Two Days of Noodles, Dumplings, and More Dough in Taipei
To qualify for a visa waiver for my trip to Xi’an, I’d need to fly in from one foreign city and out to another without ever touching down elsewhere in China. Using frequent flyer miles, I’d knew I’d fly home to Seattle via Seoul. Since I’d be in Tokyo prior to Xi’an, my only option using miles meant transferring planes in Taipei, which China fortunately doesn’t claim as its own—at least in this respect.
Well, if I have to fly through Taipei, why not stay in Taipei? It’s a fun food city, and having been before, I know people there, so I figured a two-night stay would be enjoyable. When the W Taipei (see some photos of this gorgeous property and its gorgeous food later in this post) agreed to host me at their hotel, I was excited about this Anthony Bourdain-like layover.
But what to eat, and where? My last visit was in 2008, and since then my love of niu rou mian (beef noodle soup) has grown exponentially, so I wanted to compare what’s popular in Taipei to the version I make at home. And as a fan of xiao long bao (soup dumplings, though some call them buns) and other dumplings, these would be a must as well. Noodles, dumplings, and other doughy items would be my priority for my brief two-day stay.
It was a joy to fly from Haneda (instead of the distant Narita) to Songshan (instead of Taoyuan), as Songshan is so centrally located. (More on my flight at the end of this post.) Within minutes, I was out the front door of the airport and headed down to the tracks of the MRT station. Three stops, transfer, three more stops, and then after walking through the cosmetics department of the Hankyu Department Store, I was in the W Taipei.
No time to unpack, though, as with only 48 hours on the ground, I was backtracking three stops to the Zhongxiao Fuxing stop to meet a former Serious Eats colleague at Dian Shui Lou for the first half of lunch. If I’d not taken time to drop my bags at the hotel, I could have been eating good quality xiao long bao mere minutes after landing! We ordered a few baskets of Shanghainese treats (the pork with basil xiao long bao were especially interesting to try), and then we took a short walk for part two of lunch.
Lin Dong Fang’s beef noodle soup (about $7) falls somewhere between qingdun (featuring a clear broth) and my preferred hong shao that’s a spicier red braised version. Two things make it stand out. First, you can get a small bowl if you can’t commit to the full portion. (I couldn’t resist eating a big bowl.) Second, each table has a container of “beef butter” (a concoction that seems to contain chili oil and beef marrow/fat) so you can further spice up the bowl. The soup is a little clearer than I like, but high quality, and I enjoyed alternating between bites of shank and tendon—which was rich and filling. (Oh, a third point: Lin Dong Fang is open as late as 5am.)
Back to the hotel for a refreshing 5BEER (W Taipei’s own beer, which is double fermented) at the Woobar, followed by a short rest, and then it was back to the streets for more eating. I met friends for a soup dumpling comparison at Shengyuan and Hang Zhou, both located near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (which I didn’t see this time, just as I didn’t do anything touristy in Taipei other than walk through some streets). Shengyuan’s xiao long bao were good but not amazing; better was the pancake with jujube paste (zhaoni) which would be a teaser for one of my favorite things to eat in all of Taipei (tomorrow). Around the corner, Hang Zhou’s xiao long bao were a notch better with thinner wrappers and more flavorful filling, and the version with luffa squash were also worth a try (but not nearly as satisfying as the simple pork type).
From this pair of dumpling restaurants, feeling full, we took a taxi to the Gongguan area, known for its small night market (and National Taiwan University). But we were here for other reasons: the across-the-street-from-each-other Lan Family Bun and Chen San Ding. We jumped at the chance to jump in the tiny line at Chen San Ding, which is usually far more crowded. The name translates to “frog hits milk” because the tapioca balls resemble frog eggs and there’s actually no tea in this “bubble tea’’—just fresh milk. The tapioca balls steep in brown sugar (there’s almost a caramelized sweetness), making this a sweet treat.
From “frog hits milk” it was time for gua bao or hu yao zhu, which translates to “tiger bites pig.” The Chinese hamburger known as gua bao is made with mantou, a steamed bun which when sliced and stuffed with pork belly looks like the mouth of a tiger biting a pig. At Lan Family Bun, you get a choice of desired pork fattiness, with oily content countered by the addition of preserved mustard greens. Watching the fast assembly is almost as much fun as eating the delicious gua bao:
After a day of “glutton eats food,” it was back to the hotel for “man hits pillow.”
The next morning, I entertained thoughts of a traditional Taiwanese breakfast, but slept a little late and decided to save stomach space for my lunch at the hotel. The W Taipei’s YEN would provide tremendous contrast to the casual eating experiences of the rest of my time in the city. YEN is classy (the private dining rooms are especially stunning, and I can see them being popular for casual to formal affairs) with interesting artwork and attentive service, and the food is quite refined with both traditional and modern interpretations of popular Chinese dishes.
I came expecting only to nibble, but was so impressed with the food that I ate quite voraciously. From the standard-bearer har gow to the east-meets-west turnip shreds with cheese to the whimsical “mushroom” dessert, lunch was a delightful experience. A meal is certainly more expensive than street eats, but a worthy indulgence. As part of lunch, I simply had to sample the hotel’s version of beef noodle soup (about $15). It’s a refined version made with high quality ingredients, reflected in the meat, broth, and noodles. Some would say it lacks just a little of the “soul” you find in the beef noodle soup on the street, but it was truly delicious.
A fine example of that soul would be in the bowl I’d later eat at the “nameless” Taoyuan Street Beef Noodles restaurant. Here I’d have my preferred style of beef noodle soup: red-braised beef with a hearty, spicy stock and soft, chewy noodles. Simple, cheap, and inspiring.
From this “snack,” I’d next meet a different set of friends at Jin Din Rou. I’d been looking forward to Jin Din Rou for two reasons. First, in the past, I proclaimed theirs to be my favorite xiao long bao in Taipei. (The dumpling skins were not quite as thin as at Din Tai Fung, but they were close, and the broth was better.) Second, Jin Din Rou was the home of my beloved jujube paste dumplings, with a flavor that reminds me of sour plum. They’re savory-like sweet and unique, as I have never found them anywhere else.
Maybe something strange happened amidst the chaos of meeting a group of nine people, but when the double basket of xiao long bao arrived, I did a double-take. They looked…wrong. And while soupy inside, they were far from what I remember them to be. (As with Din Tai Fung in Seattle, the tall shrimp shumai were better.) Interestingly, I’d been asking people in Taipei about Jin Din Rou, and almost nobody had heard of it, while those who had said it had declined in quality. Luckily, the jujube dumplings were as delicious as in previous years.
My final request for the trip was a visit to the Raohe Street Night Market. But my friends suggested we first make a stop at the Liaoning Night Market, en route, for some pork liver and kidney soup. No need to twist my arm to make that happen!
Finally we made our way to Raohe, where I expected a line for the famous black pepper buns, but got one without any wait. The bun itself was crispy and chewy, and inside were green onions and a glob of pork that’s truly peppery. A bit oily, but delicious. Here’s a look at the production:
After this, we walked the length of the market. Stuffed, I didn’t sample much, but was especially happy to try the ice cream crepe filled with peanut “brittle” shavings and cilantro before calling it a night.
The next morning, moments before checking out, I asked if there were any “old” parts of Taipei in the shadow of the hotel. When I explained that I wanted my final breakfast to be from a street vendor, the clerk pointed me to a couple of rows of older houses across the street. I rushed over, and as luck would have it, I found a woman making fan tuan (sticky rice rolls) with various fillings on a street corner.
Back at the hotel, rejecting a suggested taxi ride, I made my way to the City Hall Bus Station, anticipating my next flight. While I knew it wouldn’t be a Hello Kitty plane (continue on for some “cutesy” photos), I smiled with appreciation of my brief time in Taiwan as a “gateway” to the (tasty) chaos that would come in China.
Thanks to the nice folks at the W Taipei for hosting me for two nights at the hotel, and for inviting me to join them for a delicious dim sum meal. To learn local recommendations of a “W Insider,” read my interview of W Taipei’s Joyce Hsu. And here’s a look at the property (these photos are courtesy of W Taipei):
And, finally, for my transportation to Taipei: