either, though I haven't been in awhile.

Both posts are now badly in need of an update - most of the places I mentioned are still open, but I've found new haunts that I like just as much.

To deal with that, I'll leave those old posts as they are (links above) and provide here a new redux of where I'm imbibing right now. This isn't just for folks who live here - when I've traveled to other cities with hopping cafe scenes, I've found blogs in English by committed residents of those cities to be helpful guides as to where to go. So I want to be one of the people who does that for Taipei. Plus, as a grad student, I spend a lot of time in cafes getting reading done or writing papers so my list of good spots has grown.


You'll see some of my old entries repeated here, with new ones added, and I've prioritized places with outdoor seating, as that's so hard to find in Taipei. I've also noted where some cafes are near other good options, as seating can be so hard to come by. There's also a bias towards southern Taipei because that's where I live and hang out. Overall there's simply a lot of bias for "places I actually go to", so there's not much more to unite them thematically than that. No pretension to "the best" or "the top 10" or whatever - just my real world.

Instead of looking up each address like it's still 2010, I've gone ahead and made a Google Maps list, which you can access here. (I realized after I'd made it that I could actually create a map rather than just a list, but I'm too lazy to go back and re-do it, so this'll do for now.) 



Heritage Bakery and Cafe

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This 'newcomer' (opened in 2016) has quickly become a go-to spot in the Taipei Main Station/Ximen area. Pretty much everything about it is excellent - you feel as you walk in that you're somewhere in New York being exceedingly posh in that middle-class hipster sort of way. If that doesn't sound appealing to you - a bit to gentrificationy - don't let that deter you (you're not gentrifying much here - the neighborhood is much the same as it always was). Go for the bright, attractive upstairs seating with exposed brick walls, the very good coffee and other drinks (non-coffee drinkers can choose a variety of teas or fizzy drinks, or beer) and most of all, the desserts.


Oh, the desserts.
Westerners who complain that Taipei doesn't have good dessert options can shove some of this cake in their cakehole - from fluffy, perfect, cinnamony cinnamon rolls which sell out quickly to pink guava cheesecake to sea salt caramel Belgian chocolate cake all in generous or even huge servings, this place knows how to do Western-style desserts. The foccaccia sandwiches are quite good too - try the chicken avocado club.


It's not particularly cheap - drinks, sandwiches and a cinnamon roll for 2 will cost you NT$900 and change - but it's not insane. 90-minute limit on holidays and weekends. Otherwise, pretty much the only downside is that the air conditioner is often on full-blast, which makes it a bit chilly. Bring a cardigan.

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This Cafe ((這間咖啡)


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This is quickly becoming one of my favorite work cafes. Very strong social movement bent (check out the "I Support Taiwan Independence" banner in the back), good wifi and lots of plugs - it's quiet and you can usually get a seat. It's a little dimly lit but that just adds to the charm and isn't a problem if you're on a computer, and the table in back is set under antique Taiwanese milk glass hanging lamps. They have non-coffee drinks including beer, and a small selection of sandwiches and salads which are reasonably priced. I think I also like it because the guy who most often works there knows me on sight and knows my order by heart now. Plus they're open pretty late. There are other cafes nearby, such as Perch (nice, but often crowded) and PuiBui, which I haven't tried yet. 


Cafe Le Zinc


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Set in the back of an old Dihua Street shophouse, Le Zinc can be accessed through the Art Yard ceramics shop from Dihua, or directly from a little lane that snakes around the back. Seating is limited but I've never had a problem, and the well-lit long table has plugs. There's also strong wifi. Windows look out into the narrow courtyard of the old house, where the bathroom is. There's an extensive (but expensive) wine list - house wine by the glass is more affordable - beer, coffee and light food. Music leans toward the jazzy and old-fashioned, which I like. It's a good place to work (on account of the big table, wifi and plugs) and also a good place to meet friends just to chat.

In fact, this whole area is bursting with cafes - if you can't get a seat at Le Zinc, you can surely get a seat somewhere. There are so many that I can't possibly put them all on my map.

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Fleisch

Dihua Street is actually bursting with cafes these days - a huge change from my first few years here when it was a somewhat forgotten corner of the city where you could do a little fabric or dry-goods shopping and check out the old buildings, but not much else. If anywhere in Taipei has gentrified, it's here - and yet the fabric and dry-goods sellers still mostly seem to be in business. Where Le Zinc stands out for its table space and wine/beer list, Fleisch has some unique coffee drinks - my favorite being a latte with dried Mandarin orange (dried citrus slices are fairly common dried goods in Taiwan - they make a nice drink steeped in boiling water.)



Hakkafe

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A very new addition to the Dihua Street cafe scene, Hakkafe was opened by an entrepreneurial Hakka guy named Terry who is friendly and enthusiastic about his mission to create a modern cafe space with a traditional Hakka twist. The space is large, minimalist and quiet, done in shades of black, white, gray and wood. We especially liked the Hakka BLT (with Taiwanese pickled green chilis), and the brownie was wonderful. I highly recommend the Hakka breakfast tea - Terry noticed that England has a 'breakfast tea' culture but Taiwan, another tea-drinking nation, does not. So he set out to blend his own. The results are stunning.

This is the only place on the list that doesn't actually serve coffee, but you won't miss it if you try the Hakka Breakfast Tea.

It's also near funky-looking Chance Cafe (
一線牽), which I haven't tried yet. 
 

The Lightened

Formerly Backstage Cafe, which had a student activist/social movement theme (yes, a theme, but the former owner was apparently active in those circles), The Lightened is now associated with Anmesty International Taiwan. Located on Fuxing South Road near the back gate of National Taiwan University, The Lightened is unpretentious, well-lit, there are lots of plugs and good wifi, and you can always get a seat. The coffee is good (and fair trade), there's a small selection of beer and the desserts are homemade. On weekends a spunky black-and-white cat might be around.



Rufous Coffee


Almost directly across the street from The Lightened, Rufous is a bit darker, more famous, and is known for having top-notch coffee. Any of the single origin choices are good, and the Irish coffee is spectacular. That said, non-coffee drinkers won't find much here, and they don't have much in the way of food, either. I like it for its cozy, friendly atmosphere, though it can be hard to get a seat sometimes. Not far away there's a 2nd branch, which is quite close to URBN Culture. 



Shake House (雪可屋)


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 I simply cannot write a post about coffee without including my long-time hangout. I don't know why I go to Shake House. There's no wifi, nor any plugs. The bathroom is tiny and through a dilapidated passageway. Lamps are hanging flower pots with ribbons. The chairs are ancient. But I just love the place - it's like, in every city I live in, I need my student hangout in some old building that's falling apart, and I just get attached to it. That's how it is. The coffee is good, the chicken sandwiches above average, the beer selection excellent (and affordable as cafes go), they're open very late and the music is...eclectic. From odd movie soundtracks to church music to Johnny Cash to John Coltrane to whatever. You just literally never know what you'll get. Also, I know the owners and they know me.


If you really need plugs and wifi, Cafe Bastille is just across the lane (and there are other cafes in the area, including Drop Coffee and its new neighbor).


Drop Coffee (滴咖啡)

Drop is another coffeeshop I always include. On Xinsheng Road just across the street from NTU, the space is a renovated Japanese wooden house. The owner is passionate about coffee and does a mean siphon brew. The dog - 橘子 (Orange, although he is black) - is unfriendly in a comical way. There are a few teas on the menu as well as some desserts but really you come here for the coffee. A new place has opened across the lane which has more space, but I haven't checked it out yet.


Cafe Philo


If you go to any sort of political or activist talks or activities, you know Cafe Philo. They have a space downstairs just for that. Upstairs, they have generous space and a wide menu which includes food. I've been going there recently as I'm taking a course (not related to my Master's - because I'm insane) and I can always get a seat.



8%

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This large black-and-white space on Yongkang Park advertises itself as an ice cream shop, but you can absolutely get coffee here. They have a good deck if you want to sit outside, and the coffee is high-quality. You can get some interesting coffee drinks here that you may not find elsewhere - I had iced coffee in a glass flask that I could pour over a giant ice ball, and my friend had a huge ball of iced coffee that melted as he poured foamed milk over it.


Caffe Libero


Another classic, I've found myself going here less ever since Red On Tree left (they used to sell excellent French-style pastry confections on-site), and they close early on Sundays. But I still love the place for its outdoor seating, quirky indoor decor, cigar selection and more.



Yaboo

Near 8% and Libero, Yaboo has decent sandwiches and - most importantly - cats! Also a nice atmosphere, but it fills up on weekends. A seat is not guaranteed. But the cats are sweet and friendly.


Angle

Another minimalist place, I like it for its weird shape and good coffee (though all they really have are coffee and a small dessert selection). Big windows let the light in, and it's called Angle because it's set in a weird triangular building outcrop on Rui'an Street (Pillow Cafe, which is also good and used to have a corgi, is nearby. They're under new ownership - hence no more corgi - and friendly.) I find myself here on the occasional Sunday as one can usually get a seat, and there are good views from the bar seats.



Slo-mo Cafe

This place has generous indoor seating and an outdoor area partitioned off from the lane - although smoking is allowed outdoors, it's never too overwhelming. The lane is not particularly busy (except at rush hour) - you may know it as the shortcut between Keelung Road where the gas station is and the Far Eastern Hotel or Carnegie's. The only real downside to sitting outside is that there are some mosquitoes - but that's an issue with all of the outdoor options listed. The desserts are standard cafe fare - though I like the lemon cake - and the glass of white wine I once got on a scorching day was pretty good. Even better? This place never seems to fill up.



Beautiful Tree Coffee (美樹咖啡館)

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This place is tiny and odd, run by a friendly older man. I absolutely love it. There's something of a rainforest theme going on, with a little outdoor area that has birds. And a ceiling with faux stained glass skylights! I'm not sure how to describe this place beyond that, it sort of defies description and, like many quirky spots, is in a gussied-up old building. The coffee was fine, and I genuinely liked their ham and cheese sandwich. Not too expensive, either. It's very close to Slo-mo as well as another place called Kaldi that I haven't tried yet. 



A8 Cafe

A8 is one of my favorite workspaces. It was opened by world-famous Taiwanese indigenous pop star A-mei and employs indigenous staff. The space has a sort of industrial decor (concrete floor, warehouse windows, exposed brick) with good lighting, big shared tables as well as individual tables and couch areas (one of which is set under a real potted tree - my favorite spot), quirky decorative elements, plugs and good wifi. They have a full menu of cafe standards as well as meals and alcohol, but they close a bit early (around 9pm, but they'll let you stick around until they really pack up for the night.) They're closed on Mondays and sometimes take business breaks, but nearby 青沐, which is technically a restaurant, will let you order a drink and just hang out if they're not too busy. There's also a nearby place called Pachamama which I haven't been to, but looks cool. 


The FOLKS

I go here because it's near my home - it's not really a workspace but you can sit outside on the little deck, and it's basically a cool, bare-bones espresso bar in a quiet lane. 


Cafe Costumice

The Big Mama of cafes where you can sit outside, Costumice is that cafe everyone knows about, and yet you can usually get a seat (not always outside, though). Its major selling point is the huge front deck (bring bug repellent) which feels like an outdoor urban oasis. Though they are a little expensive, they're worth a splurge. There's a modest but pretty good food menu, wine (including a sparkling white which makes for a decent champagne on a hot brunch-y day) and beer.



The Key

I'm including The Key's cafe - The Key is my gym - because I've been spending a lot of time there, and they make a real effort to provide quality fare at good prices (and members get discounts). Strong wifi, plugs, a range of sandwiches and a protein-rich chicken meal if you're keto and a good range of drinks beyond coffee make it a fine place to hang out. It's been useful for me to go to the gym, do a short session on one of the cardio machines, and then head to the cafe to get some grad school work done. There are a few tables outside as well. Just down the road is another cafe decorated with hanging plants which looks promising as well - I think it's where the churro place used to be - but I haven't checked it out yet. 


Coffee Tree (咖啡樹)

This spot near Zhongxiao Dunhua has a range of fattening desserts, beer, coffee and more. The interior decor is interesting, but we go because they have outdoor seating along a lane popular with pedestrians. It's near Quay Cafe which I haven't been to but would like to try. 


Coffeeology

My go-to spot when I'm in the Taipei Arena neighborhood. Coffeeology has truly excellent coffee at great prices. No food - just some cookie-like snacks - but you can get a large latte with Irish cream (real Irish cream, not just a flavor syrup) for very little money by coffeeshop standards. There are a few chairs outside, but the whole space is fairly open so you feel like you're outdoors even though you're technically not. Great beans to bring home at good prices, too. 



Zabu (in its new location)


I actually haven't been in ages because it's quite far from where I live, but if I'm in the north Tienmu area, this is my spot. It's the same Japanese-influenced hipster haven it's always been, with great rice balls, cats, and student-funky decor that it used to be in Shi-da all those years ago before the jerks made that neighborhood boring. 


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Every few months, I teach a six-week course at the Shi-da school of continuing education, on the campus that Yongkang Street hits as it ends. During one of these classes, I have to give my trainees their final exam and then stick around to pick it up, so I go to cat.jpg while they work.

You'll find cat.jpg one lane behind that Shi-da campus, where are a small klatch of cool places, including Bea's Bistro (friendly, but more of a restaurant), Nom Nom (below) and cat.jpg. There's also a local population of yellow-and-white street cats and an urban garden, some of whom are friendly and all of whom seem to be kept healthy and fed by the local community.

cat.jpg has two of their own cats who are sociable enough (one is firiendlier than the other). They have wifi, a big work table and sandwiches on the menu. 



Nom Nom


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Nom Nom is not only a great cafe (and place where you can buy ceramic ware), but also a decent brunch spot. Sandwiches and fried chicken are served with luscious little salads, and there's French Toast on the menu. Try the cumin chicken sandwich with apple and honey for sure. Their milkshakes are straight-up luxurious, served overflowing on lipped coasters so they don't mess up the table. The mint chocolate milkshake is garnished with mint leaves and a dried orange slice and then sprinkled with chocolate bits. Also, the place is Peak Taiwanese Hipster.

 

Classic Coffee (品客經典咖啡)


Classic Coffee, in the Shi-da Road neighborhood which used to be fun, doesn't look like anything special. There's food and perfectly good coffee. But this place has a major selling point - a super friendly old cat who will aggressively love you, and a similarly friendly fat corgi who gets jealous of the cat. It's my favorite cat cafe because that cat is just so in-your-face with the cuddles and snuggles, and it's a fluffy cat, too. 


Notch (Front Station)


I don't typically expect funky, studenty coffeeshops in the Taipei Main Station neighborhood - it's an area loaded with cram schools, cheap shopping, a few government buildings...not a place where students really hang out. But this particular branch of Notch brings it. It's also not particularly far from the Legislative Yuan, so if you need a place to go after a good hearty protest, this is a great choice. When the same-sex marriage bill was passed last month, I spent a period of time here out of the pouring rain, watching the deliberations at the Legislative Yuan on their good wifi (far better than trying to connect alongside 20,000 other people standing outside in bad weather). 


Look Upstairs (上樓看看)


An excellent 'work cafe' in Xinyi near City Hall Station, this place has good drinks and beer. There's food too, but it's a little expensive. Lots of space, good light, wifi and plugs - you can settle in here to get things done, especially upstairs. Some tables and countertops even have desk lamps. 


2730 Cafe

Another cat cafe! This little place in a tiny shack-like building is very close to Liquid Bread and is attached to a vintage store (of which there are not too many in Taipei). I've only had the beer and coffee - they have a DPP beer! Which...odd, but tasted fine! But a big selling point here are the two cats, one black and the other white. It's also easy to get to from Xinyi, an area that isn't exactly known for its great cafes, so it's a solid choice in that neighborhood.



BreakFirst Cafe & Studio (棗點咖啡)

Sometimes we take care of a friend's pets in the Dazhi area, and this is our go-to when we're around there. The main selling point (beyond seats usually being available) is that they have several cats! 



Lion / LineUp Dessert


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I ended up liking this place because I reviewed it for FunNow - but it's a funky little spot in an area not known for cafes (the Zhongshan Elementary School MRT area), with great desserts and solid croque sandwiches. The coffee is just OK, but I go for the desserts.


Jing Xin Cafe (晶心咖啡館)


To be honest, this isn't a place I go to hang out - it's sort of a hybrid coffeeshop and crystal shop in an odd corner of Taipei. But, they roast Taiwanese coffee beans which make great gifts (and they sell them at a reasonable price), so I wanted to include them for this reason. 

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Drinking in Taiwan's beer cafes: my latest for Taiwan Scene

I'm in Taiwan Scene writing about expat lives old and new, how the beer and food scene in Taiwan has changed, and what's on offer today from the viewpoint of someone who came to Taiwan long before such options existed. And, of course, drinking lots of (local) beer. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Taichung: where transport cost more than my hotel

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Taichung is now the second-largest city in Taiwan


Quite some time ago, I took a quick weekend jaunt to Taichung, mostly to see friends, but also to give the city a fair chance.

I'll admit, I've never been the biggest fan of Taichung, and I don't really understand why so many foreign residents say it's the best city in Taiwan to live. Sure, the weather is better, but the pollution is unbearable, making it hard to enjoy. Being in central Taiwan, it's equidistant from the attractions of both the north and south, but it's not actually in either of those places (to be fair, the area around Taichung is lovely). It's more laid-back, true, and more affordable - but there's also not a lot to do. The city has tried to improve public transport, but I'd say that has spectacularly failed. It has arguably one of the best night markets in Taiwan, but it's not easy to get to if you don't drive.


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Miyahara, near Taichung Train Station


That said, I'd only stayed briefly in the past, usually on the way to somewhere else. So I felt I should at least spend a few days there before being so dismissive. It has also beaten out Kaohsiung to become the 2nd largest city in Taiwan, so it seemed like a good time to give it a chance.

The result? Mixed. Don't get me wrong, the cover photo on this is meant to be cheeky and fun, not a wholesale put-down of Taichung. I had a fun weekend - it's just that it cost me a hell of a lot of money to get around.


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From our nighttime walk through central Taichung city


I arrived on a Friday evening and immediately went to a friend's house, where a few other friends had gathered. I drank a bit too much whiskey, ate a few too many fried chicken anuses,  and let's just say I'm pretty sure my friend had to call an exorcist to banish the demons I expelled in his bathroom later on. That was probably my most authentic Taichung experience: whiskey, chicken ass, and horking up that chicken ass a few hours later because why the hell would anyone eat that much chicken ass?

The next morning, I wandered downstairs not feeling great at all, and found a local breakfast shop. This is a small pleasure of Taiwan - little shops that have all sorts of tasty, greasy fare and are open until nearly lunchtime. Most foreigners in Taiwan seem to go for dan bing (a savory pancake-like roll with egg and filling, which is often cheese or bacon), but my go-to breakfast is a hamburger and turnip cake. The food was good and cheap and the atmosphere local. Being an industrial area, most of the other customers were Southeast Asian - Taiwanese factories frequently employ labor from nearby countries. This is one facet of the real Taiwan: not a "pure Han Chinese" "island" which is "historically a part of China" with "Chinese culture" where foreigners are temporary guests used for convenience, but a multicultural nation with a unique identity and strong ties to its Southeast Asian and Austronesian neighbors, where many foreigners of various backgrounds build long-term or permanent lives.

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I'm a big fan of these flag guys - we have them in Taipei too

I have to say this for Taiwan: my friend lived in an industrial park. This is not what you'd imagine in the West: there is residential and commercial activity in such places in Taiwan. That said, in the US, in an "industrial" zone on the outskirts of town, I don't know if I'd have felt safe as a woman walking around alone. In my native land, such an area would probably have been a quiet, eerie place on a Saturday morning. Too deserted for a woman to feel comfortable.

In Taiwan, I knew I was perfectly safe.


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There's no Curry Orgasmo in Taipei


After saying goodbye to my friend (and reminding him that both of his bathrooms now contained horrors that needed a few power of Christ compels yous for them to be truly clean again, I mean spiritually clean, not just mopped down, and, oh, sorry about that), I came face to face with Taichung's biggest problem: just...not very good public transport at all. I'd stayed quite far from the city center, and faced a not-that-pleasant ten-minute walk to the nearest bus stop to get into town. No idea when the next bus would come - though to be fair that particular route was probably well-serviced - I took a taxi.

The cost of that taxi was about half of what I'd spent on the hotel. It's not that I didn't have the money, I just resented spending that much cash to get around. I like cities that facilitate rather than hinder transit. I can drive: I even hold an international driver's permit. I won't drive in cities, though, because I value my life and my sanity. I'm not a comfortable city driver by any means, although I'm quite happy to tool around the mountains in a rental car. For someone like me, who feels deeply uncomfortable with city driving, there is no easy way to get around Taichung.

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An evening walk in Taichung - if you have nothing else to do here, at least get yer teeth did at Hotshot Dental Center (if you are too snobbish for that, there's an Elitist Dentist in Taipei you can visit)

I waited for my husband to show up - he would meet me in Taichung after his Saturday morning private class, and we'd grab a late lunch before checking out Taichung's #1 tourist attraction: Miyahara.

I - and every other tourist in Taichung - enjoyed Miyahara, a gorgeous setting to have tea, coffee or ice cream. I almost feel obligated to write that, though. I'd write more, but Miyahara is well-covered elsewhere. We enjoyed the atmosphere enough that we ended up hanging out there until it was time to go to dinner. Even the view (of the abandoned Qianyue Building) felt very Taiwanese. As Stephanie Huffman noted in Formosa Moon, Taiwan does a good job of not hiding its scars.

Later that evening, it was also pleasant to walk from downtown - most affordable hotels are near the train station - to meet another friend in a restaurant near the Calligraphy Greenway. We avoided the massive Taiwan Boulevard, which didn't run particularly close to our destination, and took quiet backstreets. Again, in Taiwan we knew this was perfectly safe. I don't know that I would have done so after dark in many American cities.

Buses along Taiwan Boulevard were an option, but not particularly convenient to where we were going. Fortunately, we didn't mind the walk. Good thing too, as there was no alternative way to get there.

We met at Curry Orgasmo. If you're wondering whether I chose it for the name...I did. Also, it has perfectly acceptable (but not orgasmic) curries, and there isn't one in Taipei. This part of town is great for nighttime walking - there are parks, shops, restaurants, places to grab a drink. It's lively, without the unending crowds of Taipei. If I were planning to return to Taichung I'd look into staying in this neighborhood instead. The area around the train station is crowded and bustling, and the hotels are cheaper (some of them don't give you condoms and lube on the nightstand, even) but there's not quite as much to do.

After curry, beer and chat, we were meant to head out to meet yet another friend for drinks and dessert at Delys&Sens - a bar and cafe that had real French desserts and well-made drinks by an expert...what are the kids calling it these days, "mixologist"? Count me in!


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A drink from Delys&Sens


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Desserts at Delys&Sens

Inviting our dinner companion along, we realized that the walk from Curry Orgasmo to Delys&Sens would be just a bit too far, so we hopped in another taxi. Despite friends insisting that Taichung does have a working bus-based public transit network, there was no clear way to get between the two without a wait and walk that was long enough to not justify trying.

Delys&Sens was absolutely fantastic - I enjoyed hearing about how the bartender refused to work with Aperol but was willing to use Campari, despite being a fan of Aperol myself (too many grad school-based summers in Europe) - and the desserts, well, I wish I could easily find desserts that good in Taipei at reasonable prices. In Taipei, I feel like I usually end up with a $200NT slice of defrosted chocolate cake purchased from the same factory that every other cafe orders from.

This was a level above. Just good Western desserts. Just good. With good drinks. Just...good. I cannot recommend it highly enough. We were also able to sit on an outdoor terrace - a rare treat coming from Taipei, where there is hardly ever outdoor seating (it's not only too crowded, the weather just doesn't cooperate most of the time). It was one of those laid-back evenings in a different city with friends that you can enjoy when you actually live in a country, rather than trying to pack in must-see tourist destinations from dawn-till-bedtime.

No chicken asses to be found, but I'd had enough of those. This was another Taiwan urban experience.

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Scenes of Hell at the City God Temple

The next day, we started with coffee and a browse of the books for sale at Fleet Street. Then we set out to find some of Taichung's older points of interest - the City God Temple (城隍廟), which is to the south of Taichung train station and in the area where the Qing were building what was to be the capital of Taiwan ("Taiwan City"). Nothing remains: the temple is still there, but the rest was torn down by the Japanese. But, it's an interesting old part of the city to poke around in and get a cheap lunch.

The temple itself is also interesting, with - as City Gods aren't always the nicest or kindest dudes - lots of scenes of Hell, as in, that's where you'll go if the City God judges you at your death to deserve it.

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Fleet Street Cafe

Then we tried to take a look at the old Imperial Examination Hall - a wooden structure, one of the oldest and best-preserved Qing-era buildings in Taiwan - but it was closed for renovation. We tried to sneak in, but it just wasn't happening (and perhaps was not entirely safe).

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A peek through the bars at the Qing Imperial Examination Hall

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A zoomed-in look at the Examination Hall

As - again - there was no public transport between these two stops, we were downright flushed from walking given the heat of the day. We'd also stopped in a Filipino supermarket we'd passed to load up on things that can be hard to find in regular shops - beef bouillon, adobo seasoning, that sort of thing.

Fortunately, near the examination hall, one can find Taichung's old City Hall, a gorgeous Japanese-era building that is still in use as a government office. You're allowed to take a look as long as you sign in, at least on Sundays (I can't speak for whether that's possible on weekdays, as it seems to hold functioning office space). This sort of building just feels like Taiwan: Chinese on the signage, a Japanese colonial-style building, all bricks, concrete and plaster, colonnades. Balmy tropical heat, palm trees in the courtyard. Peeling paint. A laid-back, chilled-out vibe. A friendly security guard lounging out front, drinking from his glass thermos of Chinese-style tea, who doesn't mind if you walk around unsupervised. Staircases with worn-out red carpeting, the mechanical sound of a big metal fan churning the air. A few families with kids playing in the courtyard because why not?


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At the City God Temple


International tourists might not find these things of interest, but as a domestic tourist, to me it's quite heartening. Yup, this is Taiwan. This is my home.

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This is so Taiwan. I look at this scene and can only really think of this beautiful country. 

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Inside the Old City Hall

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Cat shaved ice

Feeling a bit too overheated to do much more, we took a brief walk - basically just across the street - to another old government building. To find it, just look for the other colonial-era structure near the old City Hall. With dinner plans looming, we didn't have a lot of time to walk around the building, but you can find vintage-vibe Cafe 1911 on the ground floor. We had some iced milk tea and a small shaved ice dessert decorated to look like an adorable little cat, and relaxed until it was time to pick up our bags from storage and head to the other side of town.

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This, too, is just so Taiwan

It should have been a 30-minute drive, but it took closer to an hour and cost about $400NT. There was no public transit option, and certainly no MRT to avoid the snarled traffic. We were late for the soft opening of Texas Roadhouse Taichung, where we'd been invited to join some other friends. The food was hearty, American and yes, good - I may travel the world but I'll tell you, American mid-range restaurant chains are very good at comfort food and I won't pretend a hipster distaste for them that I don't have - and the atmosphere reminded me of the country of my birth.

Certainly there was no more chicken ass.

From there, we had to taxi to the HSR station as well - again, no convenient public transport that could get us there in a reasonable time frame (I'm not sure there was any transit available at all in that part of town) - for another chunk of cash.


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Some of the books available (no real English selection) at Fleet Street

And that's the story of how I had a very enjoyable weekend in Taichung with friends, and spent more money on taxis than on a hotel, because if you don't drive, there is no reasonable, quick way to get around the city.

That's the only reason I hesitate to recommend it as a weekend for readers who live in Taiwan but don't drive. You can have a lot of fun, especially if you have friends there or like searching for old or vintage things. I could have spent more time there, heading up to Dakeng, wandering Taichung Park, or another evening in the neighborhood around Curry Orgasmo, trying a new restaurant. I would have loved to have taken Brendan to Fengchia Night Market, but it's a bit far out and the last time I went, I spent more on the taxi there and back than I spent in the market itself. Or I would happy wander in any of these areas.

Taichung isn't that pretty on a large scale - cities in Taiwan usually aren't - but you can find lots of pleasant little nooks and crannies, and unexpected things if you walk around, that might surprise and delight you. If you skirt all the construction, that is.


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Just a random old thing on the street in Taichung

But if you don't drive, it will be a more expensive weekend than you might like. Few things are near each other, taxis often need to be called, and while there is a bus network, it's just not that usable or convenient if you don't know your way around already (which I didn't).

By all means, visit. But budget accordingly, become comfortable with city driving (something I will never do), or stick only to activities along the major bus routes. As a city to spend a weekend in, Taichung gets an A- (it would get an A if not for the pollution). As a city I had to navigate without a car, it gets a D at best, and that's only because the desserts at Delys&Sens made me feel generous.


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Doughnut-like baked goods vendor on the way to the City God Temple (her products were delicious, and her dog adorably scruffy)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Taipei WhiskyLive Expo 2013

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You know I love me a good booze-fiend expo, and I'm a bit of a whiskey dog, so Taipei WhiskyLive was right up my alley. Having no idea that there apparently were similar expos in 2011 and 2012, I excitedly rolled up to this one ready to try me some fancy rotgut.

We had a big Indian lunch, which was good - smart to start on a full stomach and delicious meal. Brendan joined my friend Joseph, my sister Becca and I for lunch and then saw us off - he's not so into whiskey.

I went with a budget of NT$3000 (about US$100), figuring with the discounts on offer that I could get myself a pretty nice bottle or two without breaking the bank, and also knowing that a budget was essential: I am quite aware that I am capable of spending that much and more on good whiskey.

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For the cost of NT$500 (the price of one admission ticket), you get a free glass (it's lovely and tulip-shaped and is engraved with "Taipei WhiskyLive". Like at wine expo, you can try several different kinds of products, but while WhiskyLive is smaller than wine expo, it seemed to be more crowded. There weren't as many booths and there were far fewer "small booths of importers and distributors selling a curated selection of fine labels". WhiskyLive had a few of these, but it seemed anchored by lots of big "brand name" booths, in various degrees of fancy set-up.

You could even pay extra for special tastings or tastings of very expensive whiskeys - I felt that after paying NT$500 to get in that I wasn't going to pay for tastings once inside. There were also classes held and full-on tastings with professionals.

You could also pay extra for access to something called "Jim Murray's Inner Sanctum", which...well, maybe they need a new name for that. One thing I don't want to enter is Jim Murray's inner sanctum (or anyone else's for that matter).

Best line from the expo was from one such tasting - "and now let's try the twelve-year-old!"

Uhh.

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Think novelty photos, whiskey ice cream (so-so) separately built spaces that you have to queue up or pay a fee to enter complete with fancy colored mood lighting, smoke machines, chrome and marble tabletops, leather sofas etc., and large signage for well-known whiskey purveyors - Suntory, Johnnie Walker, Macallan, The Famous Grouse, Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, Highland Park etc. etc..

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Because whiskey has a kind of "businessman" vibe in Asia, not in quite the way wine does, this place wasn't geared toward foodies/gourmets/whiskey aficionados so much as businessmen who think they're aficionados but are really in it because it's expensive and an image boost.

So...smoke machines, fancy "VIP" areas, and booth babes.

Lots of booth babes.

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But there were still some good things to try, and anyway one can't drink too much whiskey. I was quite taken with a brand called Ben Nevins...I tried some, immediately started calling it "Ned Bevins", and moved on to try some more kinds before making a decision of what to buy.

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We tried some Japanese whiskies - "I still liked the Venn Beavis!"

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We tried some samples of other alcohols - there were also booths for midori, rum and Svedka vodka - and something good called The Arran - "that was good, I'll probably buy some, but I also really liked that Len Kravitz." I've had Hibiki before but I was happy to enjoy some again, and plenty of distributors had various kinds of Laphroiag (spelling?) on offer. I can get that in Taipei, though, at a regular store, so I'm not too worried about it.

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"OK, so you got your ridiculous photos with these Johnnie Walker people. Now let's go so I can buy some Zen Nebbits!"

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Joseph: "It's Ben Nevis."
"Yeah, Venn Bobbit!"

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"BEN NEVIS."
"Bob Venus!"

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Anyway, I got my Zen Levitz (13 year), and also tried a rather nice "heavily peated" whiskey from these fellows:

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And a delicious NT$6000 (approx. US$200) whiskey that was just as expensive on discount...

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And also got The Arran 12 Year, which has a nice caramelly taste.

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I did like that while people seemed surprised at times when I asked to taste the peatiest whiskies and the oldest vintages with the strongest flavors, but I didn't have to literally wave away bottles of lighter, sweeter whiskies that I wasn't as interested in. At wine expo, I felt at times like people saw me (a woman) and picked up the light, fizzy, white or pink wines and I had to be more aggressive in demanding (nicely) what I really wanted samples of: the darker, spicier, woodier, drier wines.

I also appreciated that the crowd was mixed. No idea how 'into' whiskey the women where, but some sure seemed to be. A refreshing change from the common teetotalling, or "I'll drink one Taiwan Beer fruit flavor, that's all!". Which, of course, is fine - I'd never pressure someone to drink something they didn't want to or couldn't handle (I didn't pressure Brendan to come to this expo at all), but it's nice to be around others I can enjoy a nice whiskey with. Men and women.

All in all, a great way to spend a rainy Sunday in Taipei.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Buying Taiwanese Coffee in Taipei

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I figured I'm on a coffee roll so I may as well put up one more post about it. A lot of people - even ones living in Taiwan - don't realize that Taiwan does grow coffee. It's not famous, it's not exported as far as I know, and it varies in quality, but when grown and roasted right, it's delicious and absolutely a delight to drink. But because it's mostly very locally produced and not always easy to track down, it tends to be expensive.

The thing about Taiwanese coffee is that it makes a great gift - if your loved ones are sick of tea or are not tea drinkers, and you've given them all the Chinesey tchotchkes they can take, a bag of Taiwanese coffee is a unique and often surprising gift from the country you've chosen to call home (forever or for now).

This post will need to be updated as I double-check cafes I've been to that sell Taiwanese coffee in bean or drink form, but I figured I'd do my best for now.

Information on all of these places can be found in more detail in this post, or this one.

You can read more about Taiwanese coffee here and here.

Fong-Da
#42 Chengdu Road, MRT Ximen
成都路42號

You can get a good cup of Taiwanese coffee here for about NT150 (it may be a bit more), and I am pretty sure in their large selection of whole bean coffees there is at least one Taiwanese coffee.

Shake House
Wenzhou St. Lane 86 (Xinsheng S. Road, almost to Roosevelt, take the lane across from NTU between the Family Mart and the Truth Lutheran Church)

No Taiwanese coffee on the menu here, but you can get very high-end own-roasted Taiwanese coffee, I believe from Nantou, in whole-bean form. It costs about NT$600-800/package (prices vary based on market fluctuations). Makes a great gift, brews very well, and you'll know you're getting quality.

Naruwan Indigenous People's Market
Guangzhou and Huanhe Rd. Intersection, at the far end of the Guangzhou St. Night Market
MRT Longshan Temple

This market has a coffee stall that will brew you a cup of Taiwanese coffee that is flavorful and delicious. They'll also sell you the beans, but they're not cheap - up to NT$1100 for a bag.

Booday Cafe
Nanjing W. Road Lane 25 #18-1
南京西路25巷18-1號

This is one I'm going to have to go back and re-check. I have a memory, though, of a cup of Taiwanese coffee being on the menu. Don't take my word for it, though. I'll update this at a future date.

Leezen ((里仁) Organic Stores 
They're all over Taipei, but the one we went to is near Gongguan/Taipower Building. Near So Free Pizza, on Roosevelt Road Sec. 3, Lane 283 and across from Wenzhou Park.
羅斯福路三段283巷溫州公園旁

You can buy organic coffee from Kaohsiung here. The bags are small, but also less expensive (in the NT$350 range). It's not as good as Shake House's more expensive roast. but it is quite nice and perfectly drinkable.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Spicy Food in Taipei


Beef slices in spicy sauce at Tian Fu (天府川菜)


It's really hard to get good spicy food in Taipei if you don't know where to look - the local cuisine is based on light, clear flavors (think seafood, mushroom, tofu, vinegar) and, as much as they pretend that 大辣 (super spicy) is a real thing here, let's face it, not many of them have the tolerance for true fire.

Here's my short list of good places to go for prolonged burn!

Tian Fu Sichuanese Restaurant
天府川菜
#5 Ren'ai Road, Yonghe (MRT Dingxi)
新北市永和區仁愛路5號(捷運頂溪站)

A long-standing favorite of mine - seriously, if you haven't gone there, go! - this place serves up food so hot that at least one person we brought there had to go out and buy yoghurt to calm her mouth down. They don't skimp on the 花椒 (flower pepper - the kind that makes your mouth tingle), either. Try the 水煮牛 (also available in fish, which is tasty), and the other Sichuan staples are good too.

Aladdin Indian and Pakistani Cuisine
Raohe Night Market, near the end where you pick up the 306 and 518 buses (not the end with the temple and Songshan Station)

With most Indian food in Taipei - even the good stuff - you have to be very circumspect about asking for it to be cooked "spicy" or "really Indian style" - otherwise you'll get milder dishes more suited to Taiwanese tastes. Aladdin (or Alla-Din) is one of the few places that don't skimp on the spice, and if you ask for it spicy, you'll get it spicy.  Try the mutton curry and the raitha, although honestly, everything is good.

The Noodle House
重慶炒手麵食

台北市大安區信義路3段103號1樓
1st floor #103 Xinyi Road Section 3, Taipei

Come here for the signature 紅油抄手 for a good dose of heat. Other dishes are spicy but this dish is what I always get when I need a little fire in my belly.


#1 Recommended: Han Chi Tiger Noodle
203 Jinhua St, Taipei City (台北市金華街203號)


The super hot lamb soup with rice puff squares at Tiger Noodle - Yum! Fire in Mah Belly!


This place does a fiery Sichuan-style noodle soup, and does it well. I like the rice puff squares and lamb with no blood, but you can get it with noodles, different meat, and with blood. The best thing on the menu is this signature noodle dish, which is at the top of the menu and comes with all sorts of things to check off. If you order the 大辣, beware: the broth will be so laced with different kinds of spice that it will practically glow red, and there will be a coat of slick red chili oil on top. I like Tiger Noodle because, as Brendan said, "this is spicy food prepared by someone who knows how to make spicy food" - they don't just lace the dish with boring chili sauce or oil. They layer the spice: black pepper, dried chili, chili oil, flower pepper. The spiciness is complex and deep. It'll warm you up on a cold day.


Best of all, you can buy their signature chili, either regular or with pickled turnip.


Little Thailand
台北市汀州路糝段號
#219 Dingzhou Street Sec 3, Taipei
(02)2367-0739
While I'm going to have to take back my recommendation of Dako in the linked post (they stopped doing fantastic Japanese small eats and started doing boring ol' fried pork, which you can get anywhere), Little Thailand still stands out as the place to go for fiery Thai food. Hotter than its neighbors - and this neighborhood has a lot of Thai restaurants, most of them passable but not memorable - this is run by Thai people for Thai people. There's a little market for Thai foodstuffs on the first floor, and the whole thing just reeks of the real deal (literally - the predominant smells are coconut, citrus, seafood and fish/squid oil).

Honorable Mentions:


Places where you can find spicy food, but perhaps not quite as complex and satisfyingly spicy as the options above.

Buffalo Wings at China White
Anhe Road, Dunnan Tower 2nd floor, entrance from the side of Dunnan Tower (fronted on Dunhua South Road), same corner as Carnegie's and The Diner.


China White itself is a passably posh bar that I like when I don't want to go downmarket but don't want to cram into a bar full of boorish people. I also like it for being locally popular: on one visit we were the only foreigners there. The drinks are good but expensive, you can usually get a table if you don't show up too late, and the food is mostly mediocre as you'd expect. The buffalo wings stand out for being pretty good, and pretty spicy.

The downside? No bleu cheese sauce.

Macho Tacos
延吉街126巷3號
Yanji St, Lane 126, #3 and other locations


My predominant memories from eating here are not of the "wow this is spicy!" variety, more of the "I like this - I like this more than Yuma. This is the Mexican food I generally go for, and Yuma is more "Tex-Mex" or "Southwestern". They'll definitely load you up with jalapenos, and you can get your food goin' good and hot here, though. Much hotter than my experiences at Yuma - which I still like, but for different reasons.

NT$11 "Stuff on Sticks" at Jingmei Night Market
Jingmei Night Market, entrance across the street from Cafe 85 (MRT Jingmei Exit #1), across the lane from the famous "上海水簡包" place. 


Ask for "大辣" here and you'll get it - your stuff on sticks will be practically crusted over with fiery chili powder.

That said, it didn't make the main list because it's just chili powder - no depth, no complexity, no skill in preparation. It's just hot. That's still an improvement over other places, where "super spicy" means two unenthusiastic taps of the chili shaker.

Kunming Islamic Food

#26 Lane 81 Fuxing N. Road Taipei Taiwan
台北市復興北路81巷26號
MRT Nanjing E. Road (捷運南京東路站)

Spicy chicken curry, a hearty lingering spicy feeling from the samosas - this place can hit that chili sweet spot. The only reason it's not on the main list is because Alla-Din is even spicier. You can find things here that friends who don't want to burn their tongues off can enjoy, so it's a good place for a spice-lover to arrange a group dinner or meal with friends. Also, the owner is a super friendly Burmese guy.


Anyone else? Know a good, hot spot for good, hot food and want to share? I can't possibly know every place and am always open to hearing about more places to try!