Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Category: food

Taiwan: Taipei Night Markets

cooking night market

Night markets are likely Taipei’s most iconic attraction, and probably the one most visible to those who have never visited the country before. Food Adventurers like Anthony Bourdain regularly traipse through them with a camera crew following behind, sampling this and that from different carts, beneath a canopy of red-and-yellow lights.

Not that I’m going to be contrary, regardless of my opinion on Xtreme Travel television shows. Taipei night markets are awesome, and the food is unmissable. They’re huge, walking food-courts, and if you do manage to find a place to sit and eat, they provide remarkably pleasing people-watching, with all of Taipei’s different subcultures on display.

All are united by one thing: the desire to eat something inexpensive, tasty, and preferably exceedingly fully-flavored. And they do mean full flavored: as a friend of mine observed to me yesterday, “I think Taipei is the stinkiest city in the world.” (In the good way).

Kids gambling for prizes.

Kids gambling for prizes.

We visited a few different night markets in Taipei but were particularly taken with the Ningxia street variant. It’s an easy stroll from the Shuanglian or Zhongshan MRT stops, and you’ll know it when you see it from the surrounding commotion on any given evening. Friday evening found the place packed face-to-back with strolling, hungry people, perusing the wares from stands that seemed to be intentionally packed uncomfortably close together.

Once you get over the closeness of the situation, you quickly realize that English signage has been provided for your convenience (well, probably), making it a bit easier to determine what you’re actually getting. Not that it’s too important: if it looks good, point at it, pay a rather nominal amount of money, and you’ll be eating it within five minutes.

taiwan oyster pancake

Taiwan has unusually fantastic oysters – tiny and briny, with a delicate texture. It’s considered essentially mandatory to order oyster omelette at the night markets here, which is made with egg, oysters, green onion, and some starch to give the whole affair a characteristically glutinous texture.

making oyster pancke

The starch is tossed into the skillet, the eggs come next, and then come the oysters. It’s all served with a slightly sweet, savory sauce that’s placed on top, and there’s chili sauce on the table. It’s a pleasantly filling and briny comfort food, the sort of thing I wish you could just order ordinarily for breakfast at American diners.

spicy chicken nuggets

They didn’t really look like much, but it turns out that the Taiwanese have, through some dark pact, become some of the finest chicken friers in the world. We were exceedingly impressed with this bag of dark meat chicken nuggets, coated with a pungent dusting of five spice powder, chili, some sugar, and who-knows-what-else. Also keep an eye out for fried Taiwanese chicken served with a distinctive vinegar sauce, an elegant combination of flavors.

sea urchins

Seafood is an immense draw at the nightmarkets, with great assortments of prawns, lobsters, sea urchins, and oysters large and small displayed on ice and ready for grilling or stir-frying.

grilling scallops

It’s beautiful, fresh seafood that would be the envy of any locavore snob with a fixed gear bicycle in San Francisco. (Taiwan, of course, has its own complement of people with ironic facial hair who ride fixies and have very strong opinions about food.)

squid stands alone

Both squid and chicken cutlets are flattened to remarkable dimensions and flash-fried here, providing one with a conveniently hand-held slab of protein custom built for walking around and looking at things. Sitting while eating is not considered particularly important in Taiwan.

stir frying

We also tried the “aboriginal style pork sausage,” which tasted pretty much like a standard Asian style sweet sausage but was quite tasty. Beyond that, we simply wandered around taking in the energy of the place, and enjoying the photographic potential one is accorded by a place with a whole lot of different kinds of lighting.

Night time in Taipei.

Night time in Taipei.

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Today I Went to Taiwan

chiang kai-shek memorial

On Monday, I arrived in Taipei.

I have gone through the airport in Taiwan many times on the way to Phnom Penh, because it’s a convenient Eva air hub and a nice place to get noodles and beer as you await onward transit. But I had always wanted to properly visit Taiwan, bolstered as I was by collective family memories of visits back in the seventies, where one could gaze upon things like magnificent horse scrolls and a giant jade cabbage.

“The Kuomintang took all the good stuff from the Forbidden City and brought it here ahead of the Communists,” my mother explained. That was a good enough reason to visit the country in itself. I was planning to return to Asia at the first opportunity after I graduated from Stanford, and my planned return coincided neatly with a business trip my father was taking in Taipei. I decided to meet him here. And here I am.

Changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall.

Changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall.

My first impressions of Taiwan, thus far: the drive in from the airport encompassed tons of healthy-looking greenery and clean blue skies, a far cry from the dystopian misery of most city-approaches from Asian airports. Everyone was following traffic rules. I immediately wondered if I had even returned to Asia at all.

I fetched up at the hotel and woke up my dad, and — thanks to a surprisingly pleasant plane ride — I was ready to go and tourist within an hour or so. We headed to the MRT station, wrestled briefly with the go-card machines, and boarded the trains. Predictably, for a first world Asian city, they were clean and well-marked and pleasant, and put the San Francisco Bay Area BART system to such earth-shattering shame that the two barely belong in the same sentence. (Such is the pace of development).

Chiang Kai-shek looking benevolent.

Chiang Kai-shek looking benevolent.

We headed for the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall first, a few train stops away from our hotel. First opening in 1980 to commemorate the 1975 death of the Kuomintang leader, the Hall sits in an immense space that was (we were told) built over existing military property. In the modern era, the space was used for pro-democracy protests, and is now a popular tourist attraction that reminds one very much of the Lincoln Memorial if you squint a bit. This was intentional.

We watched the Changing of the Guard, along with dozens of aggressively photographically inclined Chinese tourists, then descended the stairs to the museum which described Chiang Kai-Shek’s life and times, from his calligraphy to his evening slippers.

It's quite the likeness.

It’s quite the likeness.

We chatted with a friendly English-speaking docent as we admired a replica of Chiang Kai-shek’s office, complete with a figure of the great man himself in wax. She described to us how roughly 40 percent of the Taiwanese population (in her estimation) absolutely prefers to be separate from China in all things, while the others are more on the fence. She also mentioned she had lived in San Jose for a decade, and I said I’d just got a masters from Stanford, to which she responded with a sharp, amused bow. “Do you know the Stanford shopping center?” she said. “That’s my very favorite.”

The docent had told us where to go to get good beef noodles and we dutifully walked out of the monument and through the streets to get there. Taipei’s streets are clean, walkable, and bizarrely quiet on a Monday afternoon, with almost none of the murderous motorbike or truck drivers I’ve become accustomed to in most Asian cities. It was hot and sticky, but we encountered regular gusts of cool air from the storefronts we passed.

Beef noodle storefront for future reference.

Beef noodle storefront for future reference.

I’ve always enjoyed Taiwanese beef noodles and this place was a good representative of the species – “Pot roast with noodles,” my dad observed, approvingly, as we dug in. We also ordered steamed spareribs with a tasty, spicy rice topping, and sampled a few of the side dishes displayed on the side.

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The setup is rather like Korean banchan, except that you point at what you want and a harried looking young man delivers the side-dish to the table. The best of these was the delicate, marinated eggplant..

Commit this storefront in Taipei to memory because the food was stellar.

Commit this storefront in Taipei to memory because the food was stellar.

We walked back to the hotel to make Dad’s meeting, and I spent most of the afternoon working and watching a truly impressive tropical rainstorm blow in over the city — something, I realized, I’d missed in the benign climes of northern California.
For dinner, one of Dad’s friends — a Taipei native — led us to one of his favorite restaurants in the neighborhood of our hotel, which had no English signage but which he informed me translated pretty much into “The Freshest Taste.”

Grim spectacle (that's a lie).

Grim spectacle (that’s a lie).

This was one of those delightful Asian beer-swilling joints with stools and an open front to the outside, where a somewhat desperate looking girl in an Asahi beer dress tried (without success) to sway us from the local Taiwan beer. The restaurant had a check-it-off menu of small plates, and the setup was very much like a Taiwanese variant on a tapas bar.
The food was absolutely superb, and we tried roughly a dozen dishes, which came out quickly and were summarily removed as we devoured them.

raw clams

Raw clams – amazing.

My favorites included braised tofu with oysters and black beans and chives in a delicate, sea-water infused sauce, fried and sliced tripe with peanuts and chili in the Kung Pao style, marinated raw clams of tiny dimensions and immensely subtle flavor, and flash-fried chicken with a light crumb batter and a vinegar sauce on bottom.

Braised baby squid.

Braised baby squid.

But it was all excellent — even the stinky tofu, although I continue to be unable to fully get on board with eating chicken blood. (Shame – a great source of iron).  Below is an exhaustive gallery of all the things we ate.


I ended the evening at one of the night markets, which was approximately like every other night market in Asia, except with many more shops selling toys in capsules. Taiwanese youth culture is very much like our own, with hordes of kids out late on a summer Monday night perusing shirts that featured things like Mickey Mouse giving the audience the finger and the characters from Adventure Time.

Capsule toy hell.

Capsule toy hell.

Of most interest were the food stalls, where people gamely queued up to buy chicken schnitzels as large as their heads, fried potato chips cut into patterns and mounted on a stick, and endless variations on the theme of sweetened grass jelly (marked with frogs here). I even walked by a Chipotle knock-off, titled California Burrito.

Watch palooza.

Watch palooza.

Somewhat dazzled by the sheer variety of Taiwanese youth culture and the vague feeling I was both too uncool and too jet-lagged to fully participate, I found myself a cab and returned to the hotel. Typically for Taipei, the cabbie was polite and turned on the meter immediately without being asked — a far cry from the bickering that ensues over such matters in many other cities. Thus far? I like this place.

Alley shopping.

Alley shopping.

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Korean Food at Myung Dong Tofu Cabin – San Mateo, California

Myung Dong Tofu Cabin
2968 S Norfolk St, San Mateo, CA 94403
(650) 525-1484
Website

tofu cabin pork stew

Pork and kimchi stew.

I love California strip malls. Well, allow me modify that: strip malls of a particular variety and tone. The sort I’m talking about aren’t populated with dollar stores and sporting goods marts. The sort of strip mall I like functions as a small oasis of excellent Asian food, where multiple Asian restaurants cluster together, seemingly for protection — the equivalent of small natural bastions of biodiversity.

The excellent Myung Dong Tofu Cabin sits in one of these Asian food gallerias, next to a Chinese bakery and a pho shop. Owned and operated by a small crew of middle-aged women, the delightfully named Tofu Cabin specializes in Korean home-cooking, with a couple of DIY BBQ tables for those feeling fancy.

At this home-cooking — the heart and soul of Korean cuisine, if you ask me – this place absolutely excels. With lower prices by a buck or two than the other Korean restaurants I’ve found in the Peninsula, I believe I’ve found my new standby.

pork bbq myung dong

Spicy BBQ pork.

I’m usually a bit ambivalent to SoonDooBoo, perhaps because it’s often rather uninspired. The soondooboo here was a molten, flavorful, slightly creamy brew, with bits of beef. They took us seriously when we said “spicy.” My sinuses were rendered as open as the Panama Canal.  Pork BBQ was the right kind of greasy and exceedingly prolific in the full portion, with a potent dose of red pepper and sliced jalapeno. It was particularly good in a fresh lettuce wrap with some kimchi and a bit of hot sauce.

Seafood dolsot bibimbap was also excellent, served in a very large black stone cauldron, and filled with shrimp and squid. I was less impressed with the kimchi ji gae (pork and kimchi stew), which definitely featured far more kimchi than it did slices of pork belly.

banchan tofu cabin

The banchan selection is fresh, if slightly austere, and by austere I think I actually mean “healthy.” (Where’s my mayonnaise drenched noodle salad?) Sweet black beans are a rare site on these spreads in recent years. Still, where’s the tiny fish with equally tiny eyeballs? They defined my childhood. The kimchi is excellent. A Korean restaurant rises and falls upon the virtue of its kimchi.

Service is friendly and homey, and the food comes out pleasingly quickly. Free green tea and the correct kind of purple rice. I’ll be back, probably over and over and over. Korean food has a peculiar addictive quality for me, a Proustian madeline.

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Huong Lan Sandwich – San Jose, California

Huong Lan Sandwich
1655 Tully Road
San Jose, California

huong lan sandwiches

It’s hard not to love banh mi, as any Californian with sense will inform you. I tend to subsist almost exclusively on these sandwiches when actually in Vietnam, enjoying both the comically low price point and the delightfully variable flavor — every small stand manned by elderly women, turning out ever-so-slightly different variants on the theme.

BBQ pork, chicken, pate, mysterious but tasty headcheeses, served with mayonnaise and pickled vegetables and even, at times, some of that curiously unperishable Laughing Cow cheese. Chili sauce and fried shallots and jalapeno, and (if lucky), a bit of hot left-over juice from sauteed pork. I’ll eat it all. Happily.

You can get good banh mi in America, of course. Anywhere with a large Vietnamese population will inevitably have a clutch of banh mi shops, which fill the ecological niche of Subway with both style and considerable thrift.

huong lan interior

Huong Lan, in San Jose’s Little Saigon, is one of those sandwich-and-deli shops that I grew up with, and of which you know the type if you grew up in an area with a Vietnamese population. There’s a wide selection of prepared Vietnamese food, including Hue style rice cakes (banh cuon, et al), a profusion of spring roll varieties, and noodle bowls. There’s a hot fast food bar that offers rice plates on the go, with freshly fried spring rolls and catfish claypots covered with shrink wrap. There’s also a counter offering fresh BBQ meats. I was able to pick up some MSG saturated and delightfully nostalgic fried seaweed snacks, which made me happy. Curiously — I couldn’t find any fish sauce, although they did have shrimp paste.

huong lan banh mi

The sandwich was only OK, I’m a bit sad to report. It was lacking some sort of special oomph. The bread wasn’t warmed up and was not quite shatter-y enough, and that, in my mind, makes all the difference. Further, the fillings were a bit inadequate in volume. I like a good banh mi to make an intolerable mess of any surface I’m eating it over. What was there, however, was good: BBQ pork was given a garnish of peanuts and fried shallots, which added some earthy, oily crunch. For $3, I can accept an unremarkable sandwich.

huong lan meat

The real appeal at Huong Lan, then, is the counter serving up BBQ pork, duck, and chicken. Crispy slabs of pork with crackling still on. BBQ ducks, noisily chopped up on a big wooden block. I chose soy-sauce chicken, which cost me a little less than $5 for a pound, and was delightfully tender and flavorful. Why bother with those morose rotisserie chickens from Safeway? Here, they’ll even throw in the feet.

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Pancho Villa Taqueria – San Francisco

Pancho Villa Taqueria
3071 16th St, San Francisco
(415) 864-8840
Website

Whenever someone comes to visit me in the Bay Area, I am duty-bound to drag them to a taqeuria at least once. Decent tacos are one of the birth-rights of the Bay, up there with eery white Google buses, microclimates, and people who want to tell you about their IPO. Meanwhile, the majority of the US is a filthy taco-free desert, hostile to both civilized human life and actual flavor. So when my college friend Raj stopped by for a few days, we headed to San Francisco, with a taqueria stop built in — near the MIssion and 16th BART station.

pancho villa inside

I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t go to San Franscisco that much, although I do attend Stanford and could theoretically be spending more time there. Possibly because driving through the city during traffic hours is sort of like traversing a Hieronymous Bosch painting with the added risk of mowing down a tech hipster with an astounding litigation budget. Regardless, I figured we could probably find a good taqueria somewhere in the neighborhood, and we did: enter Pancho Villa, up the street a block from Hoff.

Long lines, even at 1:30 PM on a Friday, but no matter. The first thing I noticed was the seafood selection, and not the usual deep-fried and yawningly pedestrian stuff, either: red snapper, grilled salmon, and hot and spicy prawns. No cabeza (beef head), which is somewhat disappointing if you’re into the macabre and delightfully fatty,  but they do have lengua. B+.

You order your food from a slightly harried looking attendant and move up to the line to pay, walking past an impressive display of Jarritos and freshly-made Aguas Frescas in large jars. Prices in this competitive bit of town are good, with a massive plate of shrimp with black beans, rice, and fresh avocado retailing for a mere $10.25, and containing enough calories to fuel you for a weekend or two.

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 12.29.50 AM

The real allure of Pancho Villa is the incredible salsa bar, which is a rainbow-colored array of chile pepper confections, reminiscent of my absolute favorite kind of vegetable-powered candy shop. They’re not shy about this, this profusion of salsas: they’ve won multiple state fair prizes for these things.

I was particularly taken with the neon orange mango and chile salsa, which had a creamy texture and a slightly sweet bite. Also excellent was roasted green chili salsa, as well as creamy avocado. You could, if you were feeling frugal and a bit douchey, make an interesting meal out of just fresh-cooked tortilla chips, guacamole, and a veritable bucket of salsa here.

spread colorful panchovilla

Hot and spicy shrimp was truly excellent. Most Mexican restaurants just simmer shrimp in sauce, but here, medium-sized shrimp with the shell on appear to have been pan-fried then tossed with a smoky, pleasingly spicy sauce with both pureed and dried chili, as well as mushrooms, onion, and green pepper. None of the cloying sweetness of some camaraone ala diabla treatments, and definitely hot enough to wake you up if you’re feeling sort of boring and languid.

The shrimp were served with non-greasy black beans and sliced avocado, and perfectly accompanied with (extra charge) cebollitas, grilled green onions. I’d come back for this. And maybe try the tacos next time.

The clientele at Pancho Villa, like most places in this district, is aggressively Tech Bro — a sociological quirk that allows for great people-viewing if you have visitors in town.  We got to overhear a conversation between two very intense men in pinstripes at the table next to us. “You’ve got to let me know if you’re ready to make it big. To really GO for this,” one  man said, in between bites of a burrito. The other nodded quietly. “This could be IT,” the noisier one said, speaking as if about an apocalypse instead of what was probably a Highly Disruptive App.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged female marachi singer with a truly impressive, masculine baritone roamed the tables. I gave her a dollar, which she received in a pink gift bag. She smiled winningly at me, and moved on.

Pancho Villa: authentic (to San Francisco) in all ways.

 

 

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