In selecting a place to eat, don’t forget to consider the price/performance ratio.
Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a much better eater than economist. And while economics in Taiwan poses its challenges, choosing the right restaurant in Taipei requires calculations several orders of magnitude more complex. The restaurant scene in Taipei is, as the proverb says, like “the boundless sky littered with stars (天上繁星).” Where does one begin such an interstellar voyage?
With economics, of course, and more specifically the price/performance ratio. P/PR is a real thing in economics, and I have been using it as the foundation of my gastronomical meanderings for over two decades, owing back to one failed experiment – the “million dong meal” in Hanoi in 1996. But that’s another story.
When it comes to Chinese food, my delight in the culinary experience infallibly is inversely related to the exquisiteness and expense of the dish. Here I am thinking specifically about you, abalone – or, as I like to call you, the deflated soccer ball of the sea. But the axiom holds true for the dozens of chewy marine invertebrates others are likely to beam over at the next banquet.
Luckily, what I want – and no doubt what you want – has a name, and it’s called “homestyle” (jiachang cai, 家常菜). So simple, so pure, so absent from the culinary discussions of “polite company.” Homestyle won’t win any awards for interior design; it may not even have fully functioning air conditioning. Homestyle is more than likely to be served by a surly, middle-aged woman who will return to the table twice to tell you your order has been sold out for the day.
But what homestyle lacks in finesse, it makes up for in authenticity, the product of thousands of years of trial-and-error by Chinese families in determining what’s available, what’s affordable, what tastes good, and what’s going to get the kids into Berkeley. Who are you to desire anything fancier?
Although there is an abundance of restaurants in Taipei that fully meet my qualifications for a good homestyle meal, the Dalian Delicacies House (大連風味館), 175 FuXing South Road, Section 2 (Tel: 2325-4877), which I tried on the advice of a very wise woman who knows her way around Taipei’s restaurants, is a prime example. It occupies a nondescript storefront mere minutes from my workplace, and is not immediately distinguishable from a mobile phone store. Indeed I must have passed the place dozens of times without noticing, which is astounding given my predilection for good Dongbei (Manchurian) food. This was not just my substandard foreign language skills to blame. Doesn’t the term “Great Connection” (大連) sound more suited to a mobile phone store than a Chinese city?
Frankly, my first visit was not an unqualified success. Upon entering the humble interior, my lunch companion – a senior Taiwan ministry official – was skeptical but polite. I lifted the pen to the DIY paper menu and zeroed in on the Dongbei specialties. I confirmed that the Dongbei lapizi (東北辣皮子) was what I knew by a slightly different name – a plate of supple, transparent bean-flour noodles, sesame and vinegar sauce, and fresh, shredded cucumbers and other vegetables served room-temperature. To me, it’s the consummate Dongbei dish.
Recognizing my obvious streetfood-cred, the owner – a long-term Taipei resident originally from Shenyang – warned me apologetically that her ready-to-eat lapi might not be up to my expectations, owing to the need for extra preparation time – and an advance order – to obtain the real deal. I ordered it anyway. It arrived slightly warmer than I was used to, with fewer noodles and with a liquid, vinegar-based sauce completely bereft of sesame and with only a slight hint of Chinese mustard (芥末醬). In fairness, I had been warned. We cleaned the plate anyway, along with a cold, shredded vegetable salad called laohu cai (老虎菜), so named, I suppose, because it’s what you would end up with if a tiger rampaged through your vegetable garden.
For the main course, my companion and I kicked up the caloric intake with an order of the xunrou dabing (smoked meat pancakes, 燻肉大餅), to which the menu gave marquee billing. My split-second philological analysis revealed no hints about which kind of rou was going to be xun-ed, and with Chinese food I learned long ago not to ask more questions than necessary. Plus I was on assignment.
The meat-that-dare-not-speak-its-name arrived tender and fatty, along with a plate of thick, oily wheat-flour pancakes. I grew up eating tortillas in Southeastern Arizona, so the idea of rolling food into a pancake comes quite naturally, and the dish provided welcome relief from the serious Mexican food withdrawals I have been suffering from since I moved to Taipei in 2013. By the way – note to Taipei’s city managers – no city without at least one good burrito stand has any legitimate claim to cosmopolitanism. Just sayin’.
During my first visit, we turned down the owner’s offer to try the suancai wanzi tang (fermented vegetable and meatball soup, 酸菜丸子湯), mainly because it was an unseasonably warm October day, and we didn’t want our faces steamed by the soup, which would be heated at our table. It bears mentioning that on my second, more successful visit back in early December, the restaurant was packed to the gills and this is what every table was eating, ignoring the fact it was still unseasonably warm outside.
I enjoyed my second try at the lapizi better than the first, perhaps because the kitchen went a little bolder on the mustard. Also, the ambience had changed with the crowd, mostly Taipei laobaixing in their forties and fifties, who perhaps saw it as some sort of nod to history or heritage to eat Dongbei food once December hit. The room was joyful and boisterous as a good homestyle meal should be, and I scanned the tables for new options. The jiucaihe (“chive pockets,” 韭菜盒) caught my eye, probably because the light brown quality of the shell indicated just the right amount of roasting. Good choice: the filling did not disappoint, letting the rich, herbal taste of the chives do the heavy lifting.
Speaking of lifting, an affable chap at the next table gestured toward my companion and me with an open bottle of Jinmen gaoliang, which would have gone beautifully with the steamer of niurou zhengjiao (steamed beef dumplings, 牛肉蒸餃) that we had ordered to close out our meal. The dumplings were thick, doughy, and filling, which is probably closer to what our culinary forbears had in mind than the effete little love-bundles for which this town is now so famous.
Besides, I have never once been offered a slug of gaoliang while queueing for dumplings at some of Taipei’s better known eating establishments. And here is where jiachang transcends econometrics and mere dollars-and-sense. Family-style means that even though we may be eating food prepared by someone else, we can still enjoy the experience as if we were elbows-to-elbows with our brothers and sisters, arguing over sports or current events, at home in ourselves as social animals in need of occasional sustenance.
So you can go ahead and stand in line for two hours, number-ticket evaporating in expectant palms, eyes fixed at the digital signage waiting for the dumpling gods to deem you worthy of a seating. Or you can stop by that mom-and-pop restaurant you’ve passed a hundred times without noticing. There are seats available. And they’ll remember your name when you go back for more.