Where to find the best Taiwanese food in Taipei
Imagine recipes with roots in mainland provinces such as Sichuan. Add some fish and greens from subtropical Taiwan, and mix in a cuisine spread by Japanese colonialism. Combine all this with a growing local hunger for convenience and value for money. What you get are the top food trends in Taipei, served by eateries ranging from rusty market stalls to plush sit-down restaurants. Here's a selection of the most popular.
Night market: Smile Barbecue
The ultra-budget diner who likes things fried in sour-sweet barbecue sauce, or spiced with salt and chillies can choose from 42 raw ingredients, all on sticks, at Smile Barbecue. This is a classic slice of Taipei night market food culture, selling sticks for NT$10 (HK$2.50) to NT$50, depending on the ingredients. Veggies such as string beans and sliced green peppers are at the cheap end and seafood at the other end. Those wanting meat should look for chicken and bacon-wrapped scallions. Hand the chefs a basket of your pickings and they grill it for you in five minutes. Taipei's night markets are festive, cheap and crowded. Smile's stalls operate at night markets throughout the city; one is particularly prominent at Ningxia Road, where it's been for nine years. Stall manager Liang Kuan-song says that they keep the prices low so they can sell a lot. The strategy seems to be working, as there's already a queue three rows deep at 6pm.
Smile Barbecue, Ningxia Road Night Market, Ningxia Road at Minsheng West Road
Chinese-Japanese: Pine Garden
Japanese food took root in Taiwan during Japan's 50-year colonisation, which ended after the second world war. Since then, Taiwanese chefs have recrafted the food for local tastes, ingredients and budgets, increasing the size of portions and creating a hybrid Sino-Japanese cuisine. An example of this mass Taipei trend is the 140-seat Pine Garden. Lunch at the dimly lit restaurant run by a formally dressed wait staff comes out at just under NT$300 and NT$600. They feature a salad (with house dressing) and cold egg custard arranged around a main dish of mackerel, breaded pork, or beef stir fried with onions. Set meals go for NT$888 on the dinner menu. You leave full. Non-set offerings include sashimi platters and seafood soup, and reservations are not required.
Pine Garden, Bade Road Sec. 2 No 194, tel: + 2 2773 3002
Beer hall: Xian Ding Wei
Loud, crowded and cheap spots clustered near other Taipei nightlife form a class of restaurant called "fast fry" or "seafood 100". Among them is the Xian Ding Wei, which means "Fresh Reservation" in Chinese. Its self-service refrigerator comes with multiple types of bottled Taiwan beer, including the seldom-found Hefeweizen, and much of the food is made to complement the brews. Some people just go to fast-fry spots to get food to chase the beer down. Open from around 5pm until the last person stumbles out, Xian Ding Wei lets people start meals by picking their preferred fish and other seafood from a display on ice. Some dishes are just NT$100, hence the "seafood 100" label. Coincidentally, about 100 people can squeeze in, and 100 items are on the menu. But not every dish is just NT$100, nor is everything seafood. Chilli-fried chicken, sashimi and sautéed yam greens also appear on the menu. Help yourself to free white rice.
Xian Ding Wei, Jinzhou Street No 25, tel: + 2 2511 5877, tw-sdw.com
Hotpot: Chuan Ba Zi
Taiwanese families and office parties have enshrined the hotpot as a dominant cuisine in Taipei. The process of tossing ingredients into a sunken vat of boiling soup and scooping them out a few minutes later reduces restaurant staffing, and keeps prices as low as NT$300 for a soup base plus plates of raw veggies and seafood. Given the massive competition, it's amazing that Chuan Ba Zi hotpot is so hot that it's difficult to get one of the 100 seats on weekend evenings. The Sichuan-style hotpots start with a spicy red chilli soup base, to which diners add beef, mutton, or several kinds of fish, up to a total of 18 main ingredients. A pot costs NT$488. One of the most popular orders is the sour vegetable fish yin-yang hotpot, with one side of the vat sour and the other spicy. Outside the pot, try a spiced cold chicken plate or the green onion noodles.
Chuan Ba Zi, Fuxing South Road Sec. 1 No 144, tel: +2 2776 5011, cbz.com.tw
Sit-down Chinese meal: Shin Yeh
The busy, formal restaurant near the Imperial Hotel brings some of Taipei's most eclectic queues. Couples on dates line up with groups of expatriates and Taiwanese families out to celebrate life events. The attraction is the upscale renditions of Taiwanese food such as turnip omelette and fried oysters with a dry salt-pepper dip. A whole meal can be compiled from the menu's vegetarian dishes, and bills can add up to NT$1,000 for two. An evening ends with complimentary pots of tea and sweet, spongy glutinous rice flour balls. The lines move fast, as the Taipei chain's original restaurant has 450 seats. Still, the staff suggest making a reservation.
Shin Yeh, Shuangcheng Street No 34-1, tel: +2 2596 3255, shinyeh.com.tw