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

Beijing's Dumplings: The Good, The Bad and The Cheap

Where to go and what to avoid

I love dumplings of pretty much any variety but Korean mandu are, well, a little underwhelming. Since we have a few China trips planned this year, I figured Dim Sum could probably wait for our Hong Kong or Taiwan trip and obviously xiao long bao for Shanghai, but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to get in some dumpling meals. All in all we had three different dumpling meals ranging from delicious to... disaster.

The Good: Duyichu (38 Quinman Street)

We hit the tail end of the lunchtime rush and didn't have to wait for a table upstairs at Duyichu but the Lonely Planet description of service at Duyichu as "no-frills" is certainly accurate and we did have to wait a while before placing our order. I actually have no idea if there is an English language menu because it seemed like the server in our area really didn't want to deal with us so I used google translate on what seemed to be the shaomai section of the menu (if you're not going to have data while traveling, you're probably just going to go with the tried and true "point and pray" method unless you bring a local). Some of it, of course, translated totally crazy but we were able to figure out what we wanted so when we finally did get a server's attention, we just pointed at the three different things on the menu.

The shaomai (shumai) I've had at most dim sum places in New York and California aren't usually my favorite. First off, I'm not a shrimp eater and you never really know if they're going to be all pork or have a secret shrimp waiting. Second, I don't know, they just often don't have that great a texture and are kind of boring. These shaomai were nothing like that. The wrappers were delicate and beautiful and the fillings extremely flavorful. The veggie filling which google translate had definitely partially described as "bird home" turned out to be garlicky greens, egg and tofu. Dan insisted on the classic pork and shrimp combination and was quite happy with it. The plain pork dumpling was the winner in my book, it was a gingery, garlicky filling with a bit of liquid in the bottom. Basically like if shaomai and xia long bao had a delicious, delicious baby. Each order of dumplings was eight pieces, and we didn't quiiite finish them all (I think three got left behind) despite the fact that we started out starving. We spent around $30.00 here, including our bottled water, which seemed totally worth it for the quantity and quality of food.

The Bad: Donghuamen Night Market (Dong An Men Da Jie)

The Bad: Dumplings from Dong An Men Da Jie (Donghuamen Night Market) Beijing

Look, I knew Donghuamen was going to be touristy and I figured it would be a little too expensive but who doesn't want to see other tourists eating scorpions on sticks? It was way too expensive, there wasn't that much variety and the things we had were pretty bad. The dumplings pictured above were some sort of beef coriander filling that was ok but the bun was dry and the bottom was hard and tough from sitting. We also got a bowl of garlicky noodles and told the vendor we didn't want her fried dumplings but she threw them on anyway "to try" but she definitely charged us for them. If we had been less hungry maybe we would've been able to deal with the pushy vendors better but it definitely seemed more irritating than fun. If you want the scorpion on a stick experience with less people yelling at you about their not very good food, I'd recommend Wangfujing Snack Street instead.

The Cheap: Zuo Lin You She (50 Meishuguan Back St)

These crazy long dumplings were our first meal in Beijing. I knew we were going to hit the ground running and conquer The Forbidden City on our first day but also that our morning flight and then drive to our lodgings meant we were going to be starving so I wanted something fast, cheap and filling. These bad boys don't look like much (and were a bit on the greasy side) but they left me satisfied. Zu Lin You She doesn't have any English signage on the outside, but the menu has all eighteen of the meat fillings and eight of the veggie fillings translated! I don't think any of the workers speak English, so we just drew a line with a chopstick from the English translation to the Chinese and the server entered it into her ordering pad. We went with spicy beef and coriander, pork and summer squash, pork, green pepper and coriander and, pork and cabbage. We also were planning on ordering tofu and mustard greens but the server cut us off with a hand gesture that implied we had already ordered more than enough for two people and she wasn't wrong.

Dan's favorite turned out to be the spicy beef and coriander he had chosen while mine was the pork, green pepper and coriander. The pork and cabbage was a pretty solid version of a standard gingery, garlic potsticker/fried dumpling filling but the pork and summer squash was a bit on the bland side (I wouldn't order it again). There's chili oil and vinegary soy sauce to mix in your dishes exactly the right size for the dumplings and I recommend slyly watching the other patron's dipping and eating methods since they can be a little hard to handle. This mountain of dumplings cost $6.00. TRUE STORY.

Banh Mi Three Ways

If you look at this food map, you'll see Californians are all about the Asian food. Just all the kinds. While my bluntness and tendency to yell at people on the street might be all New Yorker, my real food preferences are all Californian. GIVE ME PHO OR GIVE ME DEATH. Or, in this case, banh mi. I really love banh mi. I used to order banh mi and bubble tea for lunch every Tuesday. I can get all the bubble tea I want in Korea and I love love love Gong Cha's system of choosing your preferred amount of ice and sugar, but non-Korean Asian food has been hard to come by. Until last week, when I ate banh mi THREE TIMES. Let's compare.

Location #1: Le Hoi Banh Mi

Things are constantly changing so much in the Kyungridan/Noksapyeong area that it's hard to keep up but I'm pretty sure I was one of the first to stumble across this new Banh Mi take out window underneath 5bey. They invited us to wait inside while our sandwich was being made and we went into a small, adorable room with lanterns, a long, low bar and tiny stools. There were still some construction materials lying around, so I assume they were still in their soft opening and will have a little more indoor seating soon. We took our adorably packaged sandwich to eat as we walked.

The sandwich wasn't quite what I expected. No pickled carrots or daikon. No Cilantro. But it did have an egg on it and you KNOW I'm a sucker for anything with soft egg. The pork was thinly sliced with fresh hot peppers and I THINK a variation of Hoisin sauce. The bread had the exact amount of squish and chew you expect for banh mi and definitely was my favorite bread of all three sandwiches. Since the quick pickled vegetables are what really make banh mi for me, this didn't quite satisfy my craving but was still excellent. I will be eating here again. Maybe I'll try the veggie sandwich next time.

Location #2: Le Saigon

My husband and I just really noticed Le Saigon the other day, but upon further research, I've realized it's been there forever by Seoul restaurant standards (which basically means longer than six months but in this case means many years).

As you can see above, Le Saigon makes a more classic banh mi. I once again went with pork which was in chunks instead of slices this time and a little lighter on the sauce. I was a little disappointed that the peppers were pickled instead of fresh on this sandwich but happy about the quick pickled carrots and daikon as well as the house spicy mayonnaise. It wasn't quite spicy enough for me so I definitely made liberal use of the house made (?) hot sauce on the table. Was it the best banh mi I've ever had? No. Was it the best classic banh mi I've had in Seoul? Definitely.

Location #3: Rye Post

Rye Post is a fancy sandwich shop on Itaewon-ro that does sandwiches from a variety of cuisines, not a Vietnamese place specifically, so it's not really surprising it comes in last place for banh mi. We got this sandwich delivered and I forgot to take a picture (sorry!). While there was nothing really wrong with it, there wasn't anything really right either. They bake their bread in house daily, but like a lot of bread in Korea it was a little pale and didn't have the proper crunch and chew for a banh mi baguette. There were pickled vegetables but the sandwich was a little dry, especially compared to the other two. I will order from Rye Post again, but I'll probably be sticking to the Philly cheese steak fries, not the banh mi.

Pork Banh Mi costs W6,000 at Le Hoi Banh Mi located beneath 5bey in the Kyungridan/Noksapyeong area of Itaewon

Pork Banh Mi costs W7,000 at Le Saigon which has a location both in Kyungridan and in Itaewon proper

Pork Banh Mi costs W7,800 at Rye Post which is located on Itaewon-ro

All of these places are open for lunch which definitely gives them extra points in my book.