Destination: Keelung

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 3:44pm

Overshadowed by mountains and its larger neighbour Taipei, Taiwan's northern port town of Keelung is also often overshadowed by rainclouds. The city centre is further darkened by wall-to-wall buildings that once drew sailors from around the world, until cargo ships started diverting to mainland China in the 1980s. A fish market still operates in the pre-dawn blackness.

But an odd mix of food and drink sold just off the harbour reveals some local history and casts a special glow on the city of 390,000 people.

Missing are sit-down Chinese restaurants (save for Taiwan's obligatory all-you-can eat diners). Instead, expect steakhouses, patisseries and coffee shops - evidence of foreign clientele. A sailor bar still operates near the railway station. Karaoke clubs cluster not far away. Late hours are common as ships can pull in at any time.

"This is a port, so there are many foreign guests," says Chang Yu-hsiu, a tour guide. "They used to go into the bars and restaurants but, after 1979, the numbers dropped off," she says, referring to the year the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the mainland.

Keelung's F&B anchor, however, is traditional. It's the Miaokou night market where more than 100 vendors sell Taiwanese snacks that are easily large enough to be meals. Miaokou is one of Taiwan's best known night markets on an island boiling over with rivals.

There are five eat-or-drink spots, all within a 10-minute walk of each other and just another couple of hundred steps from the city's railway station.

Miaokou night market Aisi Road at Ren Third Road

Keelung's downtown jewel was formed during the Japanese colonial era that ended with the second world war. "Miao" means temple in Chinese, and "kou" means entrance. The outdoor market started at the entrance of the Dianji Temple as food makers peddled to worshippers and festival crowds.

Miaokou's main block along Ren Third Road is so organised that each mini-restaurant has a number followed by an English-language description of its food, plus street-side seating for two to 10 people. The stalls, lined by three rows of yellow lanterns, open in the afternoon but become active at night.

Miaokou packs in an estimated 100 vendors. Look for crabs in cream, live frogs, pork rice, Japanese oden and shakes made from tropical fruits. Prices run to double-digits in the local currency.

Elephant House 2/F, 98 Ren Third Road, tel: 02 2422 5934,

The entrance to this 22-year-old, upmarket steakhouse is a single-file, barely marked staircase which expands on the second and third floors, with a total of 60 seats. Its US and New Zealand beef dinners lead a menu with more than 70 dishes, including pork chops, chicken, cod and prawns. Prices range from NT$320 (HK$85) to NT$1,000.

The Elephant stays open all night for a clientele that includes workers from the nearby fish market.

Jackie's Ya-Do Cakes 259 Ren Second Road, tel: 02 2427 1673,

This cake shop is directly across the boulevard that separates Keelung harbour from downtown. Some of its 30-plus seats face a renovated boardwalk along the water.

The shop's 12 bakers make more than 100 types of pastries. Taro-based cakes kicked off the business 35 years ago when the owners realised no one else in Keelung was selling them. Now it specialises in dried, hollowed-out persimmons with sweetened beans and gooey, spongy, Japanese-style mochi. Customers can also grab a French baguette and a coffee. Foreign tourists from cruise ships often stop by for pastries, says owner Jack Lin.

Laoo Coffee Bar 3 Ai Fifth Road, tel: 02 2423 0598

The name "Laoo" sounds like the Chinese words for "old, humble home". And that's the ambience manager Chen Te-hsin wants to convey at his outdoor, wood-panelled coffee shop. Its 20 seats are taken quickly. A professional roaster combines six types of beans for 16 varieties of Americanos, cappuccinos and other brews for as little as NT$35 per paper cup.

"Most tourists won't make it over here," says Chen. "But there are people who happen to see us simply because we're here, including foreign travellers."

Beijing City Karaoke 2/F, 10 Chung Third Road, tel: 02 2425 2899

One in a strip of karaoke bars between the Miaokou night market and the railway station, this den at the top of a narrow, unadorned stairwell sports a range of whiskies behind the reception desk. Next to it, women wait to accompany clients as they drink or sing. The basic karaoke rental is NT$600 for 2½ hours. Snacks and alcohol cost extra. The year-old club's six tables start to fill from 3pm, with the last tune at 3am

Despite its name, the club is run by Taiwanese, and the clients are mostly local.