Let’s just say nearly everything is pretty darn delicious. And one of the better parts is that there was a lot of it to go around. The portion sizes are magnificent. Let’s start with the absolute highlight; soup dumplings. This was a repeat from Beijing, but this is a food that is worth repeating. It is very much what it sounds like, a dumpling with soup inside, and it is exquisite. We went to a world famous restaurant for it, and thankfully with all its locations so can you. For the stateside locations check the website, http://www.dintaifungusa.com. The soup dumplings were the highlights, but the gyoza, beef noodle soup, even the green onion tasted like it was soaked in pure awesome before hitting our table.
That meal was certainly the one to beat, but others did not disappoint. The waffles that we had after our walk along the trail of tea was quite nice. Although the way the service is set up left a bit to be desired. We walked into the restaurant and choose where we want to sit (outside in the covered cabanna). We walk there, sit down and wait… and wait. Finally we have to flag a waitress down, who tells us that we order and pay at the front, so I’m left wondering why the woman at the front let us walk away in the first place. We order the strawberry waffles, but they have no more strawberries so, instead, we opt for the fruit. Still yummy. We also get some kind of mango concoction, the name doesn’t really give much of an idea, but then the woman tells us for the mango extravaganza its a minimum 30 minute wait. This leaves me wondering if they are running up the mountain to go pick mangos. But its a beautiful day and we go for it.
The waffles were worth the wait, and it turns out it really was just a mango smoothie, but it was quite fresh. But the food is hardly my fondest memory of this restaurant. I enjoyed the bathroom confusion. To find the restroom, I had to walk upstairs into what was starting to feel like an apartment building. I see two doors with a Kanji sign on them that I assume must be the ‘stalls’. Both were locked so I walk around this corner where I assume more ‘stalls’ should be. Turned out to be an occupied outdoor urinal. To have that make sense, it is literally a urinal tucked into the corner at the end of a hall, where one side overlooks the street and the other side are random doors and a urinal. Well, I back away from the guy using the urinal and wait for a bathroom to open up to no avail. I see another door with a washing machine, and look in there and see a toilet. As I look around I also see women’s laundry hung around the small room and feel ultra weird, like I just walked into a strangers’ bathroom and used it. When I leave the bathroom, suddenly the entire ground is covered with water and I see someone carrying a bucket to one of the stalls that had been locked while I waited. What happened within the two minutes that I was using that strangers potentially personal bathroom. I leapt over most of the water, made my way back to the restaurant and enjoyed my food, but that was a fun few minutes of utter confusion.
Random street food also made the food awesome. Like the tapioca that was fresh and hot. Or the weird thing called frog eggs that was actually just some kind of lime gelatin thing. The boiled eggs soaked in some kind of flavoring were very nice, and the cruller served with a fairly giant cup of almond milk. Or just the meal of mountain vegetables. It all started to feel like, I could live there and consume this food for about a year and a half before I would crave something else.
My second favorite food, which was not necessarily second by taste but by how much fun I had eating it was the mango ice. It is very much what it sounds like, a massive pile of shaved ice, topped with mango chunks in mango syrup and a scoop of mango ice cream. But we got half mango/half strawberry. The strawberry side was maybe the more laughable side, maybe the whole of Taiwan was going through a strawberry shortage because it was really the shaved ice, with strawberry jam caked on top with possibly one fresh strawberry cut into four pieces. When the ice was still frozen it was a nice treat, as it started melting, it certainly became easier to eat for my cold sensitive teeth. But looking at it, it started looking sadder and sadder as I realized that I was eating a giant bowl of icy water with strawberry jam stirred in. I had the realization that if I were a child and my mother had served this to me, I would end up asking, ‘Mommy, are we poor? Is that why we are eating water and jam soup while everyone is having ice cream?’ I cracked up, and yet I kept eating because it really was tasty and the only acceptable way to scoop up pretty much an entire spoon of straight jam without being really depressing.
The soupy jam jokes were awesome, but the bit of Taiwanese soap opera playing on tv was even better. Now it was all in Chinese, so I can’t be sure if the story that Hamish and I made up was correct, but I think we had the gist. A girl was falling out of the good graces of her father, so he had no choice but to beat her with a sword, and she had no choice, but to cry, stand still, continue being beat, and then be locked out of the same house crying on the doorstep. Naturally we came to the conclusion that the fall out was her inability to be a good spy, which she would set out to do in the next episode.
The stinky tofu. First, I should admit that I did not have the heart to try it. I had every intention of trying it before I got there, it was going to be my challenge. I had been warned, but I thought I would be able to accept it. But when I was confronted with just passing the restaurant I almost choked on the smell, before I even knew what it was. That’s when Hamish, my travel partner, pointed out that what I was experiencing was the aroma of the stinky tofu. The way it was explained to me is probably the most eloquent and honest way to say it. It smells like someone shit in a wok and stir fried it. Walking past it, you think, where is this foul bathroom and how to I escape it. That people actually eat it happily is a mystery on the same level of the disappearance of Atlantis.
Now that is the nastiness to beat, but there was really only one other food-related disappointment. The first night we went on a massive hunt for a restaurant. It was certainly that circumstance where you have your heart set on something and it’s nowhere to be found, but the moment you give up, it materializes. We spend the better part of two hours just looking for some quality Taiwanese food. And finally, when we resign ourselves to just eat anything we run into a place. We have our first soup dumplings of the vacation. They were good, but just not on the same level as Din Tai Fung. The rest of the food was good, but not amazing, then we get this chicken hotpot. It’s chicken boiled in a clay pot with onions, garlic, peppers and lots of other strongly flavored vegetables. Sadly, somehow it was an experience of all those positives equalling a negative. It wasn’t bad, just bland. Which was ultimately sad because I was expecting so much from it. But that was hardly enough to sully my experience with Taiwanese food. On the whole, it was something that could bring me back to Taiwan and that is high praise.