Taipei Takeover: Top Picks for Eating Your Way Through

If you've read about our street food lunch in Jiufen or saw my post about one of our favorite breakfasts, you might've gathered that our eating in Taiwan was mostly pretty casual. I did originally have one fine dining reservation but I had to cancel when we experienced some delays getting our new, giant passports back and shifted the days of our trip. I was a little disappointed initially, but we ate so well that I quickly forgot about it all together (plus, it gave us more money for checking out some of Taipei's cocktail bars and craft beers). Here's what we had.

Din Tai Fung

For our first meal we decided to just commit and really tourist it up by going to Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese chain that brought Shanghai Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) to the world. The original location in Taipei holds a Michelin Star but we decided to combine our mountain of soup dumplings with our trip to Taipei 101 and went to the location in the basement food court. The counters above the check in desk were showing a wait time of 45 minutes for two people when we arrived (leading me to go grab a bubble tea for a quick blood sugar boost) but we really only waited thirty minutes and it was totally worth it. We started with dry sauteed string beans (my favorite always), followed by the regular pork XLB, the crab roe and pork XLB, the shrimp and pork shao mai, pork bao and veggie dumplings. Unless you're a vegetarian, I recommend skipping the veggie dumplings. Dan was also not that impressed with his shrimp shao mai. The XLB lived up to the hype and if we were to go again we'd probably just double down on the regular pork. We finished our meal with two mini black sesame buns which I absolutely loved. This was probably our second most expensive meal in Taipei and it still only set us back around $30 (US) for the two of us. If you didn't skip lunch because you were on the plane, and ordered a reasonable amount of food, it would probably be a bit cheaper.

There are locations all over Taipei but this Din Tai Fung is located at 110, Taiwan, Taipei City, Xinyi District, City Hall Rd, 45號台北101購物中心 (basement foodcourt of Taipei 101)

小魏川菜餐廳 (Xiao Wei Sichuan)

This is the kind of place where you might have that momentary traveler's panic of "ooops, what did I get myself into". This Sichuan restaurant may not look like much and if you've never had the Chinatown experience of eating in a giant room where the mode of conversation between the servers sounds like angry shouting (over the tables of happy Chinese families and friend groups also shouting), than it might be a bit overwhelming. I don't think any of the staff speaks English, so you'll need to be prepared to bring your miming A game for getting seated BUT there is a version of the menu with both English and Chinese so ordering isn't too stressful. Since it was just the two of us, we whittled it down to three of our all time faves, dry sauteed string beans (yes, again, always), twice cooked pork and mapo tofu. The green beans here were outstanding, a lot of crispy ginger, spring onion and maybe pork grumbles all throughout and when we had eaten all the beans we were both scooping whatever seasoning was left onto our rice bowls. Our twice cooked pork was good but a little light on spice and Sichuan peppercorns, we're not sure if that's just how they do it or if we got white peopled* because the mapo tofu had quite a bit of heat (and was perfectly silky). If you are looking for Sichuan food OR are just the type of traveler that likes going where you're not going to see any other tourists, this is definitely the place for you.

*A common problem that happens outside of the US where you order spicy dishes and they automatically get toned down, even when you insist you really want the heat.

Xiao Wei Sichuan is located at 100, Taiwan, Taipei City, Zhongzheng District, Gongyuan Rd, 13號3樓, there's no English signage so be prepared to put your character matching skills for the test. It's located on the third floor.

    永康牛肉麵 (Yongkang Beef Noodles)

    You can't go to Taiwan and not eat beef noodles, it's an absolute must. I've read reviews mentioning long lines at Yongkang but there weren't any when we went on a drizzly week night. Even if there had been, a bit of a wait would still have been worth it. Like the Sichuan restaurant, this place is pretty bare bones in service and decor but I'm not really one to be picky as long as the food is good. The menu here has pictures and some English and I went with the spicy soy beef noodles while Dan went for the regular beef noodles. Both had tender, fall apart braised beef and rich flavorful broths. We each preferred the soup we had ordered so you can't really go wrong, it's just a matter of what you're in the mood for. After a day spent exploring in chilly weather, it was just the thing to hit the spot.

    Yongkang Beef Noodles is located at No. 17, Lane 31, Section 2, Jinshan S Rd, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106. The also have a website but it doesn't have any English.

    上引水产 (Addiction Aquatic Development)

    Our most expensive meal, this place was both very good and pretty darn weird. Part fish market, part gourmet grocer, part wine bar and part sushi restaurant, this is definitely a unique experience. The first step is definitely to get on the waitlist and get your number for the large standing-only sushi bar. This is accomplished by finding the cordoned off entrance to the sushi bar and being a bit aggressive about getting a server's attention to put you on the list, otherwise somebody will definitely push in front of you to get on the list faster. Once you're on the list, you can explore the gourmet grocer section (and if you don't want to wait, instead grab one of the many many boxes of sushi to go) or grab a drink at the wine bar. The gourmet grocery section was very exciting to us because the selection of things like cured meat and cheeses seemed absolutely insane compared to Seoul (I bought some aged goat cheese to smuggle back into the country and I had zero regrets). Also there were small cups of salmon roe for about a $1.00 (US) and I considered buying one and taking it like a shot while we were waiting.

    Once we got our spot at the sushi bar we learned that there is no English language menu despite being heavily frequented by tourists and a very patient server graciously asked us about different types of fish and made some suggestions. It's possible we ended up with more food than we would have had we ordered on our own but we devoured ALL of it without ending up too stuffed. The quality of all the fish was excellent and the caramelization on our BBQ salmon steak was beautiful but still left it medium rare on the inside. This mountain of high quality fishes plus beers, cost around $45 (US) and I'm not sure you can get better price per quality anywhere in the world. (I'm not saying you can't get better sushi in Tokyo, just that it's going to set you back a bit more).

    Addiction Aquatic Development is located at No. 18, Alley 2, Lane 410, Minzu E Rd, Zhongshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 104, the also have a website.

      阜杭豆漿 (Fuhang Soy Milk)

      Fuhang Soy Milk is on just about every list of top picks for Taipei and was recommended to us by friends. If you (like us) don't speak Chinese, this is definitely going to be another "what did I just get myself into" situation. A lot of people recommend getting here early to be at the front of the lines but I recommend showing up late after the breakfast rush if you're going on a weekday. We showed up around 11:15 and the line was part of the way down the stairs (not all the way down the block and to the subway station like some places say) and moved very quickly. We were probably only in line for fifteen minutes. Once you get to the front of the line, madness happens. Everyone else around you will be shouting orders rapidly and the older women serving you don't have a lot of patience for your ignorance.

      The first question will be salty or sweet which refers to your big bowl of housemade soy milk. We went with two bowls of sweet which are plopped on a tray which you'll slide down to more food choices. Now is your time to just aggressively point at whatever catches your fancy or whatever the next woman holds up. This isn't really a time to say no to anything because you don't want to be that guy holding up the line. Pay. Find a place to sit. We ended up with two salty chinese doughnuts, our soymilk and an egg sandwich with sesame bread fresh out of the kiln. The soymilk here is rich and delicious and very filling, we had some regrets about not ordering one sweet and one savory but we were caught up in the moment. The doughnuts are fresh and crispy on the outside while airy on the inside. The egg sandwich is the star as far as I'm concerned. The bread is both sweet and sesame-y and the scrambled scallion eggs inside are perfectly seasoned. Take a look around you to see all the ways you can eat these things. I saw doughnuts inside egg sandwiches, egg sandwiches being dipped in the soymilk and just people slurping down there big bowls of savory soymilk. It seems pretty much anything goes.

      Fuhang Soymilk is located at No. 108, Section 1, Zhongxiao E Rd, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan 100 on the second floor. If you find the end of a long line, you're probably there.

      Basil, Sesame Oil Chicken and Chili Ice Cream from Snow King in Taipei

      雪王冰淇淋 (Snow King)

      You didn't really expect me to do a review with out at least one ice cream, did you? Snow King has more flavors than you could possibly imagine, from standards like strawberry or chocolate chip to more unusual fruit flavors like litchi or guava to alcoholic flavors like Kao Liang Wine (listed on the menu as 58% alcohol) to a million nut flavors to the crazy savory assortment we got. We started with scoops of basil and sesame oil chicken. We were warned that the sesame oil chicken had quite a strong flavor and pieces of frozen chicken in it, but that didn't deter us. We weren't at a place with 70 ice cream flavors to get vanilla. When our ice cream arrived, the server suggested we eat the basil first because the chicken would over power it but neither of the flavors were delicate. They were both delicious and became even more delicious when mixed together. However, it seemed like something was missing and it WAS my 30th birthday, so I went up and ordered a scoop of the chili. I got another warning, this time that it was very spicy which only increased my resolve. Another customer chimed in that I was making a good choice. The chili was HOT but it mixed perfectly with the other two flavors. It was a little much for Dan on its own but I was all about it. Ice cream lunch FTW. This place is definitely worth a visit, even if you don't want to go as weird as we did. Maybe you just need a happy hour scoop of Kao Liang Wine?

      Snow King is located at 100, Taiwan, Taipei City, Zhongzheng District, Section 1, Wuchang St, 65號2樓, it's on the second floor up a narrow flight of stairs, we walked by it the first time so keep an eye out.

      Top Choices for Eating your Way Through Taipei

      Top Choices for Eating your Way Through Taipei

      Tokyo Takeover: Kanda

      Michelin Starred Kanda Tokyo

      There are no sample menus on Kanda's website, we chose it somewhat arbitrarily from Tokyo's three star restaurants, liking the idea of extreme seasonality and personalized courses. We were the first to arrive the night we went and were shown to our seats at the small bar which makes up the entirety of Kanda's dining room by the attentive yet unpretentious staff. Shortly after a group of three women came in and were seated to my righ and a bit after that a young Japanese man wearing rumpled linen everything was seated to Dan's left.

      "Is there anything you don't eat?" the chef asked.

      "No," we said in unison, shaking our heads. It's not exactly true, in normal life there's plenty I don't eat. I am a ridiculously picky eater, especially for somebody that has spent the first ten years of adulthood cooking for a living but I like to view tasting menus as an opportunity to challenge my assumptions. Inevitably, there is always something on the menu that I've never liked before that I suddenly see in a whole new light. This night it was a perfectly breaded fried oyster with just a bit of mustard that took me by surprise.

      "She doesn't eat sashimi!" one of the three women next to me volunteered.

      "No, no sashimi, I don't like it" another one says shaking her head.

      The chef nods while I try to keep my judgement at bay. Who goes to a tasting menu in Japan and doesn't eat sashimi?

      The same question is asked of the young Japanese man and the only thing I make out from his response is "wasabi".

      We order sake and it comes in a large bowl sitting on a mound of crushed ice and we're presented with an array of glass and ceramic sake glasses to choose from. I want them all but settle on a ceramic one with a delicate floral design. Of course, the sake is delicious.

      "You make take pictures of the food if you want but I think it is best to just enjoy the experience" the chef tells us. We had read that allowing pictures was a recent change in policy which I was happy about even though I often get too caught up in the moment and flavor to take them of every course.

      Our first course comes. A small bowl of white asparagus in a bean curd puree and foam. It's not much too look at but the chunks of asparagus melt in my mouth and their sweetness contrasts with the extremely savory bean curd. We can just have ten more course of this, I think.

      The women next to me try to watch a video on their phone.

      "You can't do that here" the chef says gently.

      Sake service at Kanda Tokyo

      The women are shocked into silence for a while before the chef says "no, no you can talk, but you cannot watch videos".

      The courses continue and the chef describes each dish and asks everyone where they're from.

      I watch the expression on the face of the man to Dan's left as each dish comes, the way he eats a bite, carefully tries and considers each component on the plate and then happily wolfs the rest down. It is exactly what I do, even though my intense expressions of careful consideration often get me good natured teasing from my husband and friends, but I've never watched anybody else dissect their dish as obsessively as I do. It gives me an immense amount of joy to watch somebody else care about what they're eating as much as I do and I wonder, after months of living in a city where it seems food is mostly valued if it's fast or trendy, if I might actually start to cry.

      The chef places a heavy looking tray in front of each of us on the counter and I watch him quickly but carefully form pieces of nigiri. He places one in front of me and one in front of Dan.

      "Now you make take"

      I start to lift the tray.

      "No, no, just take the piece" he mimes lifting the small piece with his hands.

      "You can use chopsticks if you want" the three women all chime in.

      But I've spent months watching people cut up burgers and tacos with a fork and knife and I relish the permission to use my hands.

      I thought I had had the best sushi of my life the night before but no, this was it, this was rice so warm and flavorful and fish so tender that instead of judging the woman next to me, I felt bad that she would never get to experience something this exquisite. Two more pieces followed and each one was the best sushi I'd had in my life. Maybe the best I ever will have.

      I can see through the swinging doors behind the bar that the line in the back is a little more hectic but the chef and sous chef in front of us proceed calmly. Not slowly, but with the speed that comes from skill and confidence in your craft. I'm so happy I could burst.

      I watch the sous chef tear up a sheet of nori and toss it in a micro green salad, something I never would have thought of that tastes absolutely brilliant. Two perfectly cooked cubes of steak melt in my mouth.

      The final savory course is rice with a tempura of tiny shrimp, another food I don't usually eat, with a selection of lightly pickled vegetables. I eat the salty crunchy shrimp but the pickled vegetables are what I'm truly excited about.

      Next it's tea all around before we're presented with a dessert of fresh mangoes suspended in gelatin sitting in a small pool of creme anglaise. It is simple and delicious even though I don't love mango or gelatin based desserts.

      More tea is had before we settle up and head out to take a walk around Roppongi, extremely satisfied but not quite ready to head home.

       

      Kanda is located at 3-6-34 Motoazabu, Minoto-ku, Tokyo on the first floor of a small apartment building. When we went last month we were required to make reservations through our hotel concierge and given two price points to choose from but it looks like you now must make online reservations here, and have an option of three price points.

      Tokyo Takeover: Sushi Three Ways

      Edogin 4-5-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku

      Edogin, right outside the Tsukiji Fish Market, is where we had our first dinner in Tokyo. It was chosen primarily for it's proximity to our hotel in Shibuya as well as its moderate price. The restaurant itself is pretty bare bones and, honestly, smells a bit like fish market when you first enter but don't let that dissuade you. Most of the staff seemed to have pretty limited English but there's plenty of English on the menu and pictures at which you can point. Despite our total lack of Japanese, the staff was very friendly and enthusiastic and gave us glasses of Sake as "service".

      Dan ordered the Chirashi and I ordered a Tekkadon bowl. We also were given a cold soup side dish. The broth was incredibly savory with a lot of wilted leeks but I have no idea what the cold, fluffy pink ball was. The texture was a little bit too weird for me, and I gave it to Dan to finish. We were both extremely happy with our meals. Dan's Chirashi was incredibly generous and varied and he describes his mood afterwards as being "high on fishes". He didn't let me sample much from his bowl but I remember the yellowtail being especially delicious and the rich, salty roe to die for. My tuna was also beautifully tender and flavorful and seemed to be so freshly dyed, it was staining the warm, perfectly seasoned rice. It was a great first dinner in Japan. I definitely recommend Edogin if you're staying in Shimbashi or if you're looking for fish market quality but aren't interested in fish market breakfast. The only reason we only went there once was because there were so many other places in Tokyo we wanted to try.

      Uobei Sushi 2-29-11 Dogenzaka, Shibuya

      Uobei Sushi (or as we like to call it in our house, "Robot Sushi") was what happened a few days after Edogin when Dan asked "Where can we go where I can just keep ordering sushi until I explode?". Our Lonely Planet guide didn't have much to offer in the way of conveyer belt sushi places, so we both started searching on our phone and came across different articles mentioning Uobei. Most of the sushi at Uobei works out to being one dollar a piece (with a few specials that cost two dollars and rolls that work out to less) so this was exactly the place for Dan to order endlessly AND was way higher on novelty than your average conveyer belt place.

      There was quite a line when we got to Uobei but it moved pretty quickly. When you get to the front of the line you'll get a small clipboard for each person with your station number on it. Once you find your seats, you'll see a small touch screen above you (which can be switched to English!) from which you can order up to three plates at a time. The plates arrive on a tray that will stop in front of you on one of the three tracks, you take your plates off, push a button that indicates the plates have been removed and the tiny robot goes whizzing back to the kitchen. Some plates definitely take longer than others, so they won't necessarily arrive three at a time, or in the sequence you ordered them. Most of the options are pretty standard but there are few fancier specials, including the "lean meat with foie gras" that I ordered. It was one of the most unfamiliar flavor combinations I've ever had but surprisingly delicious. Some of the fish, like salmon, have options at a few different price points and while even the cheapest is pretty enjoyable, you definitely get what you pay for.

      Along with sushi, you can also order beer, miso soup and various sides from the computer (they even had my beloved fries smothered in mentaiko mayonnaise). There's cups, green tea powder and a hot water spout at each station as well as endless tiny packets of wasabi, soy sauce and plenty of pickled ginger. If you get a little over-zealous with the ordering, they even have to go boxes above every seat. When you've eaten sushi until you're ready to burst, bring your clipboards back up to the register and they'll scan them for you. I think even with ordering beer and some of the special plates we spent less than thirty five dollars total and left too stuffed to move.

      Sushi-Bun 5-2-1-#8 tsukiji, chuo-ku

      The place we went to for our fish market breakfast didn't allow pictures, so here's a business card instead. We weren't committed to get up for the tuna auction on our last morning in Tokyo but we did get to the fish market a little after 7:00 a.m. I'm not sure if it was because it was Golden Week or if we came too late, but most of the well known places already had lines way longer than we were willing to wait in. We basically made our decision by choosing a place that looked popular but not so popular we wouldn't make it back to the hotel in time to get to our early afternoon flight. Sushi-Bun has you choose one of the menu options while you're still waiting in line and we both went with the most basic set of eight pieces which I think was around $30 each. They were doing seatings every thirty minutes, which is fine, it shouldn't take you that long to eat eight pieces of nigiri but the interior was quite small and I was cramped in the corner. I couldn't tell you everything that we ate but it was all very fresh and I enjoyed watching the chefs work behind the counter. The selection that morning had a few more chewy things than was really appealing to me for breakfast (I generally avoid squid, octopus or anything similarly textured) and even Dan felt similarly. While I think fish market breakfast is an experience to be had, the quality and value of our meal at Edogin, right outside the market, seemed much better. Maybe we should've gotten in one of the mile long lines.

      Sushi Itaewon

      salmon belly nigiri Sushi Itaewon Seoul South Korea

      I've mentioned before that Dan and I have had a rough go of finding good Japanese food in Seoul despite a pretty large number of Japanese restaurants. We've especially had bad experiences with sushi and since raw fish isn't really the good of thing you want to be taking chances with, we had reached a point where we assumed we wouldn't be getting sushi again until we went to Japan. Then, suddenly, the food world was all abuzz about Sushi Itaewon. "Three dollars for three pieces of nigiri and you expect me to believe it's actually good?" I thought to myself, "Please". My assumption was that at its best it would be "good for Seoul" but not actually good. Luckily, my curiosity got the better of me and I made Dan go for our one year anniversary dinner. (I know, that realllllllly could've backfired.)

      The miso is free and seems to have unlimited refills. It's not the world's most amazing miso but it's solidly good and definitely Japanese miso as opposed to Korean.  I also ordered a Sapporo that somehow magically tasted as delicious as the Sapporo in America instead of super skunky like the Sapporo from the convenience store next to my house (though it also cost significantly more money). We haven't been to Japan yet so I only have American wasabi paste to compare to but the we both loved how fresh and sharp the wasabi was compared to the wasabi in the U.S.

      For our anniversary dinner we ordered: salmon belly nigiri, tuna nigiri, mackerel nigiri, octopus, Alaska roll, spicy tuna roll and cucumber roll. The star is definitely the salmon belly. It's beautifully fatty and tender. Melts in your mouth. We found the tuna nigiri good but not exceptional, which still makes it worlds better than any other raw tuna we've had in Seoul. Dan said his mackerel was a bit bitter and he just wasn't into his octopus. The Alaska roll was good because the salmon in it was still fantastic but the avocado was tasteless so you might as well just get a salmon roll. The spice in the spicy tuna overwhelmed the fish a little but I still really liked that they didn't go the spicy Kewpie route that a lot of places in New York and the Bay Area do these days. The cucumber roll was simple and delicious and really let the quality of the slightly sweet but rice vinegary, sticky sushi rice shine. I don't know if it's just because we looked so excited, I was taking a million pictures or we ordered so much, but they also sent out a special roll. I'm not entirely sure what was in it but we think it was fried soft shell crab topped with tuna, eel sauce, and, because this is still Korea, corn. I don't usually like crab based rolls but the texture and flavor combinations in this one were very interesting and delicious. I have no idea how to re-order it though.

      Yesterday, I went back for lunch and was once again amazed at the tenderness of the salmon belly. The tuna belly I got was fine but nothing spectacular. They do have lunch specials but those two things plus cucumber rolls cost me a whopping W9,200 (US $8.24) so it's definitely one of the more affordable lunch options in Itaewon. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself here on a weekly basis.

      The address for Sushi Itaewon is 59-4 Itaewon-dong and it's located on the second floor.