Three Taipei restaurants to bear in mind when hankering for the food of northern China.
Photos by Matthew Fulco
Over the years it has become harder to find authentic northern Chinese restaurants in Taipei. Restaurant founders who arrived in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang government more than 65 years ago have nearly all passed on. Even the children of those founders are now well into their 60s. It is questionable whether a third generation will keep the few remaining restaurants running.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to this regrettable trend. And those exceptions happen to serve some of the best Chinese food of any kind available in the Taiwanese capital.
Beijing Do It True
Beijing Do It True is a bastion of traditional northern Chinese cuisine that prides itself on artisanal cooking methods. Established in 1949 as a food stand in Kaohsiung by native Beijinger Hsu Ping-ping, the restaurant moved to Taipei in the early 1960s and is now headed by the founder’s son, Hsu Han-shan.
The restaurant “does things in a traditional way” to ensure quality and authenticity, says Hsu Han-shan, who remains the driving force behind Beijing Do It True despite his nominal retirement in Taoyuan. The restaurant makes certain ingredients in-house because what is available on the outside market “cannot meet our standards,” he says, noting that the restaurant ferments its own cabbage, for example.
The restaurant’s extensive menu features a number of must-try signature dishes. The spicy braised pork wrapped in a Chinese sesame bun is a good place to start. The rich, fatty pork meat is stewed for hours, allowing it to meld seamlessly into the crispy buns.
From there, move on to the fried jumbo dumplings (guotieh, 鍋貼), which are filled with minced pork, shrimp, and leek sprouts. Crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, they make a delectable treat. “The challenge with this dish is ensuring crispiness on both sides,” says Hsu. “If you use a standard electric or gas oven to cook it, the dumplings will be soft on one side and crispy on the other.” The restaurant therefore uses a coal-fired oven to cook the dumplings. Although that method limits the quantity that can be prepared, the result is authentic and delicious, Hsu says.
With several days’ notice, Beijing Do It True will also prepare a traditional scallion pancake (congyoubing, 蔥油餅) for guests. Those accustomed to the Taiwanese version widely available from street vendors will undoubtedly question the need to order the dish in advance. After all, a skilled street vendor can turn out hundreds of them a day.
The reason is simple: The traditional scallion pancake is the size of a large pizza, ideal for four to six hungry diners to share. Beijing Do It True only prepares two of them per day, says Hsu. “It’s so big that we aren’t able to cook other dishes at the same time,” he says, adding that it takes 12 hours to prepare the dish.
Given the restaurant’s reputation for high-quality and authentic Beijing cuisine, Beijing Do It True has hosted a number of A-list celebrities and politicians over the years. Among them are movie star Jackie Chan, former U.S. president George H.W. Bush, and Chiang Wei-kuo, the adopted son of Chiang Kai-shek.
Yet despite Beijing Do It True’s popularity, there are no plans to open additional outlets. “We have to maintain our standards,” Hsu says. “It’s already a challenge to do that in this one restaurant.”
Beijing Do It True
506 RenAi Road, Section 4, Taipei
Yi Yuan Pekinese Restaurant
The most refined northern Chinese cuisine in Taipei is hidden away on the B2 level of the Westin Hotel on Nanjing East Road. But that discreet location is no secret to local gourmets. The Yi Yuan restaurant – named for the Summer Palace in Beijing – has become one of the go-to destinations in the Taiwanese capital to experience fresh interpretations of imperial Chinese cooking.
In the mid-2000s, it was possible to get a table at Yi Yuan on the weekend by calling one day in advance. Occasionally, walk-ins were successful too, especially past the peak dining period in the evening. But as dining out has become more fashionable in Taipei – no longer something reserved for the most special occasions – Yi Yuan is typically booked on weekend nights weeks in advance, notes chef Jordan Yang.
The restaurant’s popularity is not being driven merely by the trendiness of dining out, however. “Beijing is traditionally known for its duck, and for its street food and snacks,” Yang says. “We are still offering those dishes, but compared to the past, we now feature more imperial cuisine.” That variant of the Chinese culinary tradition historically enjoyed by the country’s royalty is rare in Taipei, Yang observes.
One imperial dish he recommends is sliced beef in seafood sauce (九環醬牛肉). That savory dish was a favorite of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled during the twilight of the Qing dynasty. Like many Chinese rulers, Cixi was a big foodie. She had as many as 128 people on her cooking staff, several dozen more than in Emperor Qianlong’s imperial kitchen, and they were able to prepare more than 4,000 dishes, according to the China Internet Information Center.
One of the reasons Cixi favored the sliced beef in seafood sauce was its artistic presentation, to which Yi Yuan stays true, notes Yang. Surrounding the sliced beef on the plate are carefully arranged pieces of baby bok choy carved in the shape of a bird’s head.
Naturally, the Beijing duck remains a favorite dish at the Westin, and needs to be ordered in advance. Yang is quick to point out the uniqueness of the sauce Yi Yuan uses, which he says is superior to that of the competition. With 18 different ingredients and a black bean base, it is complex and full-flavored.
The duck itself, meanwhile, might be the tastiest in all of Taipei. The meat is perfectly tender, neither too gamey nor too soft. Served as a first course on its own, the skin is crisp and delicate. Wrapped in a pancake with onion and Yang’s signature sauce, it almost melts in the mouth.
Given Yang’s expertise in northern Chinese cooking, one could imagine he comes from a family of post-1949 northern Chinese immigrants to Taiwan. To that question, he smiles and corrects the writer’s mistake. “My family came to Taiwan from mainland China generations ago,” he says. “I became a chef of northern Chinese food because at that time in Taiwan it was considered more prestigious than any other Chinese cuisine besides Cantonese.”
Yang’s goal now is to keep Yi Yuan at the forefront of gourmet Chinese cuisine in Taipei. “We must continue to be a leader,” he says.
B2, Westin Taipei
133 NanJing East Road, Section 3, Taipei
Shao Shao Ke
Most of Taipei’s northern Chinese restaurants were founded by migrants from mainland China after 1949 or by native Taiwanese who learned the cooking style from them. Now many of the restaurant founders have passed on and their successors are well past 60. For that reason, it is common that the remaining establishments date back to the 1950s and are run by white-haired proprietors.
The restaurant Shao Shao Ke is a notable exception. It was opened in 1996 by a native Taiwanese who came to appreciate Shaanxi cuisine while living in the northwestern Chinese province, learned to prepare it, and then returned to Taiwan to open a restaurant. Owner Carly Li first went to Shaanxi in 1991. There she worked in a shop, set up by her father in the provincial capital of Xi’an, that provided repair and refurbishment services for Chinese antiques.
After that venture eventually failed, Li opened Shao Shao Ke on her return to Taiwan in 1996. It started with eight small tables and has remained modest in size with a low profile, tucked away in a quiet residential lane just north of Renai Road, close to Jinshan South Road.
Staying small has allowed Li to perfect her repertoire of Shaanxi cuisine prepared for Taiwanese. She admits some of the heavy seasoning and spices in the traditional recipes would be unpleasant to Taiwanese taste buds. But the refinement of the recipes has led to no loss of flavor. The dishes are light and delicate, while retaining the cuisine’s aromatic qualities.
Must-try dishes include stir-fried fish fillets with dried chilies (蔥椒魚片), hand-made noodles with chopped lamb and carrots (小蔥羊肉拌麵), and stir-fried betel nut blossoms (炒半天花), a fine example of Shao Shao Ke’s talent for fusing Shaanxi flavors with local ingredients.
For dessert, Li recommends the delicious Mongolian mozzarella cheese tofu (蒙古炸奶豆腐), which tastes similar to fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. It’s best to call ahead and reserve it as the restaurant only makes a limited quantity each day.
So just how good is Shao Shao Ke? Good enough to be fully booked on a weeknight if you try to call the same day. The same goes for weekend lunches.
“We are all foodies in our family,” Li concludes. “We love to cook. I didn’t go to Shaanxi particularly to learn how to cook Shaanxi food. It’s something that just developed naturally from the time I spent living there.”
Shao Shao Ke Shaanxi Restaurant
No. 15, Lane 41, RenAi Road, Section 2, Taipei.