Taipei Takeover: Banking with Dinosaurs (Thoughts on a City)

It's hard to put my finger on what I liked so much about Taipei. I can tell you why I love Tokyo or why Beijing really didn't do it for me or why my feelings about Seoul ping pong all over the place. The city itself isn't attractive, it doesn't have the cared for look of Tokyo or the futuristic gilt of Seoul. Like Beijing, mopeds are so numerous it seems like you're always in the middle of a scooter gang. But there's something quite literally in the air in Taipei that makes me immediately more relaxed. As a lifetime coastal dweller, I can appreciate the beauty of the ring of mountains around Seoul but they make me feel as trapped as the stagnant air that often layers on top of the city. I know I'm on a peninsula but why can't I feel the ocean?

Taipei though... Taipei the air moves. The damp chill is familiar and even the buckets of sixty degree rain feel right. While we rode in a taxi from the airport to downtown Taipei, I could let the trees blur and the wide freeway alternating between green hills and city buildings could have easily been in the Bay Area instead. People walk slow, like they do on the West Coast too, I never have been a slow walker so maybe this is my one complaint about Taipei.

The first evening we were in Taipei, a warmish Saturday night, we rounded a corner and almost ran into a group of teenagers screaming and laughing and I was so startled realizing the only time I see kids the same age in Seoul is if I ride the bus immediately after class gets out. Sure, I see toddlers in the park and let them pet our dogs all the time but I don't know the last time I saw teenagers having fun.

In Seoul the buildings are shiny on the outside but built quickly and on the inside there are cracks. In our own apartment, behind its giant gold door, we never know which bathroom lights are going to work and one time our door knob spontaneously combusted. We have a huge jacuzzi tub but the two times I've used it I've listened to the pipes burbling for days wondering if at any moment sewage would be coming back up (a real thing our dogsitter had to deal with once while we were out of town). In the news you read about new towers with cracks in the foundation or aquariums that leak. Rome may not have been built in a day but there's a good chance the current version of your neighborhood in Seoul was.

Taipei might be uglier but at least it seems honest.

 Land Bank Evolution Museum, Taipei Taiwan

One morning we walked in the rain to the Taipei Miniature Museum (there is also a Miniature Museum of Taipei) only to find a note taped on the door saying it was closed for two days. We shifted our plans and found ourselves at the 100+ year old National Taiwan Museum wandering through a self described maze analyzing the effect of capitalism on the landscape of Taipei. It ended in a room with a cloud symbolizing The Cloud from which we all access information. Then we walked through another floor with extremely dated dioramas of Taiwan's flora and fauna. Taiwan has had its own problems with maybe bulldozing too much of the old in the name of the new but now instead of a constant battle, the two seem to exist in a comfortable truce.

Across from (but part of) the National Museum is the Land Bank Exhibition Hall. One side of this building is filled with information dense displays about evolution followed by a huge hall of dinosaurs and other creatures (but mostly dinosaurs). The other side of the building is actually in a two story bank vault and discusses the evolution of the banking system in Taiwan. Even to my much more business minded husband, the information on the banking side was boring and repetitive but we both agreed walking through the aisles of a bank vault was cool. I suspect Dan could've spent hours looking a the exposed mechanisms of the bank vault door.

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One morning we went to the National Palace Museum but elbowing through endless tour groups to look at 100 different bronze mirrors didn't do it for us. It's not that I can't appreciate a few cool bronze mirrors or calligraphy sets or celadon plates but that I don't have the patience to be trapped between waves of people in a room full of only that. I'll take the less visited dinosaur bones and a bank vault full of adding machines.

After the Evolution Museum we walked through the 2/28 Peace Park on a hunt for bubble tea. The well tended parks in Seoul are one of the things I like most about the city. In Taipei the parks have more pavement but the trees seem to grow wild.

We continued in search of the nearest Chun Shui Tang (the original maker of bubble tea), not realizing the location I had marked was beneath the National Theater in Liberty Square. We walked a few circles around the slippery bricks before heading under the stairs and being guided to a table where we received a menu slip to fill out. Foolishly, still full from our Sichuan lunch, we each chose to get a medium bubble tea. Dan got classic black milk tea and I got jasmine. We had spent a lot of the day walking in the rain so we also ordered a plate of green tea cookies, content to stay inside and take a break for a while.

Our trudge through the rain was rewarded with glasses of bubble tea bigger than our face and a plate piled with rich, buttery green tea cookies. The milk tea at Chun Shui Tang is unsweetened and the pearls are small and chewy. I prefer my bubble tea on the less sweet side but the pearls here also taste completely unsweetened and I had enjoyed my cup of Happy Lemon bubble tea, purchased at the Taipei 101 food court the night before, more. Maybe sacrilege. But maybe the original just isn't always the best. The teahouse was relaxing and dry though and by the time we drained our huge glasses and conquered the mountain of cookies, we were ready to go back out into the world.

Or at least to the subway that would take us to hot showers and dry socks.

The National Taiwan Museum and Land Bank Exhibition Hall are open Tues-Sun 9:30-5:00pm and admission is a whopping TWD $30 (USD $1.00) for a joint ticket. The National Taiwan Museum is located at No. 2 Xianyang Rd and The Land Bank Exhibition Hall is No. 25 Xianyang Rd. For more information about special exhibits, check their website.

Taipei Takeover: Drinking Your Way Through

We already know that Wa Shu might just be my favorite cocktail and whisky bar in the world (and I wouldn't blame you for just hanging out there your whole trip) but we also checked out a few more bars in our short trip, so if you're more into craft beer or cocktails a little more classic, here are some good options.

Hodala

Conveniently, Hodala is right around the corner from Yongkang Beef Noodles, making it easy for you to get some pre or post noodle brews. Hodala has a solid mix of their own beers and guest taps from around the world available and with 16 taps, you're sure to find something you like or you can do a tasting paddle if you're not sure. (I was very excited by the number of dark beers on the menu and went for the Black Bullet and Fear the Oat!, both from Hodala) The beers here range in price from around $8-$10 (US) which might seem a little crazy after you've just spent that same amount on your entire dinner but is pretty average for craft beer around Asia. The exposed bricks, odd lighting and very intentional giant water pipes running along the wall didn't do much for us in the way of decor and generally I would describe that atmosphere as trying a little too hard to be cool but since I live in a neighborhood in Seoul I sometimes describe as "Brooklyn Disneyland", I'm well familiar with this style of slightly too shiny and new industrial and once you've had enough beers you probably won't care.

Hodala is located at No. 10, Lane 4, Yongkang St, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106 and you can find more information on their facebook page.

啜飲室 (The Tasting Room)

On one hand, like Hodala, The Tasting Room's exposed wood, stainless steel and soundtrack of smooth jazz, give it a feel of trying to hit a particular aesthetic and not quite getting there but on the other, it actually is also an art gallery with some pretty cool stuff on the walls and as much as I want to talk about how over the top hipster their twenty different custom made, hand crafted tap handles are, they're actually pretty cool and I'm sad I didn't get a good close up shot (the image on the beer glass is a print version of one of the handles). The taps here definitely have a pretty heavy showing from West Coast breweries like Rogue and Heretic and they only had one Taiwanese beer on tap, so if your heart is set on trying some local beers, this isn't the place but with tons of beers we can't get in Seoul (including a good selection of dark beers for me) this was a good place for us to have a few rounds when we decided we'd pushed a little too hard in Jiufen the day before and needed a rest afternoon. Beers here are around $6-$8 (US) so a bit cheaper than Hodala, but also still not full pints. It's walking distance from Wa Shu if you're interested in doing a mini bar crawl.

The Tasting Room is located at 復興 南路 一段 107 巷 5 弄 14 號 No. 14, Alley 5, Lane 107, Section 1, Fuxing South Rd, 大安區台北市 Taiwan 106, you can find more information on their facebook page.

Ounce

I didn't snap any pictures at Ounce because this small, dimly lit speakeasy just didn't seem like that kind of party and while normally I have very little shame about taking photos of my food and drink, the bartender serving us turned out to be good friends with my husband's childhood best friend (TRUE STORY) so I didn't want to make a total ass of myself. (He's also how we found out about Wa Shu after we were asking about the selection of Japanese whiskies)

Ounce is hidden inside Relax cafe but don't worry, it's not that intimidating a speakeasy, just walk in and say you're their for Ounce and they'll direct you to the door tucked in the corner. There's no menu here, just a conversation with the bartender about your preferred liquors and flavor profiles and plenty of twists on classic cocktails. The drinks here are solid, costing around $12 (US) for a cocktail and the room is small and intimate but not so pretentious that we felt out of place in jeans. If you want an only in Taipei experience, go to Wa Shu but if you're looking for somewhere a little less adventurous to relax after a day of sightseeing, check out Ounce.

Ounce is located at No. 40, Lane 63, Section 2, Dunhua S Rd, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106, you can find more information on their facebook page.


Taipei Takeover: Japanese Whisky and House Infusions at Wa Shu

 House Infusions and Distillations at Wa Shu bar in Taipei, Taiwan

"Have you thought about what flavor you would like to try next?" the bar back asked.

It was all I HAD thought about since ordering my first cocktail, an Old Fashioned made with a house infused smoked whisky. Dan had been the one to originally ask about the bottle labeled "Smoky" but after hearing the description of the cocktail he turned to me with a questioning look, knowing it was right up my alley. Next he asked about the cedar bottle which it turned out was used to make a Manhattan. These are each our cocktails of choice, so we were immediately off to a good start.

"Ummm" I tore my eyes away from the collection of Japanese whisky bottles three deep behind the bar, covering shelves around the room and snuggled into roof beams.

"Is that one Jalapeno Pepper?"

He furrowed his brow.

"Japanese Pepper?" Dan chimed in.

"Yes!"

Even better. He left to consult with the bartender over what kind of drink would be made with the Japanese Pepper whisky. Dan chose a Taiwanese Basil house distillation.

My smoky Old Fashioned bordered on just a little too much smoke, especially since the bite the friendly Taiwanese bar back had suggested with it was a smoked chocolate caramel that seemed a little too matchy matchy. The chocolate caramel with the pine infused Manhattan on the other hand, tasted like campfire in the best way imaginable.

He came back over.

"The Japanese Pepper we will use to make a sort of whisky sour. For the Taiwanese Basil we will also make a sour with a little bit of spice. After this drink, all our customers ask for fried chicken because Taiwanese chicken is made with a lot of this basil and spicy peppers"

We laugh and also ask where we can get some of this chicken because fried chicken with basil and spicy peppers is all I want to eat all day every day.

"Oh you know, just from the side of the road"

We have clearly spend our days in Taiwan on the wrong roads.

For this drink the Japanese bartender/owner comes over to prepare the drink in front of us. Until this point he's been busy with the business of setting up the bar for the evening, as we were the first customers. I thought maybe he didn't speak English since the menu was offered in Japanese and Chinese and we were relying heavily on the bar back who didn't seem to know the purpose of each liquor yet but I was wrong.

"Do you know what Japanese pepper is?" he asked.

"Is it sansho?"

"Yes," he gave a slight approving nod, continuing to pluck basil and mix efficiently while speaking with us. "It will leave a quite distinct flavor on your tongue, do you like it?"

"Very much"

The mixing continued, stirring in two cocktail shakers and then into a blender with some ice.

"Are there any bars like this in New York?" a note of pride in his voice.

The owner had been listening to our conversations with his employee. As always, we had explained that we were from New York but live in Seoul.

"No. I don't think so. There are bars that do maybe five or so of their own infusions, but nothing like this."

"They don't do their own distillations?"

"I don't know any. I don't think so"

"Tokyo the infusion are quite good but not so much the distillations"

He sets our drinks on the counter and I make a mental note to ask him for Tokyo bar recommendations for whenever we find ourselves there next. A mental note I will completely forget until we're on our way home.

I'm happy to not that my sour has the foam indicative of being made with egg white even though I hadn't been paying enough attention to see him put one in. The blended ice adds even a bit more thickness but not so much that it would qualify as a frozen drink. The cocktail is tart but creamy from the frothed white and the sansho pepper is strong but not overwhelming. I definitely get a bit of tongue tingle. Dan is happy with his basil sour but doesn't love it as much as he had loved his Manhattan.

For our next round I choose Yuzu Salt Shochu and Dan chooses Raspberry Whisky. These are also both made into sours, mine with the added addition of a salt rim and a slice of dried yuzu on top. Dan's was a bit a sweet and syrupy for our taste, the only major miss of the night, though I'm sure for somebody who regularly drinks fruity drinks it would be delicious. I loved my Yuzu Salt Sour and it's a hard call between that and the Japanese Pepper for my favorite drink of the night. I really loved the sansho, but I could probably drink more of the yuzu, though I can't imagine ever going to Wa Shu and not wanting to try yet another concoction.

We discuss another round and I'm torn between wanting to try another flavor and my love for the Japanese whisky hidden in every conceivable nook and cranny in the bar. This may be the only place able to ride out the Japanese whisky shortage without have to significantly raise prices, there's so many bottles.

"Are you ready for just whisky?" the bartender asks us.

I let Dan choose first because I'm still thinking.

"Do you have the Hakushu 12?"

Nothing crazy, but I've gone to Japan three times in the last year and never managed to get my hands on a bottle of Hakushu with an age distinction, even at the Yamazaki Distilery.

He thinks a minute then turns to the bottles directly behind him and pulls out one of the green bottles hidden in the back. He looks at me.

"I'll have the same"

"Ice?"

"No"

"You are able to get this in New York?" he asks, surprised.

"Oh no, well maybe you can find it but it's very expensive now. We live in Seoul though so we have to go to Japan for good whisky"

He nods and pushes our pours across the bar before getting an order from the bar back for the large group that had arrived shortly before. A wealthy Taiwanese man who we've been told always travels with a posse and has recently become a regular customer.

"It's ok if there's one of these guys but I don't want two in here. I don't want arguments over who is the bigger man, you know?" he puffs up his chest in slight mockery before lining up a row of glasses and taking out what looks like two glass vases. Next a small torch and a tool I don't recognize with a hose attached.

He pours alcohol into the vases, lights something and then fills them with smoke. He caps each for a minute before pouring them into the glasses and bringing them over to the table and then returning farther down the bar to mix more drinks. I regret that we don't speak Japanese or Chinese so can't read the actual menu to find out what this drink is.

We sip our whisky. In one hour I will be thirty and I think that I miss the friends we would be celebrating with if we lived in America but this is still a pretty good way to end my twenties.

We finish our whisky and ask for the check, without having seen the menu, we're not quite sure what we're in for, especially with our pour of whisky and we're shocked when we see the bill.

Every drink was about US$10, including our pour of whisky which seemed incredibly reasonably priced for such unique creations and conversations with a bartender clearly knowledgeable and passionate about his business. At the good speakeasies in Seoul, drinks start at $25 for a classic cocktail and are usually just okay (which is why we never go to them). We were pretty sure that wasn't going to be the situation in Taipei where other cocktails and craft beer we had already had was priced like New York, but we weren't expecting as low as ten dollars. It's probably a good thing we don't live in Taipei because this would quickly become my favorite bar and I would want to go until we had tried every infusion and distillation, not to mention what had to be hundreds of bottles of hard to find whiskies.

We pay our bill and make our way back to the subway, hoping for the last train.

Wa Shu is located at 忠孝東路四段101巷39號, Taipei, 106, Taiwan (No. 39, Lane 101, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Rd, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106) for more information check foursquare, their facebook or their website (not in English)

Getting Lost in Jiufen (Part One): Jiufen Old Street

On our second full day in Taiwan, the day least likely to rain, after a well researched trip to a coffee shop turned out to be a complete failure and an impulsive trip to a hole in the wall with breakfast dumplings turned out to be a blessing, we hopped on a bus and headed West out of Taipei.

Taipei's January weather of mid 60s and drizzly to full on pouring might strike some as dreary but for us it was a welcome respite from Seoul's below freezing winter and for me it had the comforting fog blanketed coastal feel of my childhood winters in Northern California. I woke up excited to be headed even closer to the ocean.

We had a quick moment of panic when we though the bus was fuller than it was but quickly found empty seat towards the back and settled in for the rider. Dan with his video games and me alternately going through photos of the trip so far and just watching out the window as we left Taipei for smaller towns and the spaces in between. It's too chilly for the bus to have the windows open, so I see the ocean before I feel it, my giddiness rising. It's too foggy to get good pictures through the bus window, so I just wait and watch.

We arrive in Jiufen, our destination and almost everybody remaining on the bus piles out with us and immediately stops to take a picture over the ocean. I wrap my scarf tighter around me, relaxing into the brisk salt air. "Home" I think to myself, happiest by the ocean.

 View from Jiufen bus stop. Temple roofs and the Pacific Ocean in Taiwan.

"Are you hungry? Let's go this way into the market."

I pull Dan towards Jiufen's old street. After an initial bottleneck at the beginning, we find it's not so bad as we expected. It's a little before noon, so maybe we managed to beat the lunch rush. Severely under-caffeinated from our morning's watery siphon coffee, Dan was happy to see a row of dutch coffee drippers almost immediately on entering whereas I was taking note of the location of the peanut brittle ice cream wraps I had read about. The coffee was not good, but it was strong and we immediately regretted our decision to forgo milk and sugar.

We head further into the market, occasionally hitting patches crowded enough that there's some light pushing.

"Ooooh, pork and mushroom pastry, let's come back for that!"

"Try this mochi sample! This is the most tender, most delicious mochi I've ever had"

"This is the best mochi! Do you want to get some?"

"Not yet, later. Look another ice cream pancake place!"

My first purchase is a thin slightly salty pancake (popiah skin), sprinkled with shaved peanut brittle, given two scoops of taro ice cream wrapped tight and then wrapped again in plastic. The man gestures to the various piles of money. Leave your coins and take your own change. He cuts the wrap in half and shoos me off, ready for the next customer.

I love the combination of flavors and textures, Dan tries a bite, makes a face and hands it back to me. We walk on, occasionally being assaulted by the smell of stinky tofu and gawking at shells or giant mushrooms on grills. All the while, relatively clean, healthy looking market dogs are twining their way through the crowd, clearly on missions to their favorite booths.

Dan's first purchase is crispy of fried mushrooms. "Spicy?" the woman asks us and we nod our heads vigorously as she adds an additional layer of seasoning. They're hot and juicy inside and I can't identify all the spices in the seasoning but it's delicious.

"It's kind of like our hot pot spice mix and shichimi togarashi had a baby"

Sansho or sichuan peppercorns, a hotter chili pepper, something citrus-y (yuzu?) and more spices blend together.

We keep going, stinky tofu smell getting stronger and mingling with the other popular item here, fish ball soup. Neither are particularly appealing to us, so we keep pushing through determined to get all the way to the end before making more purchases, making sure we pace ourselves to eat everything we want to and for things like sausages, make sure we go to the stall that looks like it has the best and hottest. We pass by soup dumplings, bubble tea and some sort of buffet situation we don't quite understand and out to the other end of the street, once again facing the ocean.

"Do you want to get a bunch of things to eat now? Or get some things we can put in the backpack for our hike?"

"Let's do both. Sausages first and then we'll go back and get some of those pork and mushroom pastries for the hike? Ok?"

"Ok. Do I need to get the pork and fish egg sausage? Is that too weird? Is it being too weird exactly why I need it?"

"You probably need it"

The sausage is hot and crisp on the outside and my teeth snap through the casing to a tender and slightly sweet center. I often complain about the sweetness of sausages in Korea but this is different, more balanced. The combination of the slightly sweet pork with the salty cooked roe is a bit odd at first but it grows on me. Dan has the regular pork sausage which is the same but a bit bigger and minus the roe.

We head back towards the start of the street to assemble ourselves a box of savory pastries and honey cakes to stash in Dan's backpack. I pull up the directions to our first destination, the Gold Museum and we start working our way through the crowd once again...

 Jiufen Old Street, Jiufen, Taiwain