I have a new favourite Asian city – well, at least until the next visit Tokyo or Hanoi. Last weekend’s sojourn to Taipei was all too brief, but a lot of fun and it left me wanting to return – soon. Despite Taipei’s proximity to Hong Kong this was my first visit. A hectic (but […]
I have a new favourite Asian city – well, at least until the next visit Tokyo or Hanoi. Last weekend’s sojourn to Taipei was all too brief, but a lot of fun and it left me wanting to return – soon.
Despite Taipei’s proximity to Hong Kong this was my first visit. A hectic (but action-packed) 40 hours barely allowed me to scratch the surface of what the city has to offer.
Our accommodation was the ragged, but friendly Westin hotel. Upon arriving we made a dash for the Liu Yuan Shanhainese restaurant, which came well recommended. However, at just after 9pm they were not taking any more diners, despite an advertised 9.30 closing time. So, we snuck into another of the hotel’s eateries, the Yi Yuan Pekinese restaurant. This may have been a blessing in disguise as we were treated to a delightful little meal, including a sauteed eel dish (with shoots and spring onions) that was, quite simply, one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten in Asia.
Sadly, breakfast the next morning was a different story. They say the way a cook handles eggs is a window into their soul. So, perhaps I should have just walked away from the breakfast line when I saw what happened to the egg order for the person in front of me. The eggs were not so much scrambled as brutally (and briefly) subdued in a searingly hot pan while being drowned in oil. Words fail me to describe the horror that befell my order for fried eggs. But, at least I didn’t have to stand around long, my eggs were barely in the pan for more than three seconds.
Thankfully we had spotted some nearby cafes, the night before, on the way in from the airport. So a short walk later it was time for a second attempt at breakfast in the local Ikari cafe. Ikari is a local chain which, truth be told, is rather like a lighter, browner version of Starbucks. However, on both of our visits we were the only westerners in there and the food was actually decent, in a budget diner sort of way. My ham omelette sandwich was a welcome relief to my serious late breakfast hunger pains and the following morning’s scrambled eggs showed up the Westin’s egg assassin for the culinary reaver that he was.
Of course, no visit to Taipei is complete without a detour to Taipei 101, the shopping mall and office tower that was, until recently, the tallest building in the world. Taipei 101 is wonderfully photogenic and the mall is replete with eateries (I had a decent espresso at the Maxims de Paris branch and some rather nice dumplings along with peppery beef short ribs at Jiu Ru). But, Hong Kong has made me somewhat blasé about luxury shopping malls.
Which made the next visit, to the Eslite Bookstore, a more memorable experience. This multi-story retail mecca houses some small outlets for brands like Agnes b and Porter, as well as some eateries (we sampled the solid but unspectacular high tea at the Eslite Tea House). However, its heart is the Eslite Bookstore, spread over four floors, with titles in English and Chinese. It’s an impressive experience, with serious titles, a steady stream of author talks, cooking demonstrations, in store performances and one of the best selections of magazines I have seen in Asia. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Eslite’s flagship store is one of the most impressive bookstores I’ve visited, anywhere in the world.
From there it was back to the hotel for a short rest before hopping a cab to the Ximending shopping district. I’d heard this area really comes alive at night and on an early Saturday evening it was lively indeed. Mainly a clothing, retail and eating district, this place had a youthful, fashionable feel with a lot of smaller retailers. I could have spent the whole night exploring around there, but it was time for dinner!
One thing I was keen to see was Shilin Food Market. Thankfully, for this leg we had a local to guide us around. We headed away from the market itself to one of the adjacent streets where the crowds were thick and slow moving.
Our first stop was the Chicken Slap stand. Chicken Slap is a whole breast of chicken, butterflied, marinated, then dipped in a peppery crumb batter before being deep fried. You pay, get a plastic bag, stand patiently in line (for up to an hour!), collect your chicken quickly and go. The whole experience is somewhat reminiscent of the Soup Nazi episode from Seinfeld. But, the taste is anything but fictional – Chicken Slap deserves to be added to the list of great Chicken dishes!
Next to the Chicken Slap vendor was another stand serving sausages, in fourteen different variations. The sausages were grilled over open coals and when ready, the cook would open a slit in the sausages and fill them, with herbs, sauce, or garlic, depending on your order. We washed the Chicken Slap and grilled sausages down with something called “The Frogs Laying Eggs.” This disturbingly named drink is actually a refreshing, citrusy punch filled with sweet, gelatinous little dumplings.
Across the road there was a simple little restaurant serving only two dishes, one of which was Oyster Omelette (packed full of spring onions). Delightful.
While we were tucking into that our guide came back with some deep fried onion pancakes, with a side deep fried eggs, all washed down with a Taiwan Beer called, Taiwan Beer. By that stage we needed a walk (in the absence of a good lie down) and so we adjourned to the nearby retail market to walk amongst the junk, crowds and arcade games.
Thankfully, I was able to flag my waining energy with a impressive little espresso from the Toraja premium coffee stand. It was reassuring that the propieter had to unlock a small safe to extract the bag of premium beans for my cup which rose to the theatre and triple A billing.
The next morning, after breakfast at Ikari, we headed to the Xinyi District to stand in line for the famous Xiao Long Bao (dumplings) made at the legendary Din Tai Fung restaurant. Well, that was the plan at least. Din Tai Fung is an institution in the Taipei food scene, regarded by many as one of the best dumpling houses in the world (and a storied restaurant connected to the cultural and political history of Taiwan). When we arrived we were told the wait for a table would be seventy minutes. So, we took a number and explored the area. There were some cool retail and clothing stores around, as well as a fantastic corner store selling shaved ice and mango desserts.
As I walked around it struck me that this area was actually attractive. I had the chance to stop in a nearby park, sip a delightful iced lemon tea (Taipei has a lot of great fresh juice and iced tea joints), and survey this neighbourhood. There was low rise housing nestled in amongst retail (a lot of it smaller chains or non-chain), bookstores, music stores, eateries and schools. It wasn’t exactly beautiful and the oppressive humidity was getting to me, but this little corner of Taipei was not without it’s own inviting charm.
Unfortunately, when we ended up having to leave without trying Din Tai Fung’s famous dumplings. All told we waited close to two hours and our number was nowhere near coming up. It was time to pack and head off to the airport.