December 20, 2010

Eating out in Taipei

Jon and I visited Taipei this past weekend for a quick pre-Christmas getaway. The last time I visited Taipei, I was less than a year old, so this trip was essentially the first visit not only for Jon but for me as well.

We only had two and a half days, so we mainly wandered around the city, snacking and eating nonstop. Our hotel was in Ximending (West Gate), the main shopping and hangout spot for young people; the area reminded us of Shibuya in Tokyo. We also visited some other parts of the city, including Yongkang Street, Shilin Night Market, and Xinyi (for the giant Eslite 24-hr bookstore).

Overall, I enjoyed Taipei. I would definitely go back for the great food (especially local Taiwanese, eastern Chinese [i.e. Shanghai, Fujian, Chiuchow] and Japanese) and the relaxed café/coffee culture (local family-run cafés, not Starbucks, dominate). Shopping-wise, I can see why people love to go crazy in Taipei, but many of the home goods, tchotchkes, clothes and accessories can also be bought in Hong Kong for pretty much the same price. Chinese-language books are a bargain for Chinese readers (not me, unfortunately) while English-language books are at the same unfavourable rate Hong Kong bookstores use.

Souvenir shopping tip: Taiwan pineapple pastries (fenglisu/鳳梨酥) are famous and crazy-good. The best place (recommended by bloggers and guidebooks alike) to buy these super-yummy little shortcakes is at Kong Kee in Ximending (opposite the East Dragon hotel). Staff here are friendly and speak English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese. You can try before you buy, i.e. free samples. The fenglisu's shortcake-like crust is crumbly, buttery-rich but not too sweet, while the inside pineapple filling is light and slightly sticky. It's like a lighter, airier version of Fig Newtons. I never really liked pineapple pastry as the ones I had before were very dense and brick-like, so authentic Taiwanese fenglisu was a revelation. Beware though, good pineapple pastries are very addictive...

Some of our stops included:

Jolly Brewery and Restaurant - A Taiwan microbrewery (not brewed on site due to municipal restrictions) that doubles as a sports bar and Thai eatery. Their home-brewed beer are respectable and reasonably priced (a 6 x 100ml sampler of their six home brews was NT$240 [US$8] if I recall correctly). I liked the sweet malt of the Scotch Ale (7.2% a.c.) while Jon preferred the lighter Weizen and the Pale Ale. Worth a visit for beer-lovers: don't expect amazing beer but it's not bad compared to all the Heineken, Carlsberg, and other supermarket beers that are served almost everywhere else.

Shilin Night Market - The mother of all Asian night-markets. A must-visit for foodies and everyone else. The temporary market building opposite the Jiantan metro station mostly contains some food and a few desultory amusement stands/games such as shrimp fishing, balloon shooting, etc. Oyster omelettes are one of Taiwan's classic dishes but Jon and I much preferred the Chiuchow version - the Taiwanese version had some transparent gooey stuff which was a bit too slimy in texture for our liking. (I later found out that it was tapioca starch.)

While the Taiwanese share the same intense foodie mania with most of the rest of Asia, they really up the stakes in craziness. Famous street dishes included the small sausage in big sausage, small bun in big bun and giant fried chicken steak (a gargantuan breaded fried chicken meat steak that's famous for being bigger than one's face and ridiculously cheap at NT$50/US$1.50).

The "big sausage" is actually a delicious mixture of garlicky, spicy glutinous rice stuffed into a sausage casing. The "small sausage" is a sweet, porky Taiwanese sausage. A relish of Chinese pickles, cucumber and a spicy soy-based sauce combines to create an AMAZING street snack.

Delicious sausages...mmm...the neon sign says "Small sausage wrapped in big sausage"

A bunch of victorious food maniacs who have lined up to buy the Giant Chicken Steak! (Seriously, Jon and I wanted to get this but we were stuffed from Din Tai Fung and the line for this was at least 30 people long.)

Din Tai Fung @ Yongkang Street - While I've never been that impressed by Din Tai Fung's food (especially after being served a drunken-chicken dish that had actually gone bad/rotten at their Shanghai Xintiandi branch a few years back - an unpardonable offense that I have neither forgiven nor forgotten!), the restaurant's xiaolongbao does have a cult following throughout Asia (particularly China, Korea and Japan). So I was willing to give DTF another chance, especially as all reviews indicated that the original branch at Yongkang Street in Taipei was much better than the other. Verdict? The xiaolongbao was good, but nothing special. I've had way better xiaolongbao in Hong Kong at Faye's Nouvelle Cuisine (aka Xiaonanguo/小南國) and amazing xiaolongbao in Shanghai (particularly at the xlb ground zero aka Nanxiang Mantoudian/南翔饅頭店 where these buns were invented). Anyway, I guess the food there is OK but not worth the 30-minute wait (Japanese tours bring huge groups here a LOT so be prepared for a long wait and very antsy crowds)

Crowds at Din Tai Fung.

OMG! Buns! Xiaolongbao! Steaming pork juice spurting into your mouth!

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