Dedicated owners from around the world opening restaurants in Hualien are enlivening the culinary scene in this east coast city.
Hualien is justly famous for the glories of Taroko Gorge and the magnificence of the coast that looks across the Pacific Ocean, attractions that bring tourists here from all over Taiwan and overseas. It is Taiwan’s premier scenic destination, but it also holds another kind of attraction: it is a place where people come to make their dreams a reality.
The nature of this appeal remains something of a mystery to me, even though as someone who recently relocated to Hualien to make a new life running a small private dining and B&B establishment in Shoufeng Township after more than a decade working as a journalist in Taipei, I have little option but to vouch for its hold on the imagination.
Despite Hualien’s innumerable attractions for the visitor, it has long been short on culinary options. But this deficiency has gradually been remedied over the last few years, not least due to the efforts of a number of foreign residents who have set up shop here, offering food ranging from American barbecue and Tex-Mex to artisanal European breads and homemade Dutch pancakes.
A number of foreign residents have set up shop here, offering food ranging from American barbecue and Tex-Mex to artisanal European breads and homemade Dutch pancakes.
Some came for work reasons, such as Grigori Suchok from Belarus, who discovered Hualien while employed as a dancer at Farglory Ocean Park, Hua-lien’s biggest theme park. Other simply came for the lifestyle, taking advantage of the many outdoor opportunities and the warmth. These include Canadian Jason Crawford, who opened Hualien’s first Tex-Mex restaurant, or Jason Delickta from Michigan and Benjamin Mercer from Alaska, who do traditional American barbecue. In the case of Adriand Gertrude Leijenhorst from the Netherlands, the decision to open a restaurant was part of an ambition to contribute to a community she had grown to love.
Even for Julia Wang, who grew up here, Hualien was where she came to retire with her Japanese husband, seeking a quiet life amid the mountains and ocean. After eight years, the quiet got a bit too much, though, so Wang, who loved nothing better than whipping up delicious Japanese food for her family and friends, opened Pension Imari, a guesthouse on the Japanese model that served both breakfast and dinner – initially just for those staying at the guesthouse. But as word quickly spread about the quality of the food, friends pressed her to establish an independent restaurant, which opened in 2011.
Five years on, her Dining Imari (86 Zhongyang Road, Section 4, Hualien. Tel: 03-846 3388) is one of Hualien’s swankiest establishments. Wang remains enthusiastic about providing an authentic Japanese dining experience, but she has also grown weary of the challenges to doing business in Hualien, ranging from corrupt local officials demanding free food to guests’ complaints about high prices compared to other local eateries.
While Wang is not a professionally trained Japanese chef, she studied cooking while living in Japan. “With a Japanese husband, the flavors had to be authentic,” she told me, recounting her early experience in the kitchen. Now 60, Wang laments the inability to find trained staff, and looking to the future of the business, she has brought in her son to serve as head chef. He is now in his third year of intensive training under her tutelage, and Wang herself has completed an eMBA degree to give the business a firmer grounding.
“I want to give people the real Japanese experience,” she said, contrasting Dining Imari with the myriad low-priced Japanese-style restaurants that are a mainstay of Hualien City’s culinary scene. She takes great care with presentation, personally designing the look of each dish, so as to provide visual as well has gustatory pleasure.
In recent months, Wang has begun holding cooking classes based on her published recipe book. “This is a way to connect with local people,” she said, adding that the classes have all been booked out. “I can show them that a little attention to detail in the presentation can make all the difference to a dish.”
Wang’s desire to express herself through her food is something shared by others who have decided to take advantage of the relatively low entry barriers to opening a food business in Hualien. Another establishment that aims to stand out as distinctively “foreign” is Salt Lick, the barbecue restaurant opened in April 2013 by Delickta and Mercer. Both partners had a background in hospitality, Delickta as a chef and Mercer on the business side, and while teaching English in Taiwan they saw an opportunity to move from being employees to going into business for themselves.
Stress on authenticity
Prior to Salt Lick, Hualien certainly had other Western restaurants, but even those – such places as Three Koalas and Country Mother – had largely gone native, serving what might be described as Taiwan-influenced diner food. Delickta and Mercer aimed to provide an authentic experience of American barbeque, even down to the smoker they designed to provide the right flavor for such signature dishes as their slow-cooked beef brisket. Sticking to their guns and doing things their own way, Salt Lick (147 Zhongshan Road, Hualien. Tel: 03-833-2592) has become one of Hua-lien’s best-recognized names over the last three years.
Mercer considers that its success is due to something more than just sound business strategy. Many would-be restaurateurs are only motivated by the desire to make money, he says, and they will generally fail. “The origins of your restaurant should begin with the concept that I want to do this because I love it. If you have that passion, then the money will come.”
Mercer has taken pains to establish connections with the local community, using every opportunity to promote the business with taxi drivers and nearby shops. But the kind of connection that he values even more is with the young people who often find their first job in hospitality at Salt Lick, opening new possibilities for them that might not otherwise be available.
Foreign-owned restaurants are even beginning to alter the geography of Hualien City, with Fuxing Street becoming known at “foreigner street” (外國街) due to its growing number of non-Chinese food outlets. Amid the Thai, Korean, and other Asian restaurants, which blend into this bustling corner just off the town’s main drag, two stand out: Dos Tacos, a Tex-Mex joint run by former English teacher Crawford, and Suchok’s Russian restaurant, Kali Laska.
Foreign-owned restaurants are even beginning to alter the geography of Hualien City, with Fuxing Street becoming known at “foreigner street” (外國街)
Suchok decided to shift from working as a performer to the more settled life as the chef/owner of Kali Laska so he could spend more time with his family. “When I first started, it was really stressful since I didn’t know anything about running a restaurant,” he recalls. Kali Laska (54 Datong St, Hualien. Tel: 0963-413744) has now been running out of a converted garage for seven years, with good response from both locals and visitors.
Kali Laska is small and homey, with much of the interior and exterior renovation done by Suchok himself. Its appeal is partly the unusual food, which Suchok says is exactly how he would make it back in Belarus, where he learned to cook. Adding to the sense of the exotic, Suchok runs the restaurant with a strongly hands-on approach, perhaps due to his background as a performer. “When people come here, it is half for the Russian food, but also half for the Russian boss,” he said. “They want to see me; I want to cook for them.”
“When people come here, it is half for the Russian food, but also half for the Russian boss,” he said. “They want to see me; I want to cook for them.”
This aspect was echoed by Mercer, who makes it a point that either he or Delickta is present during food service. “When you eat at an American restaurant, it’s nice to see an American there. If I went to a Japanese restaurant, I would love to see a Japanese guy there making the food.”
I spoke with Suchok on a Friday morning before business kicked off, as he and Crawford sat outside Dos Tacos smoking and chewing betel nut over their morning coffee. Local delivery guys would give them a friendly shout, and the otherwise rather subdued atmosphere of a Hualien side street was clearly being energized by their presence.
The otherwise rather subdued atmosphere of a Hualien side street was clearly being energized by their presence.
Dos Tacos, which has been running for three years, recently moved to the current more spacious address (92 Fuxing Road, Hualien. Tel: 03-831-1733). Crawford says that business – open at lunchtime only – has become increasingly steady, as the restaurant’s reputation in this relatively small town has grown, and a local prejudice that Mexican food would be too spicy has gradually been overcome. He is developing new dishes using local produce such as fish tacos made from mahi-mahi caught off the east coast.
Operations such as Crawford’s and Suchok’s enliven the culinary scene in Hualien’s downtown, and they have undertaken some cross promotions with new hotels and hostels nearby. Others who have set up in Hualien have a more personalized agenda, striking out on their own, indifferent to the demands of the market, but showing by their success that in a small place like Hualien, they can influence taste by an unwavering dedication to what they love best.
Konstantin Weicht, from Austria, came to Hualien to be with his wife’s family who live in Hualien, and an initial interest in baking led to a more solid commitment to food production. “At first we were giving away bread, and that’s where the business started out,” Weicht said on a busy afternoon as he worked his brick kiln at iOven (No. 45, Lane 315, Linsen Road, Hualien. Tel: 03-832-6656, Chinese; 0978299057, German and English), stocking up even as customers began to drift in to pick up a fresh loaf.
Weicht was not a professional baker, but he has used his skills as an academic (he was an assistant professor in the Institute of Human Resources Management back in Austria) to research wood-fired bakeries and breadmaking. He laid the first bricks for the kiln back in 2014 and now bakes bread, pizza, and cakes three days a week. If the tourism website Tripadvisor is to be trusted, he has rapidly risen to the top of the charts for restaurants in Hualien despite the limited opening hours (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.).
The reason for this success, according to Weicht, is all about providing authentic European-style bread. And it is not just about using the best ingredients (iOven uses imported German flour for a more authentic European taste), but a commitment to providing something unique. Weicht started baking in Hualien because he didn’t like the bread here, and he has not felt any need to pander to local tastes.
For Weicht, iOven is a lifestyle choice as much as a business. It is about doing it himself, from building the oven, to sourcing and chopping the wood, to working the kiln to bake the bread. As with Suchok, working in a small food business allows him to spend more time with his family, and Hualien’s culinary scene is enriched by his efforts.
Idealism goes one step further with Jany’s Pancake House, located in the depths of Hualien’s harbor district (124 Dongxing 1st Street, Hualien. Tel: 0984-246216). Here Leijenhorst serves up traditional Dutch-style pancakes. The business is her excuse to live in Hualien, a place she fell in love with during her travels, and a way for her to engage with the community and give them a window onto a wider world.
The business is her excuse to live in Hualien, a place she fell in love with during her travels, and a way for her to engage with the community and give them a window onto a wider world.
To set up this business, Leijenhorst, formerly a mechanical engineer in Holland, learned Chinese, studied under a professional pancake chef (she even has the diploma to prove it), and designed her own specialist hob for her kitchen. She has made the restaurant fully accessible for the disabled, even installing an elevator between the first and second floor dining areas. There is a strong message of inclusiveness about her venture, which even includes the beginnings of a library that people can contribute to.
“There are lots of stories around Dutch pancakes,” Leijenhorst told me. When I visited, which happened to be on the Feast of Saint Nicolas, she was ready to provide guests with an introduction to the festival, had gifts of traditional Dutch sweets on hand, and had arranged for a friend to dress up as Black Pete, the helper of Saint Nicolas, to build up the festive spirit.
The owners of these and other small businesses – focused on something they love and willing to do their best to overcome cultural hurdles – are finding their own way to make something distinctive. For at least several of them, the effort is beginning to pay off. Mercer talks about expansion plans for Salt Lick, and both Crawford and Weicht have received expressions of interest from would-be franchisees.
Whatever happens next will be a whole new story, but for the moment these local amateur restaurateurs are working hard to build their own dreams in Hualien.