There are two rules I follow when traveling: If your taxi driver suggests a cool local spot, listen to him. And if you see a line of locals outside an eatery, go there.
On a recent visit to Taipei, Taiwan, these rules led me to some truly revelatory food experiences as I sampled everything from hot pots at a white tablecloth restaurant to street carts serving food on skewers.
Thanks to its history and location, Taiwan offers a great overview of Chinese cuisine, from fiery Sichuan to Shanghai dumplings to Cantonese, the most familiar to Western palates. There are also Japanese influences with miso and ramen, and snacks purely associated with Taiwan. Even with all of these choices, you can eat well in Taipei on less than $10 a day.
Every Taiwan travel guide praises Din Tai Fung, a Michelin-starred dumpling restaurant with outposts in Japan, China, Australia, Washington and California. The restaurant opened in Taipei in 1974, and its five Taipei locations remain perpetually crowded. Push through to grab a menu, because you order before you're seated. As you wait, you can watch dumpling makers roll, cut and fold dough through the steamy front window.
Xiao long bao is Din Tai Fung's most famous dish. When the bao arrive, dip one into a mixture of soy sauce, red vinegar and strips of ginger, then place the dumpling into the spoon and poke the delicate wrapper with your chopstick. The broth inside floods out and mingles with the sauce. The spicy shrimp and pork wontons also are a must-order; the thinly wrapped wontons are bathed in a sauce of chilies, scallions and garlic. Spicy without being overwhelming, the sauce simmers in the back of your throat and warms your lips.
A steady drizzle another night meant abandoning plans for a night market; instead I grabbed my umbrella and hoped I could find dinner close to my hotel. Two blocks away I stumbled upon a noodle stall and went home with a steaming bowl of noodles, a side of freshly wilted ong choy with a dollop of garlic sauce, and milk tea. The soup brimmed with soft noodles, bok choy, scallions, egg and thin shards of beef. Noodle stalls are common and serve all day, so you won't look hard to find an equally satisfying bowl. The meal cost the equivalent of $2.
Shilin Night Market, an energetic convergence of food carts and clothing stalls at Jiantan Station, didn't disappoint. The market, packed when I arrived before 6 p.m., includes a covered hall of food stalls, but my taxi driver pointed me toward a line of food carts snaking down a side street. "This is a great area for food," he said.
It was. One cart served skewers of tiny grilled quail eggs that were dusted with spices. There also was tofu, which gets a bad rap for its unpleasant smell. Fermented blocks of soybean curd are fried, coated in a sweet-and-sour sauce, split down the middle and filled with pickled cabbage. The taste is unexpectedly mild, and the reward for overlooking the smell is a soft interior and crunchy cabbage.
I looked for the biggest line and joined it, not even sure what was for sale. I watched the cook crack eggs into a big, steaming bowl, then fish out something hand-sized with tongs. When it was my turn, I was presented with my favorite snack of the night: a fried scallion pancake topped with an egg and smothered in garlic sauce. I ended up covered in sticky brown sauce as I bit into the dense pancake and soft egg.
White rice balls filled with peanuts and sugar were a sweet way to end my market dinner. But heading back for a taxi, there was one more to try: takoyaki, which are soft balls of dough that yield to a nugget of octopus in the center. Topped with wasabi sauce and bonito flakes, takoyaki are sweet, salty and spicy.
I left the market wishing I had more time to plumb its treasures. I missed oyster pancakes and mango-topped crushed ice. But locals always return, and I like to imagine I'll be back to experience more of the harmonious flavors, and the simple, yet delicious, dishes Taipei has to offer.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times