Showing posts with label zhongshan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label zhongshan. Show all posts

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mexican Food in Taipei: it's getting better!

"Oh, I don't know Mexican food. I only know American food, like tacos."
- my (Taiwanese) friend Michael

I love you, Hungry Girl, and Imma let you finish, but I decided to post this because, as much as I love your blog and what it does for the food scene in Taipei, I just can't abide a page on Mexican food including Chili's and Friday's. I'm sorry, I just can't. Many chain restaurants have things to recommend them, for example, the TGI Friday's in Reagan National Airport will serve you from the bar, anything you want, at 7am on a Sunday, and I love - sincerely, not ironically - the Happy China Buffet in Bangor, ME, but despite that, I am sorry, TGI Friday's does not offer "Mexican food" or even Tex Mex. Chili's has a stronger claim, but still, no. That's not guacamole, that's prepackaged crap from a plastic bag. At its heart it's an American chain restaurant, not "Mexican food". Even Jake's Country Kitchen, which claims to offer Mexican food, doesn't make the cut in my book because they're more famous these days for their fried chicken and their desserts than any cuisine that may have originated south of any given border.

Also, an update is in order as Eddy's has moved, Macho Tacos has expanded and Yuma is closed. It's worth it to check out the link above, though, because there are a few places on it I haven't tried. I haven't even seen them, so they're not listed here because I'm not sure they're still open.

So, not-so-humbly, I offer up my own suggestions for where to get OK, pretty OK, even good Mexican food in Taipei.

Eddy's Cantina

No.1, Alley 3, Lane 450, Zhongshan North Rd. Sec 6 (Tianmu)

Very well-known - what's less well-known is that their Danshui location is now permanently closed. Fortunately, the new main location is easier to get to, or as easy as anything in Tianmu is to get to (I don't go up there often due to insufficient MRT coverage) - I recommend eschewing the MRT and grabbing the 285 0r 685 bus to International Square and walking south, or grabbing the 902. You have a few other choices, as well.

I have to say that Eddy's is my favorite of the bunch, by the way. That's why it's first. Although Mayan Grill's drinks have a special place in my heart.

This place makes its own guacamole. It's not always available but when it is, it's fantastic. It's real, it's chunky, it's made fresh and tastes of its own fresh ingredients. A lot of other Mexican places squeeze a smoother, less real-tasting guac out of squeezey-tubes and that's just not OK with me.

The yellow cheese is clearly processed in some way, but the good white cheese and other flavors make up for it (although given a choice I'd take a more obviously real sharp cheddar, even though I realize that this is very Tex-Mex and real Mexican food isn't exactly heavy on the cheese).

Also, good margaritas and a strong beer selection. It's a good, casual place to go with friends.

Mayan Grill 
#6, Ln 65, Zhongshan N. Rd. Section 2 (near MRT Shuanglian/Zhongshan, behind Ambassador Hotel)

We have only been here once, and it was for a group event and came with a set meal, so I feel I can't rate this place fairly just yet. What we had was good, but it was at its core a set meal and I do believe that if we went on our own and ordered off the full menu we'd get something really memorable. They clearly put a lot of effort into good drinks: they top off the sangria with soda just before it's served so it won't be flat, and they use good tequila in their Mayan Margaritas, so I have high hopes for the food. The atmosphere is more high-end - this is where you might go for a small group dinner or a fancier date.

Macho Tacos
#3 Lane 126 Yanji Street / #15 Pucheng Street (Shi-da)

I've eaten at both the Yanji Street location and the Shi-da location. I was happy with the food at Yanji street: the salsa was good and fiery, the nachos were generous, the burrito filling. I got the soft tacos at Shi-da and found them dry, and the sour cream and guacamole had a too-smooth, liquid consistency when they should have been chunky and thick (the guac) or just thick and creamy (the sour cream). I intend to go back, though, to see if they've stepped up their game on the toppings. On the upside, they are generous with the jalapenos and as I said, the original location impressed me quite a bit. I hope to go back and have my mind changed about the Shi-da restaurant. Very informal setting. Good place to grab some spicy food and knock back a few Coronas, especially if you don't feel like going all the way up to Tianmu.

Jake's Country Kitchen
#705 Zhongshan N. Road Sec. 6 (Tianmu)

This place bills itself as "Mexican" Go here for fried chicken or their luscious-looking desserts, but don't come here for Mexican. It's very close to Eddy's (at least the location I know of), go there instead.

Tequila Sunrise
#42 Xinsheng S. Road Sec. 3 (Xinsheng and Xinhai Intersection)

I went here years ago and was sorely disappointed. I got a sizzling fajita platter, and it arrived not sizzling at all, in fact the meat and vegetables were a bit sad and limp. It wasn't spicy - it was barely even spiced. Pretty storefront and nice atmosphere but don't bother; the food isn't nearly as good as it needs to be.

That taco stand in Gongguan that I haven't been to yet
10-2 Lane 75, Xinsheng S. Road Sec. 3, next to Dako which used to be good (and sadly, isn't anymore)

...but I intend to try. It's there, it seems popular, it's tiny, it's clearly aimed at fast-food style eating, and I figured I should mention it. I'll come back and update here once I try it for myself.

#3 Alley 5 Lane 74, Wenzhou Street (Gongguan)

I don't know why I'm bothering - Bongo's has its strong points - wrap sandwiches, the sticky toffee pudding dessert, used books, cats. A lot to recommend it if you want a casual place to go and eat Western food with friends. Mexican food, however, is not one of them. I was really disappointed with their fare in this area: stick with some of their other menu items, instead. It wasn't spicy, it wasn't Tex-Mex cheesy, it wasn't sizzling, it was just meh.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

龍都酒樓 ("Rendezvous Restaurant")

Rendezvous Restaurant (龍都酒樓)
#18-1, Zhongshan N. Road Sec. 1 Lane 105
(closer to enter via Linsen Road near #100 )

I know I've been writing more fluff than thoughts recently, but for whatever reason, these days, despite having a lot of things I want to write about in terms of thoughts, musings, meditations on life, whenever I try it just doesn't come out right or my brain short-circuits.

Hoping that will pass - it always does - and not beating myself up too much for writing fluff in the meantime.

Anyway, last weekend I had the chance to go to the famous 龍都酒樓 in a lane between Linsen N. Road and Zhongshan N. Road, just south of Nanjing E. Road. They're famous for Beijing Duck and dim sum style dishes.

The place caters more to groups, and yes, you should make a reservation.

I can say that the duck is truly fantastic - just as good as other heavyweights like Celestial Kitchen and my personal bugbear, Song Chu. Definitely worth the reservation and price (we had duck and lots of dim sum at two tables with about 8 each, and it cost us all approximately NT650 each).

It's juicy without being greasy, it's flavorful without being cloying, and the little green onion spears are wrapped in a bit of chili pepper to give them a bite. Song Chu's sauce is better, but Rendezvous' is not overly sweet, it's almost slightly antiseptic which is a nice match for the luscious duck.

The decor is like something out of a scene in a restaurant from a kung fu movie - back-lit Chinese medallions, crystal chandeliers, light-colored textured wallpaper, round banquet tables, a balcony and lower seating area. Not usually my style but whatever, the food is good.

I went with a newer group of friends (the one in the picture is the one I know best, his wife is the one looking away) - unfortunately, due to work commitments, my husband couldn't join us. The upside of going out occasionally with a group of locals who are also food lovers and interested in trying the city's best restaurants is that I get to try places that are not often on foreigner radar.  A few savvy long-term expats might know about them, but they rarely make it into guidebooks (guidebook restaurant listings in English make me a little sad sometimes - the world is not right when Kiki gets a nod but 天府, which is quite literally the BEST SICHUANESE FOOD IN TAIWAN HANDS DOWN, is ignored). I get to try the places that locals believe are the best, and it's opened me up to a lot of new options.

And you know, one of the great things about Taipei is that the best restaurants are not necessarily the most expensive restaurants. In fact, they rarely are. You can completely avoid hotel restaurants or places that charge $6000 a head for bird's nest soup (and they exist - I have students who regularly entertain clients at such places) and still forage through the best Taipei has to offer.

Another great thing about eating out with a group of locals is that I have to speak Chinese. I've written before about how having to socialize entirely in Chinese is good for my Chinese, and well, duh. Of course it is. My friend (above) speaks English well, but his wife does not - or she's afraid to, but he insists she really can't and she concurs - and he didn't really start inviting me out to such meals until it was clear that I would be just fine speaking Chinese the entire time. I can understand this: even if someone does speak a foreign language - at least two others at lunch can also speak English well - when out with friends and not at work or in class, the average person will prefer to converse in their native language and having one non-native speaker there, even if that person is a native speaker of a "popular" foreign language like English, can cause discomfort if it means that everyone has to then speak English when, in their free time and with friends they know, they'd perhaps prefer not to.

It happens in business, too: a group of Taiwanese people and their one foreign guest go out or have a meeting, and the presence of the one guest means that the entire language of the group changes to English, not the mother tongue of the majority of the group. I understand completely how someone might not want to repeat that dynamic at a fun Saturday lunch with friends.

I hate to say it, because it sounds suspiciously close to something annoying expat who says things like "oh I only hang out with locals, I get along with them so much better than other [*snicker*] foreigners" would spout, but it's true: not long ago I had another lunch at a restaurant that was not really good (but well-known in foreigner circles) with a group of expats. It was fun, although some things that were said bothered me, but honestly, this was more fun. Instead of conversation topics like "are Taiwanese women materialistic" (sadly, the general consensus seemed to be "yes"), I got to explain, in Chinese, why "Bear Bar" and "G2-Paradise" - two bars behind Red House Theater in Ximen - are such funny names in English. I learned a useful new bit of Chinese vocabulary, too ("G點"). I feel I owe 文昌帝君 for that one. As for the other diners - they were delighted at this tidbit of cultural knowledge. Who says that Taiwanese people are conservative and uptight? That's not been my experience!

It doesn't matter to me if I never go out with that group of expats again, but I honestly do look forward to going out with this group of Taiwanese food lovers in the future.

And I will definitely be returning to 龍都酒樓.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lao Ren Cha goes Lowbrow at Modern Toilet

This chain of bathroom-themed restaurants is nothing new - certainly old news - but it's new for me. Readers in Taiwan won't be surprised: many of them will have already eaten at one. So, I'm posting this more for family and friends reading from abroad, who are more likely to raise their eyebrows at a restaurant whose theme is "toilets".

Yes, you sit on toilets with strange-looking lids. Yes, the tables are glass-covered sinks or bathtubs. Yes, the food comes in toilet-shaped plateware. The food on offer is basic pseudo-Western fusion (think hot pots, meat-with-rice dishes, spagettis and gratin-inspired dishes, Japanese curry) and is thoroughly mediocre. Perfectly edible but I'm not going to be writing an actual culinary-based review of the place anytime soon.

 What I loved is that so many people seemed to be eating there non-ironically. Now, I can't know that for sure, and Brendan's comment was "Jenna, that's a pretty big assumption to make without much evidence. Considering how hard it would be to eat at Modern Toilet non-ironically, you better have something to back it up when you assert that that's what someone does."

And yes, in the back corner of the photo above, that is a gold-toned poo coil adorning the railing. And yes, below I am sitting next to a faucet fixture attached to the wall (obviously, it doesn't work). Also I wanted to show off my new haircut. I totally look like a college student! In my twenties everyone thought I looked older than I was. In my early 30s, everyone seems to think I look younger than I am. The acne doesn't help.

We decided to go much at the last minute: we wanted to meet a friend for dinner and she was in Zhongshan - but we wanted a not-too-tiny restaurant that we could linger in that would be suited to a small group and has real full meals on offer.

Zhongshan (I'm talking about the area immediately around Zhongshan station, not the entire district) has three kids of restaurants: 

1.) Cafes - great atmosphere, perfect for a coffee or other drink or a dessert, good for small groups and lingering, but generally overpriced, under-portioned and middling food.

2.) Great restaurants that cater to large groups - Celestial Kitchen (天廚) and 龍都酒樓 are in this group. I've eaten at both and they're both fantastic, but you really need to be going there with six people or more. I'll be posting a review of the latter restaurant soon.

3.) Hole-in-the-wall local joints with card tables and disposable chopsticks with great food but lacking a lingering atmosphere.

There's also Ali Baba Indian Kitchen, but we had dinner there less than a week ago.

Then I realized that Jiantan was on the same MRT line and that I'd never been to Modern Toilet, despite having lived in Taiwan for 5 1/2 years. We wouldn't escape uninspiring food, but I'd be able to tick a cultural establishment (I say that half-ironically) off my list. I mean, the place regularly receives global attention and I am asked fairly often by friends in other countries if I've eaten there. It's always a surprise when I say "no". 

So, we went, and it was pretty much exactly as we expected. I had "Korean kimchi hot pot" (about as good as I expected). Brendan had Japanese curry (about as good as he expected). Cathy had some sort of chicken dish with rice (about as good as she expected).

The most famous menu item at Modern Toilet is the poo-coil like soft-serve chocolate ice cream in an Asian-style toilet shaped bowl.

It sure looks the part, but it's really not that good. But, you know, I can now say I've been there, done that, and I don't need to go back unless visitors from abroad are really excited about it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Let's See The City's Ripped Backside

I just watched this older TED Talk on the catastrophe of "community space" in the USA and couldn't help but think that much of it could be applied to Taipei, as compared to some of the older towns and old streets scattered across Taiwan.

I'll cover farther down how this relates to Taipei - at least from my perspective. With photos!

I've always felt that space is a manifestation of the mind: that the spaces we inhabit shine a light on our subconscious, whether individual or collective. An example of the more individual level of this manifestation can be seen in where a person chooses to live: an urban area, the suburbs, a small town, the countryside, and what neighborhood they live in. I don't mean in a "she likes to shop so she lives near the shops" way, but in a "her mind is uncluttered and fairly organized, and so she lives in a more open, cleanly delineated area" or "he tends toward meandering thinking processes so he lives in a building in a spiderweb of small lanes" or "she likes to observe everything going on around her from a detached perspective, so she lives on a hill/on a high floor" or "he likes to know what's happening at each market stall and under each building awning so he lives right at street level".

On a more public level, our public squares - their size, their aesthetic, what they're bordered by (is it a Crate&Barrel, or a 1,000 year old church, or City Hall?), how quiet or chaotic they are - and in the USA, our streets - say a lot about who we are as people in a community.

And James Kuntsler is exactly right: the suburban space we've created in the USA is a catastrophe, because there is no arena for that public consciousness. There is no manifestation of self or of community.

Older "small cities" that are now the size of suburbs and genuine small towns aren't a part of this: my parents' town, though I have no strong desire to live there again, is fairly pleasant with country roads and a Main Street downtown. Bangor, ME is the size of most suburbs and has a lovely old red brick downtown that is extremely inviting (the big box stores down the road not so much, but the two are entirely separate - which most suburbs can't claim). Arlington, VA is more of a city than a suburb, but for the most part it's pleasant, easily walkable and is home to many inviting spaces.

Our lizard brains, the instinctive, primitive and unevolved bit of us that still lurks back there, only to come out to save us from imminent danger, to rob, murder and steal (for a few people), and to comment on the Internet (warning: strong language) are there, too - they're in those desolate edges of suburbia where there are wasted fields, maybe an old warehouse, a few scraggy trees, a broken chain-length fence and a space that makes our conscious selves profoundly uncomfortable. They exist in cities, too (note the Iggy Pop reference in the title about the backside of the city) - think of the unappealing parts of Gotham that superheroes and cops find themselves in: old docks at night, barely-used warehouses, stretches of street with abandoned facades in front and looming buildings far behind. The parts you drive through and never stop to look at.

And yes, I do think the part of our brain that causes some people to think it's OK to point a gun at another person in order to take possession of the $10 and a subway card in their wallet is the same part that helps us intuit danger and prompts us to say horrifically rude things that we'd never say to someone's face. After all, the Internet is a kind of city, too.

These "subconscious" spaces will never be eradicated, because they crop up as the underside to our conscious planning. That said, having better public spaces, Kuntsler implies, will lower depression, anxiety and even crime (especially in children).

This exists in office spaces, as well. Good office spaces generate conversations, relationships and ideas in the way that good public spaces do. So it's a triple travesty: cube farms stultify our creative thought at work. Poorly planned "communities" (in quotes) don't allow relationships to take seed, and Starbucks has not brought cafe culture to America: it's destroyed any chance of it growing. Have you ever gone to a Starbucks to socialize and converse the way one might have done in an old style cafe?

So. What does this have to do with Taipei? Well, crime is not really a problem - of course it happens, but it's hardly the screaming issue it is back home - I can walk down the street at 3am in Taipei and know that I am fairly safe. I can't do that in any American city. Public space, however, is. While Taipei has retained its own unique style of streetscape that fits fairly well into the generally-known mold of Asian streetscapes, it's also clearly been influenced by the American and Canadian chucking in the garbage of old-style urban planning and methodology.

That's not to say that Taipei is unappealing. It is filled with gorgeous, inviting public spaces. Dihua Street - a slender street lined with attractive buildings, first-floor shops, a temple, a market area with an open square that has a coffeeshop and ringed with places to eat. Red House and Ximending - pedestrian lanes filled with mid-size buildings, first-floor shopping and a lot to look at both in terms of people and shopfronts (Ximending could be improved with a few more benches and sitting areas and better food - which is honestly not that good) with a more open space for socializing, strolling or shopping around Red House, which has been restored admirably to a place of public interest.

Red House Theater is a prime example of good community space - look at those citizens congregating and conversing, the umbrella-covered tables, the street level accessibility and the inviting building materials and facade.

The area between Longshan Temple MRT, the temple itself and the newly-restored Japanese shophouses by Guangzhou Street and Huaxi Night Market is inviting - you can sit and play mahjong in the park, wander the temple, go shopping, take a stroll, have a peek (or even sit for awhile) in the old Mackay Clinic which has been converted into a small museum about Mackay and the history of medicine in Taiwan - and it's free! All the area needs is a coffeeshop like the one that was replaced so tragically by a Cafe 85 with no seating. The bike trail that starts on the Jingmei River and winds its way up to Danshui is filled with inviting spots for sitting or general outdoor activity. The Wenzhou-Xinsheng-Heping area between Shi-da and Tai-da is quite lovely.

A totally different view from the Ximending area: more modern, but still inviting.

Notice, though, that every place I've mentioned is in the western part of Taipei - the pre-WWII section of town. Even the Japanese colonists knew a thing or two about good urban planning, and considering the extent to which they imitated Western pre-war architecture, I would guess that they extended their architectural mimicry to the delineation of urban space (I'm curious about that, actually, because I'm not sure: what a great thesis topic if I could afford graduate school!).

A few views of Dihua Street - in general a relaxing place to linger. People come here because they want to - the space makes them feel comfortable.

Now let's train our eye on eastern Taipei - Xinyi was clearly designed with public space in mind and in its own way, it's somewhat inviting. You can sit or stroll in the areas around Shinkong Mitsukoshi and there are comfortable outdoor areas around Taipei 101. The tree-lined Songren Road is pleasant enough, there are a few small parks, and that awesome chess set sculpture.

However, something about it just doesn't capture the loveliness of the western part of town. The buildings are too big, and too sterile. The area around SYS Memorial Hall is the one winner - well-planned trees, smaller shops and inviting (albeit expensive) cafes. The Shinkong Mitsukoshi plaza doesn't have floor-level shops; or rather, it does, but they're all behind glass, inaccessible, and once you enter the department store it's rather cold and antisocial. No great conversations are going to start between the glass doors and the Fendi shop, and the Starbucks is a sad little scar of tables right on the concourse. It doesn't invite you to linger the way the old-school coffee stand right in front of Yongle Market or the benches that line the square do. The "border" is impermeable: you can only go there to walk, or shop. You can't linger; you can't socialize. Nothing meaningful can happen when the walking area and the shopping area are separated by plates of glass.

Same for City Hall: you do see locals out and about, but generally it's about as habitable as Boston City Hall - barren, cemented over, no good for anything but skateboarding. The Hall itself is a Brutalist nightmare, a giant wound on the skyline that sears the eye.

Xinyi really tried, but in the end, let's face it, what was created is a bit hollow, steel-and-glass soulless. It needs, if not smaller buildings made of more attractive materials, at least street-level shops and more open cafes. It needs more permeable boundaries. It needs crossings on Keelung Road so you don't have to walk so far to get farther west.

See, Xinyi's not all bad. While this space doesn't invite one to stay long, it is visually appealing and breaks from the scraggy urban sprawl of central Taipei.

Here's the part where I'm going to get all KMT-blasting. Wanhua and Xinyi both have public areas - one showcasing the old school of urban planning, one displaying its somewhat eyebrow-raising renewal. Let's look now at central Taipei: the part of town bordered on one side by Zhongshan Road, Minzu in the north, Heping or Xinyi in the south and Guangfu Road in the east. This is the part of town that mostly developed post-war, though pre-war buildings do exist. That means it was mostly built up by the KMT, and to an extent in living memory. What do we see?

We see very uncomfortable streetscapes. Is there anything less pleasant than walking down Nanjing Road between Linsen and Fuxing? Forget the MRT construction: that's necessary and temporary. I mean the sidewalks, or lack thereof. If you walk on the flat area, you're likely to get run down by a scooter who is not going to stop for you. If you walk in the "pedestrian" (HA!) area, you're going up and down and up and down and "oh look, I would have to jump to keep going but there are no stairs", "let's pave this one in marble so everyone will slip on it when it rains", you never know when there will be an awning above you or you'll get rained on, and you can't see the shops clearly from the street thanks to the combined mask of parked scooters and awnings. This is due to the fact that the businesses lining these halfhearted sidewalks are individually responsible for building and maintaining them: that means they can decide height, material, awning-or-no, steps or slopes - whatever they want. Gotta love the individualism, but what it leads to is an uneven mishmash that is nearly impossible to deal with in a crowd or in the rain.

If you stand in a relatively open intersection (let's say Nanjing-Songjiang) it's basically a hideous sprawl of 1960s and '70s aesthetic horrors and a long, lonely look down unappealing, wide gray roads lines with unappealing buildings.

In short, there is nothing about this part of town that invites people to linger. You pretty much have to escape into a coffeeshop or restaurant for a comfortable place to sit. Could the government have promoted a worse design for urban space? I'm not sure.

Nobody actually goes to the Taipei Vegetable Market on Minzu Road because the road itself is a travesty - it's hard to get to and deeply unattractive. The only roads worth walking down without instead walking in the lanes, honestly, are Fuxing, Zhongshan at times, Dunhua at times and Heping. Civic Boulevard has to be the least interesting road in the entire city. They say that Core Pacific Mall has bad feng shui: worse than that, it's just poorly planned. There is no appealing or pleasant way to walk there, it's too far from transport hubs, and the surrounding area implies nothing but boredom and disinterest.

No wonder it's "feng shui" is off! What is urban planning, after all, than feng shui that actually works? Or, put another way, urban planning is basically feng shui with concrete (pardon the pun) methodologies behind it, rather than superstitious ones. That's why shoppers go to SOGO at Zhongxiao Fuxing - the two department stores and space around them is inviting. You want to go, even if the actual stores aren't the biggest or the best in the city. That's why the SOGO/Takashimaya/Miramar/Shinkong Mitsukoshi area is popular in Tianmu; the walk between them is pleasant; I don't even like department stores and I find myself there on occasion just because I like the space around them. (International Square is another prime example of good public space).

Truthfully, it's not all bad: Minsheng Community is so nice that every time I take a bus through it, I want to pack up and move there. It's like the good parts of Brooklyn. Guanghua Market and the surrounding area (including Huashan) is pleasant enough, some of the lanes between the major roads are nice to walk down - I rather liked the area where our friend used to live, between Jianguo and Yitong Street, north of Nanjing - the lanes are full of interesting things. Yongkang Street isn't as good for food as people say, but it is a pleasant urban street. Da'an Park is in this area and so is CKS Hall which, while I hate the man, the hall and square are quite nice.

There are things that could improve it, though: Da'an Park needs more picnic tables and better grass. CKS is fine on the inside, but just outside the gate and around the sides is rather dire (except for the hilarious Wedding Shops on Aiguo Road, which are fun to look at). Nothing is less inviting than the buildings outside the CKS Hall main gate. The area around the Presidential Building is similarly uninviting for anyone except protesters, and there are some lovely but inaccessible gates in the area.

Architecturally interesting, but I'd like to see less of the bombast:

And more of the community spaces that have sprung up within it:

I don't think I have to spend time dissecting the far south and far north of Taipei - what I've said above basically covers what I'd say about these areas. I will say that I find my neighborhood (Jingmei, near the MRT) can be quite inviting, as well as quite dissonant. I am friendly with my neighbors because the lanes around my house encourage socialization - the old women who congregate in the comfortable Y-intersection of Wanqing Street make their own social spaces, by dragging beat-up chairs under apartment awnings and making the lanes their own. Certain areas of Muzha, by contrast, are just as difficult to walk down as that blasted heath of central Taipei.

People say that Taipei residents "don't care" or "aren't concerned" about public space, but I don't believe it's true. If the old women make their own social space (and the men too: a good friend of mine famously said that "there are no bars on Nanjing West Road because the folks there, when they want a drink, grab a Taiwan Beer from 7-11 and drink it on their stoop. If their friends want to join them, they grab beers and sit, too."), clearly someone cares about it. If the old parts of Taipei have vestiges of space, and the most popular area in eastern Taipei attempts, in its own way, to create it, clearly people care. What causes them to seem as though they don't care is the space itself - the treacherous sidewalks and scooter-congested roads with no meaningful areas that have porous boundaries. The people didn't make the space, contrary to what usually happens. When the government charged ahead with development and construction in the mid 20th century, it created the space, and the space then created the people. Show them that their spaces can be better, and maybe (just maybe) they'll want to make it better, too. But what they have now? It lends itself to apathy. It creates apathy.

In short, I'd like to see more old-style urban planning return to Taipei, which would mean a return to the city as the Japanese colonists who helped build it would plan it, or at least our best approximation. I'd like to see more of this:

Daxi Old Street

A temple courtyard in Tainan

And far less of this:

Quite possibly the ugliest building in Taipei, on Xinhai Road (Muzha).

The view from my first apartment in Taipei. Super!

It's not that the government is not trying - it's that they're often, but not always, getting it right. The little marble tea-and-picnic tables and newer urban spaces are a step in the right direction for Taipei, but they need to be more open, more plentiful and more accessible. We need fewer Bella Vita shopping centers behind glass and granite, and more community shopping-and-strolling areas. We need more indoor-outdoor spaces, more trees and more places to congregate.

We need more bike trails and paths, too. The riverside bike trail that winds its way up the western part of the city to Danshui is chock full of comfortable spaces for activities, walking or chatting - more food vendors (or easier access to food outside the park) and fewer wild dogs would be nice, though.

I've always been a fan of attractive graffiti - urban outdoor art. This one can be seen on the Jingmei-Danshui bike trail, somewhere in the Jingmei or Wanlong area.

To sum it all up in one sentence: we need to undo what was done by the powers-that-be (ahem) from about 1950 to about 1995 and make Taipei a city that is appealing on a large scale, instead of being pockmarked hither-and-whither with a few appealing spots.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

New Exhibit at MOCA Taipei: Finding India

I strongly recommend that everyone with even the most remote interest in India or in modern art head down to Taipei's Museum of Contemporary Art (Chang'an Road, just south of MRT Zhongshan Station in the old Japanese colonial City Hall building), also called MOCA.

MOCA has rotating full exhibits, so you'll see something different every month or so if you care to visit that often. Admission prices seem to remain at around NT 50 per person, though I swear I heard somewhere that it changed by exhibit. Tickets are provided by exhibit so you get cool different tickets if you visit different ones...which you can do if you go a few times a year to see what's showing, as I do.

The current exhibit is called "Finding India", and it features works of modern art by contemporary Indian artists (not always from India - the bar seems to be set at being ethnically Indian with some cultural connection to India).

The exhibit allows non-flash photography.

The art on display is not necessarily Indian-themed or influenced, though much of it is (huge photographs - the one at the top of this post is a newspaper photograph blown up to the exact dimensions of Picasso's Guernica and decorated - and of Mysore dolls ringed with garlands of world monuments, below...various short films and moving artwork to name a few). Some of it, like "Grow More Food" above has Indian thematic components but is not Indian in and of itself.

Others, like "Dead Smile" below, have no connection to Indian culture but are presented because they are by artists of Indian descent.

Another interesting point is that a huge number of the artists exhibiting as part of the greater exhibit are female: possibly a majority of them, in fact. This is heartening, considering how much the fine art scene is dominated by men (in that way in which women do most of the world's decorating, but men get accolades for 'high art', and women do most of the cooking but men become 'famous chefs'. Grr).

I highly recommend spending the NT 30 on the English-Chinese guide for the exhibit - some of the works (like various interspecies copulating animal pairs, below), are utterly mystifying without a guide prompt. Others, you can muse on yourself.

Do excuse the bad photos - I wasn't prepared for the museum to allow non-flash photography so all I had was my iTouch.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Indian food in Taipei

MIK-6 hookah bar and restaurant

What is this? Places to go for your real (not Japanese-style) curry fix...especially if you know what real Indian food should taste like. I'm putting it all together in one post for easy reference, updated every few years as restaurants come, go, change management or experience and uptick or downturn in quality. I do think I'm qualified to review Indian food in Taipei, having lived there for a semester in 2000 and cooking it myself, often, to some acclaim.

This is not a complete list, but I think it comes pretty close. I can't possibly find and keep track of every single place offering Indian (or claiming to) in Taipei, so if there are any I've missed or you've been recently and want to add your comments, please do so. I also can't visit every restaurant, so some are listed but have not been tried - I'm happy to add reader comments to these. We can keep this going together!

Mayur Indian Kitchen

My birthday party at MIK-6 hookah bar and restaurant
6 locations - here are a few:
#350-5 Keelung Road Sec. 1 (the original)
#38 Sec. 1 Xinsheng N. Road
#103 Sec. 3 Minsheng E. Road

MIK 4ever (their fourth location) at Tonghua St. Lane 171 #34
MIK-5 in Dazhi: Bei-an Road #630)

MIK-6/mik'sutras: Songjiang Road #1-1 (on the corner of Weishui Street)

They have idli-dosa (at most but not all locations - Keelung Road and mik'sutras don't), and other regional specialties! Most Indian restaurants (OK, all other ones) seem to go for the "three types of meat four ways, and some vegetables" style of Indian food. Mayur actually cooks regional recipes from various states in India. My current favorite. VERY highly recommended.

MIK-5 in Dazhi stands out because it's a bit fancier, more of an upmarket dining experience (the Tonghua Road location is also more upmarket), and MIK-6, also called mik'sutras, is more of a live bar/hookah lounge with Indian food, which we visited recently.

Amma's Kitchen
Roosevelt Road Sec 3. #100-93, 2nd floor

I think this is one of my new favorite Indian restaurants! It's absolutely tiny (enough room for one row of maybe 5 tables) in a decrepit old building that looks half-abandoned, down a creepy hallway you get to by climbing some creepy, dirty stairs.

Onion uthappam at Amma's

That sounds horrible, but it's actually great. Because I say so. When you enter this restaurant that is little more than hallway-sized in width, it's clean, friendly and inviting. Run by a bunch of South Indian guys (if the name "Amma's" didn't tip you off), and has the best - and cheapest - South Indian menu in Taipei. Yes, idli, yes vadai (two kinds - medhu and masala - I like all vadai so that's great), yes, dosa. A variety of dosas in fact. And "Chettinad chicken", which they say is their specialty (haven't tried it yet but will soon). I love a good South Indian curry beyond the usual idli-dosa, so that's just...I mean it's great.

The food reminds me of home cooking. You aren't going to get Udupi restaurant-quality dosa here, and the sambar also tastes homemade (I love whatever it is that they do to the coconut chutney, though - I think it's a mix of coconut and tomato). It's South Indian home food for South Indians, and I am totally on board.

Balle Balle Indian Restaurant
#12 Guangfu N. Road, Songshan District

Balle Balle focuses on Punjabi cuisine (hence the name, which is an expression of happiness in the Punjabi language) and is quite good, with extremely accommodating and friendly service. I go to Mayur for regional foods that I like, but will go to Balle Balle for my Punjabi cravings. See my review here.

The Brass Monkey
166 Fuxing North Road,
Zhongshan District Taipei, Taiwan 110
Just north of MRT Nanjing Fuxing
(02) 2547 5050
Chicken korma and pork vindaloo with rice (that's food coloring, not flavoring in the rice) from Brass Monkey

All of the other restaurants on this list are Indian food - the Brass Monkey is a large British-style pub that specifically offers the cuisine of British curry houses. If you're missing Hyderabad, this isn't quite going to do hit that note. But if you're missing absolutely will. And that's intentional - the point was to offer a British curry house experience, not another "Indian restaurant in Taipei". You can eat in or get takeaway (which you can call ahead for).

Flavor of India
#34 Heping East Road Section 3 (MRT Technology Building/Liuzhangli)
In the same location as the old Fusion Asia

Shahi paneer and channa masala at Flavor of India

Hey, this place - which replaced the old Fusion Asia (which was fantastic) - is great! It's vegetarian, but everything we got was excellent. They hit all the right spots: both tamarind-date chutney and green coriander chutney, perfectly spicy food, channa masala made with green chilis - these guys know what they're doing. Excellent masala tea. We got samosas, shahi paneer and channa masala - all highly recommended. A lot of places put Kingfisher (a not-very-good Indian beer that I love drinking with Indian food) on the menu but never stock it - these guys do! The only thing I think is a bit odd is that it's a vegetarian Indian restaurant that doesn't serve pure veg south Indian. Usually veg places do. But I'm not complaining too much. Oh, the naan is tasty and soft (though the garlic naan could use a little more garlic), but the puris are a little greasy. Still good, though.

Don't worry too much about Fusion Asia being gone, as the owners have opened a new place in Tianmu called...

Jai Ho
#22-1, 1st Floor, Lane 50 
Tianmu E. Road (Shilin Dist., Tianmu)

The old owners of Fusion Asia on Heping E. Road (now Flavor of India vegetarian restaurant - see review below) have relocated to Tianmu with their Punjabi-centric menu. The location is smaller but also better-decorated, with outdoor seating and very close to the Tianmu Shinkong Mitsukoshi. We went here recently and I dunno...the food was all well-made to a high standard, with some interesting menu flair. There's homemade gulab jamun! There's paan flavored kulfi - which takes some getting used to because it, as my husband put it, "tastes like soap smells", but I've cultivated a taste for it. There's masala lassi (salty not sweet). But...

Well, I asked them to make the food good and spicy except for the butter chicken, which isn't meant to be particularly fiery. And they just...didn't? I did say I'd lived in India once upon a time, and was quite clear that everyone eating with me could handle real heat, but even the lamb rahrah (probably my favorite dish by this particular chef) was just missing that fiery kick with that warm after-dinner mouthfeel. I said something about it - especially as all of our dishes were clearly made well and the other flavors were well-balanced - expertly even - and the waitress confessed she'd just told them to make it "中辣" or "medium spicy", which is not what I asked for. 

I don't mind too much if a restaurant doesn't get it quite right because I didn't specify, but I have a huge pet peeve about specific requests being disregarded for no good reason.

I liked the food and would return, but I can't say I'm too happy about paying a lot of money for Indian food that just isn't spicy enough.

Out Of India
#26 Lane 13 Pucheng Street (in Shi-da)

An old stand-by in Shi-da, the same owner now runs 3 Idiots Toast and Curry. I don't know if they still have a branch at the old location of Bollywood Indian Pizza, and I don't know if their third branch in a lane across from NTU (the back entrance - if you go to where Fuxing meets Xinhai, then when facing the NTU entrance from across Xinhai turn right, it's the first lane on the right. The lane runs north-south, the other Out of India is near the southern end closer to NTU than Heping Rd).

In any case, this is sort of the bog-standard choice for Indian food. The curries are pretty good (though in recent years I've had to tell them to make it "India spicy" because they've been making it blander for the local market) and it's an okay option if you're in the neighborhood.

A word of warning, unless you specifically ask, their garlic naan comes spread with that absolutely disgusting sweetish garlic-margarine spread, the ones you can buy in tubs in Wellcome. It's so gross. But if you ask they'll make you real garlic naan.

Masala Art
Maji Maji (MRT Yuanshan)

Rather like Jai Ho above, the food here was well-made, and I like that they have both gulab jamun and falooda on the menu (a good dessert menu can make or break Indian for me, and so many restaurants leave it off entirely). We got butter chicken and channa masala with garlic naan, and samosas.

The samosas were great - I liked the crispy shells, and the potatoes were well-spiced (I would have preferred both tamarind-date (red) and coriander (green) chutneys but we were only offered green, though. The butter chicken was very good (though all white meat? I prefer a mix of white and dark in my butter chicken). The sauce was spot-on though. Just how I like it - with a nice red warmth, but also creamy and a little sweet in the way tomatoes can be. Almost like you caramelized the tomatoes.

Samosa at Masala Art

The channa masala, though, just...well, like Jai Ho again, it wasn't spicy enough. Good channa masala has a hot kick from mashed green chilis, which can be heightened with the addition of red chili powder (which I never say no to). It has an afterburn - not quite as hot as lamb rahrah or a vindaloo but righteous in its own way. I said I wanted it hot, like India hot, and I got...not. Not hot. It was a bit warm, to be sure. For maybe 5 minutes after I felt a nice warmth in my mouth. But the right kind of heat gets you a little high and stays with you, and it didn't.

Big fan of the falooda though. Good choice if you are near Maji Maji. I have heard this is the "best in Taipei" but, while not, it's not the best. beer. But there are places nearby to get it, and I'd guess they allow BYOB.

(Finally, the garlic naan is nice and thin the way I like it, but they use garlic powder, not fresh garlic.)

Azeez Indian
Maji Maji

This is more like a food stall in a whole row of international eats at Maji Maji, not a full restaurant the way Masala Art is. We haven't eaten here but plan to soon.

Masala House (formerly Exotic Masala House?)
#6 Lane 269  Roosevelt Road Sec. 3 (in the Shi-da neighborhood)

I can't for the life of me figure out if this place in Shida is still open, but their TripAdvisor and Facebook pages seem active and as of 2015 Forumosa says they're still open (closed Wednesdays). I have heard from multiple sources that the newer "Masala House" is simply Exotic Masala House under an abbreviated name - same management. I can't remember if the location is the same. I haven't gone back to check because I was not that happy with the food the last few times I went several years ago, so I haven't returned. We really liked this place in its early years and I even had one of my Thanksgiving gatherings there, but the food got steadily worse and we stopped going. I have no idea how it is now. 

Calcutta Indian Food
#70 Xining S. Road (B1 level)

This place used to be good. Now it's terrible. They were still really good - and the mutton samosas are still great - after moving to the bottom of the U2 building in Ximen. We've been back recently, No. Every curry seemed like it was cooked in the same sauce, nothing was remotely spicy (even butter chicken needs a bit of warmth - nothing - it was weirdly sweet?), and the "aloo gobi" was made with broccoli, not cauliflower! Unacceptable! What's more, aloo gobi is a dry, brownish curry where the cauliflower (NOT BROCCOLI) is fried in spices, onion, garlic, and just a bit of sauce. This was served in a big gravy-full tureen of red, tomato-based curry sauce which is simply not what aloo gobi is meant to be. It was just...the wrong curry.

Sometimes restaurants make mistakes yet should not be written off completely. However, this was unforgivable. They didn't even respect their customers enough to make a curry with the correct ingredients, from the vegetable to the sauce. I will never return.


Ali Baba's Indian Kitchen
Nanjing E. Road by Jilin Road (you can walk from Zhongshan MRT or take a bus a few stops from there) across from poorly-named Silverfish Thai. Very cos

This place is actually run by Pakistanis and offers halal food - they are best at tandoori and other Punjabi treats (there is a dish that is basically butter chicken under a different name) as well as more Muslim-influenced fare such as seekh kebabs and other dry meat dishes. Great food though the spice level varies. We went once, ordered vindaloo, and nearly got our taste buds blasted off - OK in my book! - and yet another friend claimed that their spices were tame. Ask for spice and you'll get spice, don't and you'll get mild, I suppose. The veggie-covered papadam is fantastic, as is their masala chai. The kheer is good but the gulab jamun comes from a can. This is the only place in town that offers kheer. As they're Muslim, there's no beer available. But, they allow BYO alcohol!

We don't go as often anymore as it's not convenient to where we live, it's kind of expensive and there are more convenient options, but I don't dislike them at all. 

Their Facebook says it's at:
#38-6 Tianmu E. Road (behind Shinkong Mitsukoshi in Tianmu)
But I suspect there's a mistake in the address - it's next to The Spice Shop

Saffron is upscale and chi-chi looking, which is why I haven't eaten there yet. But they seem to have Indian cooks and the place smells nice - and my friends say its excellent - so I'll give it a try someday. I just don't go to Tianmu often. I do have a student (one who has been to India) who has been there, and her review? "Meh". I know Hungry Girl recommends it, as does the Taipei Times, though. More coming when I try it for myself.

The Spice Shop
On one hand, I remember this place being next to Saffron (above)
But, tbeir website says it's at #6 Lane 50 Alley 10, Tianmu E. Road, which seems like a different place?

At The Spice Shop in Taipei
Expensive but very good Indian food with a 1950's funky wallpaper feel that brings to mind curryhouses of the UK. I've never had a curry I didn't like here, but I've always paid through the nose for them. No Indian beers though, and they don't seem to know the difference between mango chutney and mango pickle. Good thing I like both.

This place is one of my favorites, and we always choose it over Saffron because we know the food is good and the decor is more our style. We don't go often, though, because they're at the opposite end of Taipei. In fact I don't think I've been since I first wrote this post in 2008.

Abad Indian Restaurant

#130 Guangfu Road (just north of Nanjing-Guangfu), Songshan District

I...don't know what to make of this place. They advertise themselves as South Indian but they are definitely not. There are a few dosas on the menu, but no masala dosa, which is odd. Why offer paneer dosa etc. but not standard masala dosa? No idli, no vadai, none of that. No upma, no idiyappam, no Kerala fish curries or Hyderabadi lamb biriyani (for the places that aren't pure veg). It's just not south Indian. Putting a few non-standard dosas on the menu doesn't make you something you're not.

The service is friendly and I genuinely like the folks who run the place, I mean, insofar as I can know what they are like as a customer. Whoever is making the food clearly has cooking skills - the texture of the samosas was perfect with a flaky, moist but not greasy pastry and perfectly cooked potato filling. The lamb biriyani was well-cooked, too.

And they have falooda. I love falooda and this might be the only place in Taiwan offering this unique dessert. Yet again this shows that they are not a South Indian restaurant - I associate falooda with Mumbai and points north.'s not spicy. It's just not spicy at all. The samosa was plain potato, served with ketchup. No masala. No spices. It was the color of a croquette. The lamb biriyani was moist with excellent quality chunks of lamb (though a very small serving for a high price), but it wasn't spicy. The paneer dosa, something I never ate while actually in South India, was midly warm, but not spicy, not really. I can I recommend this place when their food isn't spicy? It's not even flavorful-spicy. It's just...nothing.

I mentioned the unspiced samosa - I was so disappointed - and they said it was because "Taiwanese don't like spicy food". But...come on, they expect at least some heat, yes? Something? Anything? Even so, if you distort your own cuisine that much to cater to local tastes you cease to be an Indian restaurant.

I can ask them to make it spicier for me, can't make a samosa spicier. They aren't made to order. And at some point it's just not worth it to ask.

I'd recommend Abad, if the owners read this, focus on what they do well - perfectly prepared, perfectly textured Indian food - and quit trying to "market" themselves as something they're not. They're Indian chefs - make it taste like Indian food. They can do at North Indian cuisine - make that. They could do a lot better. 

#10 Lane 73 Hejiang Street, Taipei
Minsheng E. Road near Zhongshan Junior High School MRT 

We ate here years ago and it was pretty good. The food is solid and we enjoyed everything we ate, except for the very lackluster samosas.  Kind of small and deflated. The only reason we don't eat here more often is that it is rather expensive.

As always, you need to specifically ask for truly spicy food.

Alla-Din Indian and Pakistani Kitchen
#101 Raohe Street, Songshan District (in Raohe Night Market)

I used to get take-out from this place often, and the food was fiery hot - which I love - and spiced with depth and care. We often got the chicken or lamb rolls, and the kebabs we've had while eating in were also great. It's a solid choice in Raohe Night Market. The only complaint I have is that while the rolls are affordable, the curries can get very expensive.

Or at least, it was good. We returned at one point and got what I can only describe as mildly-flavored Indian food slathered in chili paste. No depth, no care, just heat. We haven't been back so maybe that was a one-off, but I just don't know. 

#26 Lane 81 Fuxing N. Road, Taipei

Yum yum yum yum yum. While this place has more than just Indian food, there are plenty of curries on the menu, not to mention samosas, really nice lassi (yoghurt) drinks and other tasty treats. I can't really place where the food is from - there are Southeast Asian dishes that you'd swear were Burmese, Indonesian or Thai, Indian food, Pakistani food, even Middle Eastern staples like hummus and I swear a few Chinese offerings. I've never had a bad meal here, though, and strongly recommend the lassi and samosas.

Cafe India
Core Pacific Living Mall B3

I haven't been here, so I can't give an opinion.

Tibet Kitchen
#217 Heping Road Sec. 2 (very near Technology Building MRT)

This restaurant specializes in Tibetan food (the way that Kunming specializes more in Burmese-Muslim fusion), but still serves up pretty decent Indian food. I'm including it here because it's a great restaurant that deserves your patronage, and does offer Indian dishes, but if you go I would recommend ordering Tibetan food.

Khana Khazana
#366 Section 1 Keelung Road (north of Xinyi and south of the original Mayur Indian Kitchen).

We've eaten here and I can confirm it's good. Pretty typical north Indian food with an emphasis on Halal (as with many Indian restaurants in Taipei the owners are Muslim and many are actually from Pakistan - I don't care where you're from as long as the food is good though). But still, good, a solid choice in Xinyi. Well-decorated with cushy velvet chairs.

Sagar Indian
2nd floor #195 Sec. 2, Xinyi Road Taipei (near Yongkang Street)

Not sure if this place is still open, actually - it's the same address as Saathiya below. We haven't eaten here, but the TripAdvisor reviews are good. However, a friend of mine did eat there along with her husband who is a chef, and they said "the curry was watery and my husband's tasted weirdly fermented. He felt sick after." So I'm not that excited about trying it...

3 Idiots Toast and Curry
#28 Lane 293 Roosevelt Rd. Sec 3
Another location is near Ren'ai Hospital on Da'an Road
Also #318 Changchun Road, Zhongshan District

Multiple locations - I haven't been here yet but will try it soon and let you know. Run by the same folks from Out of India.

Zhongshan N. Road Sec. 6 #138 (Tianmu)

Because Tianmu didn't already have enough expensive Indian restaurants...there's this one. A few of my friends have checked in here, and it looks nice. Huge menu, includes South Indian (but expensive). We'll go at some point.

Namaste Indian Cuisine
#30 (or 32 - Google Maps and Facebook don't agree)
Lane 3

Jiuzhuang St. (舊莊街) Section 1 (in Nangang)

This place also advertises itself as South Indian, and the only reason we haven't been is that it's way out at the ass-end of Nangang by Academia Sinica. That's really far and inconvenient...but we'll make it out there eventually. I do want to try this place and give it a review.

Taj Indian Restaurant#1 Lane 48, Civic Boulevard (市民大道) Section 4
Where all those popular restaurants are on Civic

I have to admit I didn't even know this place existed until I googled "Indian restaurants in Taipei" and it showed up. Haven't been, don't know how it is, will try at some point.

Oye Punjabi
#121 Yanji Street

Again, have not been here, so can't comment. Will try - it's not too far from us.

Janny Curry House
#4 Alley 1 Lane 199
Jinhua Street (near Yongkang Street)

I haven't been here but I know the owner's daughter on Facebook, so I'll be trying it very soon.

#195 2nd Floor
Xinyi Road Sec 2 (near Yongkang St. MRT)

Same address as Sagar above, and also gets a pretty bad review from the Taipei Times. I suspect they might be the same restaurant.

Joseph Bistro
#13 Lane 69 Songjiang Road

I haven't been here, and didn't know it existed until I did a search. The pictures don't look like Indian food but people on Trip Advisor are saying it's "good Indian food" or "we liked the naan" so I'm not sure what to make of that? I've also heard it's "unique" so I'm sure I'll check it out at some point.

India Palace (or something)
Taipei 101 B1 level food court

As a rule I avoid food court curry, but Brendan has been here and says it's serviceable. There's another Indian Palace on Taiyuan Street (#103, B3 level?) and another on Chengde Road (#1, Sec. 1) which is very confusing. I'll have to walk around a bit in that area and try to figure out the situation on the ground.

And this post would be remiss if I didn't mention...

Trinity Superstores (import store) #23 6th Floor (ring up), Ren'ai Road Sec 3 Lane 143 (Zhongxiao Fuxing)
#35 Zhongxiao E. Road Sec 5 Lane 71 (City Hall)
#535 Zhongshan N. Road Sec. 5 (Shilin)

They now have three locations - one just south of Zhongxiao Fuxing/green Sogo, one at City Hall and one in Shilin. Their own information online is confusing so I'm putting it here for you - a good place to buy Indian spices and ingredients.