Friday, March 14, 2014

Taiwan Day 11: Eat and Drink at Saute Restaurant, a Quick Fry Shop / 在33區熱炒生猛海鮮邊吃邊喝 (Taipei: Zhongshan District / 台北市: 中山區)

Quick fry stores are Taiwan's way of combining the restaurant and bar.  It is a blend of food and drink that fuses together so many styles of eating that it is not easy to describe the kind of venue that it is.  While it is frequented after work as a venue for a combined happy hour and dinner, it really brings together aspects of Chinese dim sum, Japanese izakaya, Spanish tapas, and American happy hour all under the same roof.  Dishes can range from grilled meat on sticks, both raw and cooked seafood, deep fried pub food, and the ever popular Chinese style stir fry presented on small plates.  All of the food is meant to be consumed with beer or wine.  Art, Diana, and I dropped in to Saute Restaurant (33區 熱炒生猛海鮮) to get our grub and guzzle on.

What goes better with beer than fried chicken wings (南乳炸雞翅)? It's almost obligatory.  Thin and crisp skin on the outside with juicy meat on the inside make for an irresistible starting snack.

Food on a stick is just about as good as anything deep fried when it comes to pairing food with beer.  These cumin lamb skewers (孜然羊肉串) really hit the spot.  They were well seasoned from tip to tail with an earthy spice that begged for a chasing of beer.

Speaking of beer, the three of us were having Taiwan Beer (台湾啤酒).  The national namesake has a special taste as it incorporates the locally grown Formosa rice (蓬萊米) into its brew, adding a subtle hint of sweetness and making it very drinkable.  Taiwan Beer comes in many varieties.  Art and Diana tested out the new mango and grape flavors; they are sweeter and have less alcohol content.  I stuck with the draft version.  Its short 18 day shelf life keeps it fresh.

I have had so much chilled bamboo (鮮竹筍) on the trip already that you would think I have exhausted my taste for it, but this panda food has got such a cleansing mouth feel that it is tough to avoid.  It works as a great palate cleanser between the greasy appetizers and the forthcoming courses.

Being from an island nation that was formerly a Japanese colony, the Taiwanese are big fans of fresh seafood, and nothing is fresher than fish recently hauled in from the Pacific.  We actually saw the restaurant staff haul in a massive tuna fish into the restaurant while we were eating, so we had no choice but to order the tuna sashimi (鮪魚刺身).  We also ordered the salmon sashimi (鮭魚刺身) for good measure.

This happened in the middle of our meal... pretty neat.  It is always good to see restaurants using the freshest ingredients for their customers.  That was one massive monster of a maguro.

A favorite of any Taiwanese establishment, whether restaurant or bar, is three cup chicken (三杯雞腿).  33區 uses thigh and leg meat only in their preparation.  The result is an undeniably juicy soy and wine infused chicken.  The abundant use of garlic, ginger, and fresh basil is simply mouth watering.  Great with rice, great with beer... just so good.

Veggies! It just so happens that the three of us are on the same page regarding the vegetable consumption.  Loofah and clams (蛤蜊絲瓜) is a homey dish that we have all had during our childhood.  While more famously known for its body cleaning purposes, loofah is actually a squash like vegetable that, to me, is like a cross between cucumber and zucchini.  The fresh clams adds a seafood essence to the dish.

As the meal draws to a close, the yearning for heartier and more substantial fare grows.  Scrambled eggs and shrimp (滑蛋蝦仁) warmed us up and balanced out all the cold beer we had.  The greasy eggs and succulent shrimp provided a warmth that we really needed.  But even then, I'm pretty sure we drank some more.

There were two more dishes, but by this time in the meal, we had so consumed so many bottles of beer that it was not easy to recollect the names of the dishes... or even what we had eaten for that matter.  I would bank them being stir-fried seafood dishes though.  Cheers!

Until next time, get your drink on.  Let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

33區熱炒生猛海鮮 (Area 33 Quick Fry Seafood)
No. 63-1, Chang An East Rd., Section 1, Zhongshan District, Taipei City

An equally authentic establishment in Los Angeles:
Uncle Yu's Indian Theme Restaurant
633 S. San Gabriel Blvd.  Suite 105
San Gabriel, CA 91776

ML - 20130710

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Taiwan Day 11: Undeniably Taiwanese Snacks / 一眼看出就是台灣小吃 (Taipei: Wanhua District / 台北市: 萬華區)

One of the best things about Taiwanese cuisine is that there is a vast variety of little snacks or small eats (小吃 / Mandarin: xiǎo chi).  The Taiwanese thrive on these small eats primarily because they are convenient and affordable.  Not only do they get served up quickly, they come in individual servings most of the time.  It is easy to grab and eat in a hurry.  Even if you are in a large group, each person can still eat what they want without having to collectively decide on what to order.  Oh, and these xiaochi can be found on just about every street corner and alleyway.  Art and I were at Ximending (西門町) when a pang of hunger overcame us, so we stopped to have some of our favorite Taiwanese snacks.

The first thing that comes to mind when I need to satisfy my hunger quickly is braised pork rice (滷肉飯 / Mandarin: lǔ ròu fàn / Taiwanese: loh bah bng), also known as stewed pork rice or minced pork rice depending on how it is prepared.  Ground pork, usually stewed with shiitake mushroom and crispy fried shallots, covers a bowl of steamed white rice and gets garnished with a florescent pickled radish.  It is simple bowl of savory satisfaction that cannot be beat.

Arguably the most famous of Taiwanese street foods is the oyster omelette (蚵仔煎 / Taiwanese: ô-ah jian), more commonly known as oyster pancake in English.  It really is an omelette since it is made predominantly of scrambled eggs and because there is no bread like portion to make it a pancake.  Fresh oysters and green veggies are scattered throughout the crisp egg round, and sweet potato starch holds it all together while providing a very glutinous and chewy 'Q' texture.  Sweet chili sauce, a typical condiment used in Taiwanese cooking, is spread across the top.  There is no name for this in Mandarin because this is a truly local item that has been made since the days of Formosa.  The chef can whip this petite and protein packed pancake for you in no time.  I love it.

Neither fried chicken nor food on a stick is Taiwanese in nature, but it is something that is crazy popular on the streets of Taipei.  Whether it is little bite sized pieces of salt and pepper seasoned popcorn chicken or the giant, pounded, deep fried chicken filet from Shilin Night Market, fried chicken must be eaten.  It is just so crispy.  No matter what time of day your hunger pangs develop, the deep fried chicken makes it seem like happy hour.  All that is missing is beer.

These traditional Taiwanese snacks were delicious and held us over until dinner.  Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Ximending Pedestrian Area (西門町)
Hanzhong Street, Wanhua District, Taipei City
MRT: Ximen Station, exit no. 6 / 捷運西門站, 6號出口

ML - 20130710

Monday, March 10, 2014

Taiwan Day 10: Monstrosities of Shaved Ice from Ice Monster / 冰館雪花冰天天甜 (Taipei: Da An District / 台北市: 大安區)

On a hot and humid summer day in Taiwan, there is nothing better than a big bowl of shaved ice.  Whether it is topped with tropical fruits, mochi, flan, red bean, or ice cream, shaved ice can be made with a plethora of ingredients suited to anyone's taste.  Ice Monster originally made its name by making a massive mound of mango shaved ice for a relatively sky high price in a small, open air corner shop along the very touristy alleyway of Yong Kang Street.  It has since moved over to a much larger space on the bustling Zhongxiao East Road where the seating is much more comfortable and the menu has expanded.  Since its popularity has grown significantly, the wait time has also increased dramatically... but some things are worth waiting for.

The most popular item on the menu is the fresh mango shaved ice (新鮮芒果綿花甜) by far.  The mango itself has been injected into the ice, and chunks of the fresh fruit are packed into the sides of the icy mango mountain.  If that isn't enough mango for you, there is even a big scoop of mango ice cream that has been added to the base of the glowing yellow pyramid.  Honestly, it is way too sweet for me.  I believe that the creamy and buttery Taiwanese mango does not need sugar or syrup to enhance its sweetness.  Just the mango itself and perhaps a drizzle of condensed milk over the ice would have been sufficient for a magnificent shaved ice.  The panna cotta that comes with the shaved ice is the only thing that balances out the sweet snow.

The pearl milk tea shaved snow (珍珠奶茶綿花甜) is surprisingly not as sweet as the mango ice.  It is also a lot more whimsical and fun to eat.  Not only are the layers of frozen milk tea more apparent, the caramel syrup that runs down the side of the fluffy ice creates this glimmer of seduction that beckons your spoon over for a big shovel of the ice.  The tapioca pearls and a side of panna cotta top off the dessert.  I really like the addition of the chewy boba balls especially because of its textural contrast to the cottony soft ice.

Of all of the shaved ice and shaved snow that I've had at Ice Monster over the years, the jasmine tea shaved snow is my absolute favorite.  The jasmine tea is found throughout the ice, and the fragrance of which makes for a truly refreshing dessert.  In the truly hot summer months in the subtropical heat of Taiwan, I always prefer something that is cold but not laden with sugar, syrup or super sweetness.  There is a mini scoop of passion fruit sorbet, citrus jello and kiwi jam off on the side just for others who may need a touch more sugar, but the jasmine tea flavored ice by itself is the perfect choice for me.  Unfortunately, this item is off the menu, but I really hope that it is back in stores by the next summer season.

There are plenty of other desserts offered at the store... from coffee, peanut, pineapple, strawberry and lime shaved ice to dessert soups made with sweet potato, black sesame, and taro.  There is even a beer flavored shaved ice, which I am coming back for in the future.  But until then, keep cool, and get S.O.F.A.T.

Ice Monster
No. 297, Zhongxiao East Rd., Section 4, Da An District, Taipei City

ML - 20130709

Friday, March 7, 2014

Taiwan Day 10: Jin Chun Fa Beef Restaurant / 金春發牛肉店 (Taipei: Datong District / 台北市: 大同區)

Ever since my cousin first recommended Jin Chun Fa (金春發牛肉店) to me, it has been one of my absolute favorite places to eat in all of Taiwan.  It is a restaurant that specializes in beef dishes, and it proudly advertises that it has been in operation for over 100 years.  There are over 40 dishes that feature all parts of the cattle.  Dishes range from the safe and traditional like beef satay, curried beef, and beef and potato stir-fry... to more adventuresome plates of tendon, tongue, stomach, brain, heart, and penis.  Here are some of the items that I order whenever I visit.

One dish I dream about at night is this curry beef chow mein (炒咖哩牛肉麵), an absolute must order dish at this restaurant.  The spice from the curry, although apparent, does not take away from the strong point of this dish, which is the sliced beef.  It is sliced thin, which makes it tender and almost elastic in texture.  The noodles are my favorite because they are saucy, slippery, and slurpable, the way that a traditional Taiwanese chow mein is cooked.  It is neither greasy nor spicy... a surprise to most who try it.

Most bone marrow lovers prefer theirs oven roasted and served with toasted bread, but this stir-fried dragon bone marrow (炒龍骨髓) is what I crave.  It has been wok tossed with tomatoes into a savory and saucy dish that tastes like a soy sauce infused marinara.  All that marrow gravy goes great over rice or noodles.  Mmmm... and although I am not sure why it is called dragon bone marrow, I am sure that after having this dish you will change your mind about how you want your bone marrow prepared.

You know me... I need my vegetables.  What better way to get your greens in than by combining it with beef? This sauteed water spinach (炒空心菜) is flavored with garlic, red chili, and a blend of curry powder different from the one used in the chow mein.  The hallowed vegetable stems are crunchy and are a nice contrast to its leaves.  The beef, by the way, is just as soft and tender as the the leafy spinach. 

Another favorite at the restaurant include the stir-fried vinegar beef (炒醋肉), cooked with strands of ginger that blend into a sweet and sour sauce.  The satay beef (沙茶牛肉) using traditional Taiwanese barbecue sauce is an authentic dish that is worth a try as well.  All of these dishes, by the way, would pair well with a bowl of steamed white rice, but they taste even better chased down with ice cold beer.  Taiwanese beer is light and has lots of tingly effervescence, enhance the very flavorful beef dishes, many of which have lots of spice and seasoning, even further.

Anthony Bourdain featured this place on his episode of The Layover in Taipei, but I'm happy to say that I have been eating here years before he had ever dropped in.  He tries the beef noodle soup, but I think the stir-fried dishes definitely steal the show here.

Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Jin Chun Fa Beef Restaurant (金春發牛肉店)
No. 20, Tianshui Rd., Datong District, Taipei City

ML - 20130709

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Taiwan Day 10: Snow King's Unique Ice Cream Flavors / 雪王冰淇淋有非常特別的口味 (Taipei: Jhong Jheng District / 台北市: 中正區)

Just prior to my arrival in Taipei, The Wall Street Journal published an article highlighting eight countries in Asia known for their regional variations on shaved ice and where to try it.  Halo-halo was named for the Philippines, and patbingsu was named for Korea.  Strangely enough the article did not recognize any of the wildly popular local cold treats in Taiwan such as eight treasures or mango shaved ice (刨冰 / Mandarin: bào bing).  Instead, the article shined the spotlight on the modernized, sweetened, and more milky version of shaved snow (雪花冰 / Mandarin: xuě hua bing).  It also featured the ice cream from Snow King (雪王) in Ximen Ding (西門町).  I took the physical article with me straight to the Snow King shop to do some recon.  With unique flavors such as sesame oil chicken, stewed pig's feet, and wasabi on top of the refreshing watermelon and basil flavors, it was easy to see why this place stood out from the rest.  (See the colorful highlights from the WSJ article here.)

The first seemingly bizarre flavor that Grace and I wanted to try was pork floss (肉鬆 / Mandarin: ròu song).  This supposed floss is pork that has been shredded and dried until crunchy.  It is often used as a topping for steamed rice or porridge and usually added to rice rolls or sandwiches for texture contrast.  It almost looks like scruffy facial hair.  Oh, and yes, it was in the ice cream.  If you think it is bizarre, you are right... it is extremely weird to have bits of pork whiskers lodged within the creamy texture of milky ice cream.  It is, however, very edible.  If you can get past thinking about the meat in your dairy dessert, then the texture would be no different than cotton candy.  You may have to chew it, but not for long.  Just like the carnival treat, the rou song quickly melts on your tongue.  It just happens to do so with a savory, pork jerky taste.  This flavor, by the way, is extremely popular among both children and diabetics.

To cleanse our palate of the porky flavor, we chose the top selling watermelon ice cream next.  It is not as creamy as the ice cream you would expect in America.  The texture is lighter, and the dairy is not as evident.  It is almost a cross between Italian gelato and a snow cone.  But it is visibly red with the color of watermelon.  If that weren't enough, little bits of the fruit are apparent with every bite.  This ice cream is not too sweet and easy to consume with big happy spoonfuls on a hot summer day.

The next special flavor that I went for was Taiwan Beer (台啤 / Mandarin: taí pí).  This is not as unusual as the first, especially for Westerners, since Guinness flavored ice cream has been more frequently found in recent times.  After the first bite, you will notice the hint of bitterness that the bubbly brew is known for.  The sweetness is only in the aftertaste when your brain affirms that yes, this tastes like nothing else but Taiwan Beer, the very drinkable national lager.  On a sweltering day in the sub-tropics, it doesn't if your beer comes as a liquid in a can or as ice cream in a cup.  As long as it is served cold, it is a fitting refreshment.  I really liked this one, and I definitely will come back for more.

Thank you very much to Madame Boss (老闆娘 / Mandarin: láo bǎn niáng) who conversed with us in fluent English to help us select from the many flavors offered at the store.  From lychee to peach and pineapple, all the ingredients are locally sourced.  Even the basil, wasabi, and hard liquor used in the ice cream are grown or produced in Taiwan.  The only one that has been imported is the Korean ginseng. 

I did not try the sesame oil chicken or the pig's feet flavors this time.  There's only so much ice cream that a guy can eat in one sitting! But I'm eager to test out those very traditional dishes in icy dessert form in the future.  But until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Snow King (雪王冰淇淋)
No. 65, Wuchang Rd., Section 1, Jhong Jheng District, Taipei City
MRT: Ximen Station, exit no. 5 / 捷運西門站, 5號出口

ML - 20130709

Monday, March 3, 2014

Taiwan Day 10. Old Wang's Beef Noodle Soup on Taoyuan Street / 桃源街的老王記牛肉麵大王 (Taipei: Jhong Jheng District / 台北市: 中正區)

On the tenth day of my trip to Taiwan, my friend Grace said that she wanted to introduce me to a beef noodle soup shop that she had just a recently.  We navigated the streets only a few blocks away from Ximen Ding (西門町), a young people's hot spot, to Old Wang's Beef Noodle Soup (老王記牛肉麵大王) on Taoyuan Street (桃源街).  Only after leaving did I realize we had eaten at one of the most famous places for beef noodle soup in Taiwan.

Grace and I both ordered the red braised version of the beef noodle soup (牛肉麵 / niú ròu miàn).  Each time I sit down to eat beef noodle soup, I think about trying out the beef noodle soup with clear broth, but it's tough to change old habits.  I always end up getting the soy sauce variation with chunks of tender braised beef and a bed of pickled mustard greens (酸菜 / suan cài) floating around in the soup.  The soup here at Old Wang's is beefy enough and not unbearably spicy, not overly salty, and not overly doused with soy sauce.  The beef breaks apart upon biting it, and the noodles taste fresh without being doughy.  I would prefer them to be a bit more 'Q' or elastic, but I can see why this restaurant has so much loyal fans.

We also ordered the steamed spare ribs (粉蒸排骨 / fěn zheng pái gǔ) often served in Taiwanese noodle houses as a side dish.  What makes this dish remarkable is how much flavor is compact into this petite bamboo steamer.  Not only is there sticky rice seasoned with five spice and chilies packed around the pieces of pork, but there is a bed of sweet potato at the bottom of the steamer as well.  It soaks up all the fatty drippings from the pork as the fat on the meat renders away in the cooking process.  The sweet potato becomes so tender and soft with fatty juice and seasonings that it could be made into a delicious mashed potato.

With all this juicy protein floating around in our noodle soups and steaming away in our seasoned rice, we have to have some vegetables to balance it all out, right? We also had some of the pickled cabbage (泡菜 / pào cài), a local take on what is otherwise more popularly known as kimchi in Korean or tsukemono in Japanese.

The menu is simple: beef noodle soup (red braised or clear broth), pig's feet noodles, steamed spare ribs, pickled cabbage, and variations on the noodles and soup.  Grace and I ordered everything but the pig's feet not due to any aversions but simply because we wanted to save room for some famous ice cream after lunch.  I will be returning for the stewed pig's feet though.  But until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Old Wang's Beef Noodle Soup (老王記牛肉麵大王)
No. 15, Taoyuan St., Jhong Jheng District, Taipei City
MRT: Ximen Station, exit no. 3 / 捷運西門站, 3號出口

ML - 20130709