Prologue: 'There are no ex-bloggers, just lapsed bloggers.' I'm not sure who came up with that quote, but I guess it explains why, after nearly two years of blog-exile, I'm back to do a one-off post on one of the world's great food cities: Taipei. After all, how could I not blog about the home of my beloved Din Tai Fung.
I first visited Din Tai Fung in Shanghai about six years ago. It was love at first bite, and since then I've eaten their acclaimed xiao long bao at branches in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. It'd be fair to say that I've become a bit of an obsessive. So much so I started this blog to campaign for them to open in London. However, despite my fixation, I felt like a fraud, I was like the kind of guy who says he's a big Elvis fan, but has never been to Graceland. Could I actually call myself a true believer if I had never been to the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei?
9.45am. Balls. I'd normally kill for a lie-in on a Saturday, but on this particular morning I wanted to be up early. Din Tai Fung had been open for 45 minutes yet I was still in bed. It was an hour later when I arrived at 194 Xinyi Road Section 2, the site of where Din Tai Fung first opened. Even at 10.45 in the morning there was a queue. The digital indicator said there was a 20 minute wait, but as soon as I got my ticket, the wait increased to an estimated 40 minutes. As it turned out I was seated after about 25 minutes because some idiot unbelievers couldn't be arsed to wait. Their loss, my gain.
I ordered two different kinds of xiao long bao: pork & crab roe and green squash & shrimp. The former is probably my favourite with a healthy amount of crab roe giving it a rich flavour, which made the fresher, cleaner flavours of the green squash a good complement. In case you're wondering green squash is known in Chinese as si gua (絲瓜) which when matured becomes the loofah found in bathrooms all around the world.
I also went for the pork chop with fried rice. It was as I remembered; juicy and succulent with a hint of five-spice from the marinade. The one relative let down were the mini buns, one of which was filled with taro, the other with black sesame. These steamed buns weren't as fluffy as I expected, although both fillings were spot-on.
A few days earlier I went to the branch at the Taipei 101 Mall, literally hours after I arrived in Taiwan. Some of you might find it weird that I didn't go straight to the original restaurant, but I wanted to go there when I wasn't so tired. As it was, the xiao long bao, both the standard pork and the pork and truffle varieties, were top-notch. By the way, I was instructed to eat the pork and truffle xiao long bao without dipping in vinegar or soy. They even gave me an extra spoon to make sure I complied.
I also tried, for the first time, some steamed fish dumplings, which I thoroughly recommend. The chicken noodle soup was, as always, superb with a clear, cleansing quality, although the noodles were a touch overdone for my liking. I could have been disappointed, but I'm pleased to say I wasn't. Incidentally, this branch is very busy, as it's adjacent to the lifts for the observation deck of Taipei 101, which until a few years ago was the tallest building in the world.
If I'm being honest there's not a lot to differentiate the food served in the Taipei restaurants to that which I've eaten in other branches. However, the ambience of the original Xinyi Road restaurant was a cut above, as it had more of an old school feel compared to those branches located in modern shopping malls. Service, too, was superior, with multicultural wait staff who could speak a number of different languages, including English and Cantonese, in addition to Mandarin. All told if you're ever in Taipei a pilgrimage to the original Din Tai Fung is a must.
And for those of you, like me, dreaming of them opening in London, there's some good news. I have heard unconfirmed reports that they will open in the capital by the end of the year (click here - there's a reference to a possible London outlet 30 seconds in).
As much as I love Din Tai Fung, it's not the only good thing about Taipei. Indeed, just around the corner from the Xinyi Street branch is Yongkang Street (永康街), which together with the lanes off it and the streets parallel to it, is a veritable foodie paradise. In no particular order, I saw regional Taiwanese food, dessert houses, Cantonese BBQ, Japanese restaurants, Vietnamese pho, bakeries, street food stalls, and when one gets thirsty, craft beer and proper coffee.
However, for me, the main reason for coming to this part of town is beef noodle soup. I went to two shops: Yongkang Beef Noodle and Lao Zhang Beef Noodle (老張牛肉麵). Of the two I preferred the latter. The beef was more tender and of better quality while the soup had a bit more depth and fire. Moreover, Lao Zhang is a more comfortable restaurant without being more expensive. For those of you who don't like spicy, red-cooked beef soup, there's a clear soup version.
Judging by the queues the biggest draw on Yongkang Street is Smoothie House. If you like mangoes and don't mind queueing then you must come here try the mango snowflake ice. Another popular place is Kao Chi. Some people think this Shanghai-style dim sum restaurant is better than Din Tai Fung. They're wrong. Their xiao long bao, whilst flavoursome, were clumsily constructed with a thick, doughy 'pinch' at the top of the dumpling. And the less said about their attempt at Cantonese dim sum, the better. Mercifully, the meal was saved by their signature shengjian bao; these were better than many I've tried although they fell short of the quality of the very best ones I sampled in Shanghai.
While Yongkang Street is a great place for a food crawl, an even better place for a food crawl is at one of Taipei's many night markets like Raohe Street Night Market (饒河街觀光夜市). This venue is home to a stall that sells what I believe could well be next big thing in street food: Fuzhou black pepper bun (福州胡椒餅). Imagine a bun with a crispy sesame-jewelled outer layer, a flaky inner layer filled with juicy pork and spring onion liberally laced with black pepper. And it's cooked before your very eyes in a tandoor-like oven. This stall can be found at the temple end of the night market. Now that Din Tai Fung might just be opening in London, I'm going to turn my attention to bring these bad boys to blighty.
Other treats at night markets include Taiwanese fried chicken, fish balls on a stick, little sausage covers big sausage, grilled squid, gua bao, various dumplings, soups, noodles and congee as well as more esoteric fare like duck heads! I would have liked to check out more night markets, but I can recommend both of those I went to: Raohe Street Night Market, and the more, relatively speaking, mellow Ningxia Night Market (寧夏夜市).
As fun as night markets are, it's sometimes good to get far from the madding crowd, and seek sanctuary in a nice air conditioned restaurant. Of the restaurants I visited, one stood out as being far and away the best: Shin Yeh in Taipei's swanky Xinyi district. This is the place to check out Taiwanese classics like three-cup chicken, deep-fried oysters, and congee with sweet potato in a dining room reminiscent of Hong Kong's more glamorous Cantonese restaurants.
Otherwise, I was a tad disappointed in some of the Taipei restaurants I went to. They seemed to serve a melange of various Chinese regional cuisines with a few local dishes thrown-in. While the food was decent enough in most instances I couldn't help but feel that this wasn't exactly the best that Taipei could offer. And what is it with 9pm closing? It's like Cinderella's evil stepmother's been put in charge of restaurant opening hours.
Are you still reading this? I know this is a long blog post, but I have been away for nearly two years! Anyway I hope I've piqued your interest in Taipei and Taiwan. If it was closer, Taipei would be my ideal weekend food getaway. As it is, judging by the number of Hong Kong tourists I saw, it would seem to be theirs. If you can't get out to Taipei then there are a few Taiwanese joints in London you could try such as Bao, Old Tree Daiwan Bee and the, relatively venerable, Leong's Legends. Right then, that's the end of my blog comeback. For now.