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.

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.