Showing posts with label sichuanese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sichuanese. Show all posts

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Actually I just want to compare four Sichuanese restaurants I've been to recently or really just love, because Sichuanese food is kind of a passion of mine.

Tianfu 天府川菜


#5 Ren'ai Road, Yonghe (MRT Dingxi)

I know I am always referencing this place on my blog, but it deserves it. It's just SO GOOD. The boss is an old Sichuanese chef, a master really. It's a small place, easy to miss, and you wouldn't know it was so good unless someone told you (it just looks like a basic restaurant next to a fruit stand on an inconspicuous street in Yonghe).

So far, I feel that their spicy beef (水煮牛), spicy green beans, mouthwatering chicken, pork rib cooked with sweet potato and spicy tofu (麻婆豆腐) are the best in Taiwan. You really can't do better. Once - just once - the spicy tofu missed the mark. We ordered late and I think they were low on ground pork, so they just made what they could. Otherwise it's always been to a high standard of excellence.

Go early - they open at 5:30 and won't take orders after about 7:15pm (and they want you out by 8:30) - there's only one chef, and he sets the hours. If he's tired he closes up early. If he's in a good mood he might cook for you as late as 7:30! With any other restaurant I'd just not go back, but it's so damn good that I'm willing to put up with it.

Lao Sichuan 老四川


Chang'an Road between Songjiang and Jianguo (MRT Songjiang Nanjing, or the area is served by many buses) - I tried to get their address off their website but this is the best I could do (I did get lazy, though).

This is a Chongqing Hotpot restaurant, not a typical "Chengdu dishes" Sichuanese restaurant. It's "famous" in the Taiwanese sense (i.e. very well known and popular) - so famous that in Taipei it's hard to get reservations. I know people who have driven down to Zhubei to eat at the branch there! A friend of ours made the reservation, so we had the chance to go. The hotpot is spectacular, especially the spicy side. I've never been a big fan of the herbal side, at any restaurant. Definitely get their "famous" signature appetizer, which is noodles in a delicious spicy sauce. The edamame are great, too.

The hotpot here reminded me of when I had hotpot in Chongqing itself, and the hotpot I've had in Guizhou (just south of Chongqing) as well. It's the real deal.

I can't "compare" it to the two other restaurants because what they do is different, but it's definitely worth braving their tough reservation competition to go.

Some photos:



Spicy and herbal divided hot pot. You can ask for it with no blood. Look at those fresh sesame seeds!

Fuhua Sichuan 福華川菜


Xizang Road#228, Wanhua (a longish walk from MRT Longshan Temple, a few buses pass nearby including 307, or just take a cab)

This is a place my student recommended in Wanhua. She said "it's cheaper and better than Tianfu". I found it to be roughly the same price - a little cheaper - but not necessarily better.

The spicy beef - above - was very good, with tons of chili, fresh cilantro (Tianfu doesn't give you fresh cilantro) and very high quality tender meat, a bit fatty (a sign of quality in Chinese cooking). It was served on a sterno warmer, which Tianfu doesn't do. It was fantastic, although I would have added an extra handful of huajiao (花椒 - mouth-tingling Sichuan pepper). It also wasn't as complex as Tianfu in flavoring, but really it just needed more huajiao.

Rating: tied with Tianfu


These clams are not really Sichuanese, we just happen to like them.


The green beans were excellent - with more garlic and less black bean than Tianfu, and expertly seasoned and cooked (if you eat the beans without the topping they seem to need salt, but add the topping and the problem goes away).

Rating: as good as Tianfu


The kung pao chicken was AMAZING - cooked to perfection, not overcooked but not rare (rare chicken is, of course, gross and unsafe). It was glazed just so. needed hua jiao.

Rating: as good as Tianfu, would be better if it just had hua jiao.

The problems came later, with the eggplant (魚香茄子) and spicy tofu. The eggplant and tofu both lacked hua jiao totally. The eggplant was too sweet and didn't have enough pork. The tofu was low quality, not savory enough and not NEARLY spicy enough.


Eggplant - not as good as Tianfu

Ma Po Tofu - we almost sent it back. I was not pleased. I wonder when I told them specifically to add hua jiao and make it spicy, if the chef misheard the server (the server didn't mishear me, she'd confirmed it) or just decided there's no way foreigners would want that so I must have meant not spicy. I don't know, but either way it wasn't very good.

Han Chi Tiger Noodle


#203 Jinhua Street (金華街203號)

I can't really compare this place, which mostly does basic noodles and puffed rice soups in spicy Sichuan broth, with the others. I just wanted to include it because daaayum, these guys know how to add spice to a complex and well-flavored broth. They don't skimp on the hua jiao, that's for sure.

It's also the easiest to get to, the cheapest, and does not require a reservation.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My In-Laws' Culinary Tour of Taipei

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

Tea at A-mei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

At Wendell's Tianmu

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


Shrimp Roll Rice on Dihua Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shao Shao Ke (勺勺客)

Shao Shao Ke (勺勺客)
#15 Lane 41 Ren Ai Road Sec. 2

We ate at this Shaanxi restaurant with delicious food on Saturday. I was so looking forward to it that despite my headache and tingling tongue from mouthfuls of crystallized ibuprofen, I made myself venture out anyway. I wasn't disappointed!

As I don't have any photos from the restaurant, I thought I'd share some of my pictures from Xi'an, which I visited in 2002 during my year in China. The one where I got pneumonia. Twice. And three of my teeth rotted from acidic water. The quality is not great, because the originals were scanned at a low resolution and have been transferred from computer to computer to facebook to computer several times.

I like how the poor evening light with my circa-2000 film (not digital) camera makes this photo look far older than it is.

You might know Shaanxi as the province of China that boasts Xi'an (or Chang'an), an old Chinese capital and one of the few large Chinese cities worth visiting*.

The food at Shao Shao Ke is from a range of regions, which makes sense as Xi'an was the end of the Silk Road through Western China, and as a large metropolis and capital it would have a lot of dealings with other parts of the region that is now unified China (unified against the will of many people, but unified nonetheless). Delicious spiced lamb kebabs and fried lamb and pork with cumin are a highlight - the Muslims out west may not have eaten pork, but I am all in favor of food syncretism. The non-Muslim Chinese eat a lot of pork, so taking the spice recipe from their trading partners out west and applying it to their most common meat is fine by me.

Even the terracotta warriors were cold on that snowy day.

The vinegary crunchy potato with chilis was also delicious, as was the "shao mo" - a lamb soup where you tear up two rounds of bread on your own, and they fill the bowl of it again and again with soup. Other dishes were similarly tasty - apologies for not having a clear memory, as I was dealing with a headache at the time - and the fried bread dessert was delicious. My students recommend trying the fried cheese dessert next time (I believe it's called "Fried Mozarell" on the menu). We also had northern Chinese style sesame buns with pork. Delicious, but this is one case in which I believe Do It True (都一廚) does a better job. Generally I was a bit disappointed in Do It True, but their fatty pork in sesame buns was delish. In all fairness, the food at Do It True was not bad at all; it's just that it is so over-hyped that when I got there and realized it's rather standard...well, I fell from the cliff of high expectations.

I am pretty sure you can also find this sign at the edge of the Cliff of High Expectations.

Dishes are not expensive, and sizes are small - you're not going to get a huge steaming platter of food meant to feed 20 with each one. I like this: generally, smaller plates of food means better food, cooked with more attention and care.

Don't believe the final paragraph of the review linked above: there are, in fact, dishes that you need to order in advance: the fried stuffed eggplant and fried stuffed egg, for example.

I think this is a geniunely lovely photo and the next time I am near my original film prints I'll scan a higher resolution copy.

Atmosphere was great: spacious enough to move around, but small enough to not feel like a sterile banquet hall (sorry, Celestial Restaurant, your food is great but your giant banquet table atmosphere is lacking). It's got an intentional cave-like feel, but with white walls so it doesn't feel claustrophobic. You can write on the walls, by the way. Strings of dried garlic decorate the stairway ledge. Call ahead for large groups; it's a large restaurant but by no means massive.

Whatever you do, make sure you try it. It goes on my list of "Best of Mainland Food" from this day forward**.

This, I suppose, is what little kids in Xi'an do for fun. There's nothin' more exciting than dragging broken plastic lamps around by their power cords!

*Not to totally denigrate China: when you can see past the roving clouds of smog, the Chinese countryside is lovely and the people who inhabit that countryside can be quite hospitable. Chinese cities, however, are another thing entirely. To put it mildly, I can't stand them. All the white tile and blue glass and gray skies, the rude people, spitting and exhaust fumes and acres of cement. Taipei has trees and parks. Most Chinese cities have paved esplanades and grayish stumps that cry, "I was once a tree". How sad.

Xi'an has some of this, but it's worth a visit regardless: it's the end of the Silk Road, so you'll see a lot of Central Asian influence, the city walls and bell tower, as well as a few pagodas and temples, are still intact, and of course there are the terra cotta warriors, often grouped in a tour with the bathhouse of Yang Guifeng (which is nice, but not a must-see) and the tomb of the First Emperor, which is fun to climb but also not a must-see. I climbed it in the snow.

** My "Best of Mainland Food" List:

Ningxia: Hui Guan

Beijing: Celestial (though I'm hoping to find someplace better) - see above

Shaanxi: Shao Shao Ke

Guangzhou/Hong Kong: haven't found anyplace exceptional yet

Shanghai: Shanghai Dumpling (need to make sure it's still there) - yes, it's just as good as Dintaifung. YES IT IS. And cheaper, too.

Harbin: Harbin Dumpling King (though the owner admits there's no real "Harbin" food, and he cooks classic, delicious food from across China)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Noodle House

The Noodle House
堂慶(character I can't read - funny script on the card) 手麵食
1st floor #103 Xinyi Road Section 3, Taipei

It's near Da'an Park, on the north side of Xinyi, very close to the Xinyi-Jianguo bus stop if you are coming from the east.

If you try any one not-expensive, low-key restaurant in Taipei, try this one. Well, this one and "Taste Good" restaurant (好 口甲 - can't type it in Taiwanese) in Nanjichang Night Market, and the Sichuanese restaurant of awesome in Dingxi that I can't say enough good things about.

Anyway. The Noodle House is spectacular, yet simple. The interior is decorated in a half-industrial, half Old China style that works really well - unfinished brick walls are painted a dark factory gray, and accented with Chinese-style carved wood. There is carved wood in lots of prominent places including at the counter and on the windows and door, and the tables are the old style square wooden ones with stools.

The Small Eats (小吃) in front of the counter are just as fresh and delicious as they look - we had mi fen (jelly-like squares made from rice flour in a chili oil sauce), cold chicken with ground Chinese chives, garlic and chili, something with tree ear mushrooms and a chewy squishy thing that was either tofu or fish-paste based, and cold cucumbers. All of it was just astoundingly good. The cold chicken is a house specialty and I highly, highly recommend it.

We also had regular green veggies (Chinese celery or 空青菜) that were fresh and good and split a bowl of regular dry noodles, also fantastic. We each got a bowl of dry wontons draped in a hua-jiao laden chili sauce that was spicy and mouth-numbing at the same time.

And it was all soooooooo good. For cheap! Everything was extremely well-made, fresh and nicely presented.

I highly recommend this place to anyone and everyone.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kung Po Chicken Ding (宮保雞丁)

That's the menu name of kung pao chicken that my sister found in a Chinese restaurant in the Hudson Valley. Awesome.

Anyway, the other night I made kung pao chicken and invited a few friends over to help us eat it. Best NT $620 (for ingredients) that I ever spent. One friend provided beer, another saved the day with hua jiao (花椒) when my local Wellcome turned out to be sold out. Not as good as the fresh hua jiao used in the Sichuan restaurant in Dingxi that has my heart, but still good. Two more brought desserts, including a selection from My Sweetie Pie, the awesome bakery owned by Grandma Nitti's.

The meaning of "gong bao" (or as we say in the American language, "kung pao") is "palace guard" - a lot of Chinese food has fancy names like "Buddha Jumps Over A Wall", "Cross The Bridge Noodles", "Eight Treasures", "Four Gods Soup" etc. that don't really tell you what it is. So this one is Palace Guard Diced Chicken (ji ding).

I realize every kung pao chicken recipe is different, but here is mine (serves 6-8)


Eight breasts of chicken (I bought 4 packages from Wellcome with appeared to have approx. 2 breasts' worth of meat each in them)

Unroasted, unsalted peanuts - at least 2 cups or to taste

1 sprig of green onion, chopped into chunks

2 cloves of garlic finely minced (optional but I would never leave it out)

a few ginger coins - about half a thumb's worth (optional)

1 tall shot glass or larger Chinese tea cup full of Shaoxing rice wine - no you can't use cheap cooking wine or some other kind of cheaper rice wine. NO YOU CANT NO NO NO! Dry sherry would be OK, though, as that will mimic the effect that the flavor has on the sauce, or a really good, rich rice wine.

1/2 cup regular soy sauce or 1 cup low sodium light soy sauce

1 capful of rice vinegar

sprinkle of sugar to taste - I put about half a palmful

salt to taste

1 tbsp lemon juice (optional or to taste - I like the tangy flavor it gives the sauce)

A **** ton of cooking can use olive oil if you like (I know that sounds weird but it actually works)

sesame oil - 1 tbsp or to taste

If you like - it's my little secret - a sprinkling of squid oil. You can't taste it in the final product, but it lends this amazing, full, rounded flavor even under all the chili (below)

And now, for the best part!

2 handfuls (or to taste) of hua jiao - flower pepper, which creates that classic numbing feeling
2-3 tbsp Lao Gan Ma black bean peanut chili in oil from Guizhou
handfuls and handfuls of dried red chilis - really you can't overdo this, but you can underdo it, so figure out the point where it seems ridiculous then add some more
about 1 tbsp black pepper
3-4 chopped fresh red Sichuan chilis (any small, thin red chili will do)
Some of that not-too-spicy chili paste with garlic and vinegar you can buy cheaply at Wellcome

(In the USA, all you need is some chopped fresh chili, dried chili and hua jiao, though a chili paste would also be good - not all of the above may be easily available)


Dice the chicken breasts and put in bowl, adding the soy sauce, vinegar, lemon juice, salt to taste, shaoxing wine, sugar, a bit of the garlic, and the chili pastes. Set aside.

In a wok or large pan with huge lip, heat the cooking oil. In it, lightly roast the black pepper, flower pepper, dried chilis, the rest of the garlic and ginger until it smells awesome. Use as much oil as you like - if the whole mess is deep fried it's great, but if you just want to stir fry, that's OK too. I stir-fry because I'd like to not have a heart attack when I'm 34.

Add peanuts. Just dump 'em in.

Cook peanuts until lightly golden. Add chicken. You can add the whole marinade for a more 'cooked' taste, or if you want the raw awesome of all that chili, leave it out for now.

Cook chicken until tender and just exactly done - when I think this is happening I take a larger chunk out, cut it in half on a cutting board and check the center. Do not overcook. Nothing is more gross than overcooked chicken, except maybe overcooked fish.

Quickly add the chopped onion, giving it a few whisks around in the hot mess, before turning off.

Use a slotted spoon or other straining thing to get the chicken, onion and dried chilis onto the plate while leaving behind the **** ton of oil. If you did not add the marinade to the mess, dump as much of it over now as you like. (adding it while cooking makes it taste 'cooked', adding it after makes it taste 'raw' - I like it both ways.)

Breathe fire, young grasshopper!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Initiation By Fire - the best Sichuanese in Taipei

Tian Fu Jia Chang Cai
#5 Renai Road, Yonghe (MRT Dingxi)

I've already updated my "Small Eats" post to include this place. It was that good.

From what my students tell me, Dingxi is home to an enclave of waishengren from Sichuan. Missing food from home, especially at their advanced ages, meant that many people opened small eateries to cater to them. This is the only one I know of, but boy is it spectacular.

I should know; I used to live in Guizhou, right across the border from Sichuan and Chongqing. If anything, Guizhou food is hotter and more savory than Sichuanese; Sichuan got to be famous because its people migrated abroad. Guizhou-ren, being rather poor comparatively, never could finance their own diaspora. But there is a saying in China: Sichuan ren bu pa la; Hunan ren la bu pa; Guizhou ren pa bu la! It translates roughly into: The Sichuanese are not afraid of spicy food. Those from Hunan, of spicy food they are not afraid. People from Guizhou are afraid the food won't be spicy enough!

This place is a tiny little joint that's so popular that they've erected two benches outside for waiting customers. It's next to a fruit market and other similarly humble establishments. Just inside the door is a small wooden screen and just beyond that are groups of people eating the best food of their lives. Mainland accents (specifically, Sichuanese accents) mingle with people speaking Taiwanese.

Other than the massive amounts of red chili - Sichuan ren bu pa la - one notable thing about this restaurant is their hua jiao - or flower pepper. Fresh, good quality hua jiao has the effect of numbing one's lips and tongue, but not of blunting flavor; in fact, it deepens the flavor. Those who have been to that area know what I'm talking about. Most hua jiao in Taipei is a joke; it comes in little plastic canisters and has zero flavor. It most certainly does not numb the lips.

But this place imports its hua jiao from Sichuan. Normally I am not a fan of anything produced in China, but this is one huge exception. They then use whole peppercorns - handfuls of them - in their cooking.

All of the staples are here - the not-too-spicy yu xiang qie zi (fish-scented eggplant, which does not include fish), siji dou (green beans cooked in a distinctive and delicious combination of spices), gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken) and fish boiled in chili oil.

Yes, you read that right. Fish. Boiled in chili oil.

It's not all chili oil - there's some water/fish stock in there too, as well as a few kinds of onion, garlic and ginger, soy sauce, more chopped red chilis (both dried and fresh), handfuls of the aforementioned hua jiao and pickled greens. But mostly, it's chili oil. And it's absolutely delicious, especially when washed down with some beer or restaurant tea.

A warning: this place is always packed, so be prepared to wait.

Also, the chef is a bit, shall we say, temperamental. He's the Soup Nazi of Taipei, but like the Soup Nazi, he's a genuine artiste. If he wants to take a break, he takes one, no matter if it's 7pm and you just got there. The place almost always stops taking orders by 7:30 because the chef wants to go home, and the waitresses seem terrified of him. But it's worth it. He's that good.

So get there early, sit back, order, and await your initiation by fire.