Pursuing the Offbeat Dining Experience

Once in a while, try something out of the ordinary, or even downright bizarre.

Taiwan has so many excellent restaurants – at all levels of the price scale – that it’s really hard for a diner to go wrong. But where to go when you tire of the conventional choices and you’re in the mood for something quite out of the ordinary?

Under the premise that “good things come in little packages,” let’s start with some outstanding eateries so small and unassuming that they are easily overlooked unless you are among the cognoscenti.

Diminutive Dining

Beef Sirloin Noodle Soup (牛逼牛腩飯麵湯)

Few people come to Muzha to dine out, and fewer still wander the alleyways stretching between the unserviced-by-subway neighborhood between it and Xindian. However, those who wander and know where to look may come across this hole-in-the-wall restaurant, whose humble size and locale belie the fact that it serves some of the best beef noodle soup to be found anywhere in Taipei.

Liu Yu at work conjuring up his delectably high-quality beef noodle soup and other beef dishes at his stand in Muzha. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

Though only 34 years old, proprietor Liu Yu creates a master-chef version of this Taiwanese comfort food, and does so out of a 10-seat stall wedged among fruit shops, a Family Mart, and a plumbing supplies store. But there is an early hint of the culinary quality to come. Instead of the cheap black-and-red plastic bowls that are de rigueur at lesser establishments, Liu serves his noodles in quality porcelain bowls embossed with traditional Chinese designs.

The bowls are just vessels for the real magic, produced using choice ingredients. Besides locally sourced vegetables and an extremely high-quality soy sauce made from black beans and eschewing cheap wheat additives, everything Liu uses is imported. That includes ultra-high-quality olive oil from Italy, and brisket as well as sirloin and other top cuts of beef from Brazil and Argentina.

The lengthy cooking process produces a thick broth, to which Liu adds more beef, carrots cut into chunks so as to be tender without becoming mushy, and a choice of hand-pulled noodles, rice (for diners looking to avoid wheat), or a no-carb winter borscht experience.

For those not familiar with the area, the restaurant can be tricky to locate. Consult the map on Liu’s Facebook page or show the address to your taxi driver: 台北市文山區忠順街一段26巷42號 (No. 42, Lane 28, Zhongshun St., Sec, 1, Wenshan District, Taipei.

Shirakawago Sushi(華山-合掌村)

A long line of people waiting to dine (several dozen on any given day) is generally considered an auspicious sign in Taiwan. But casual passers-by at the Huashan Market may well wonder why all those people are actually there, since the queue starts at the front of an otherwise nondescript public market. What they’re lining up for is the chance to eat at Shirakawago Sushi, one of Taipei’s smallest and most sought-after after sushi joints, and to enjoy the handiwork of two highly talented chefs who aren’t shy about hitting a few signature items with a blowtorch.

The “restaurant” consists of a few tables spilling out into the surrounding marketplace and a six-stool, two-chef sushi bar. What keeps the line long (besides the dearth of seating) is extreme quality. The chefs use the finest quality fish for their nigiri sushi, served on top of small pads of rice. The exquisite flavor prompts thoughts that it must be the result of an ancient sushi-rice making technique handed down through the generations. Shirakawago Sushi is in Zhongzheng District, at the Southeast Corner of Huashan Market, right next to the Shandao Temple MRT Station, Exit 5

Amma’s Kitchen

Long-time local expatriates who began their Taiwan experience doing the 60-day visa shuffle to Hong Kong will no doubt remember walking the dingy halls of Kowloon’s infamous Chungking Mansions, a labyrinthine building containing countless cheap hostels and some of the best Indian restaurants this side of Mumbai. Amma’s Kitchen manages to recreate the best of this ambiance by being located inside a colorfully decorated railroad apartment in a nondescript mixed-use building on Roosevelt Road. The six tables are lined up against one wall, forcing waitstaff to squeeze past, carrying trays.

Among the specialties are masala papadam and dosa, but everything here is excellent, good enough to go toe-to-toe with anything Chungking Mansions has to offer. Amma’s Kitchen is in the Zhongzheng District at 100-93 Roosevelt Road, Section 3(羅斯福路三段100-93號), just a tick north of Exit 4 of the Tai-power MRT station. Look for a sign at the bottom of the stairs reading “Amma’s Kitchen” – and please remove your shoes before entering the restaurant.

Animal-Themed Oddities

Animal-themed cafes aren’t a new phenomeon in Taiwan, and these days no blogger’s visit would be complete without at least one trip to one of Taiwan’s many cat cafés. These are so ubiquitous at this point as to be almost unworthy of inclusion in an article about unusual dining experiences.

Instead, we’ll just give a hearty tip of the hat to Paula Labline, who spent several months last year in a valiant attempt to visit every cat café in Taiwan, coming away with an impressive list and description of over 40 cat-themed restaurants from Keelung to Tainan for her blog, The Neighbor’s Cat. You can check the list out yourself, but the general takeaway is that most of these places are fine spots to get coffee and cake while hanging out with a few felines whose litter boxes you don’t have to clean.

So while not exactly a dime a dozen, cat restaurants are common enough in Taiwan. Alpaca restaurants, however, are another matter entirely.

The Oia Art Café (伊亞藝術咖啡館)

Located about 15 kilometers beyond Tamsui on the northern coast, the Oia Art Café allows visitors to dine on waffles and ice cream, sandwiches, and French fries while also being visited at their tables by a pair of extremely well trained snow-white alpacas called Snow and Li Bai. The furry pair wander from table to table like aging sports celebrities turned restaurateurs, checking in on customers for a few minutes, posing for selfies, and making themselves available for an occasional hug. The food at the Oia Art Cafe isn’t bad (about what you’d expect from a restaurant whose main attraction is meandering imported livestock), and their coffee is excellent.

Once you’ve eaten, you can head out back to the ocean-facing backyard, which is home to a small flock of brown alpacas and a tribe of pygmy goats. These animals are friendly enough, but judging by their smell not hygienic enough to be allowed inside the dining area. The whole place is run by a friendly mullet-hairstyled man called Michael. He got the idea of importing alpacas from his daughter who – after falling in love with them on the internet – convinced him to fly to New Zealand to buy a few (putting him well in the running for the title of World’s Greatest Dad).

Oia Art Café seems to do a pretty brisk business, so expect to wait for a table on the weekends. One of the alpacas has recently given birth, which only makes the atmosphere more adorable. Get to the Oia Art Café by taking the Red Line to Tamsui and hopping a bus that goes up to Sanzhi, or just showing a taxi driver this address:新北市三芝區後厝里北勢子12-1號 (No. 12-1, Beizhizi, Houcuoli, Sanzhi District, New Taipei City).

Uncle Sheep Restaurant

Before getting into what earns this restaurant in far-flung Chiayi County a spot on our list, it might be best to clear up the confusion regarding the genus of the animal at the center of the restaurant’s signature dish. While the restaurant is called “Uncle Sheep,” the proprietor-chef goes by the moniker of “Uncle Goats Chou” on Facebook. As if this weren’t confusing enough, various websites and bloggers refer to the signature dish as either “sheep hotpot” or “goat hotpot.” Linguistic ambivalence isn’t unusual in Taiwan, and the actual animal used is goat (but not the goat in the backyard, who is an understandably skittish family pet).

The goat in the backyard is not for eating. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

What puts Uncle Sheep Restaurant on the list of offbeat eateries in Taiwan is the unique cooking method of its signature dish (which, to be clear, is goat hotpot). Chunks of goat meat are placed in an earthenware pot along with various Chinese herbs from a secret recipe handed down through generations. Then 11 full bottles of rice wine are added, the earthenware pot is covered with foil, caked in mud, and brought into a walk-in oven with a dirt floor – in which the pot is buried for seven days of slow cooking.

For this last step, the chef dons a military-grade gas mask, because in addition to being predictably hot, the walk-in oven is also filled with smoke from the burning rice and millet husks that the chef says are an essential part of the cooking process.

So what does goat stew that’s been cooked for seven days taste like? Deliciously savory and distinctly healthful, with the broth heavy with herbs and rice wine. The meat, hearty with flavor, is nearly butter soft. Chou describes the dish as “the best goat hot pot in the world,” and it’s hard to argue with that. It’s certainly among the most labor-intensive dishes in the world, making the infamous turducken (a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey, requiring 12 hours in prep time) seem like a bowl of microwave popcorn in comparison.

While the Goat Hot Pot is his signature dish, Chou is hardly a one-trick pony in the kitchen. The restaurant serves a veritable cornucopia of amazing Taiwanese dishes, many of which use ingredients sourced from farms around rural Chiayi County. But the Goat Hot Pot is the only dish whose cooking process requires a gas mask.

Uncle Sheep Restaurant is located in Minxiong Township, about 20 minutes by taxi from downtown Chiayi. The address: 嘉義縣民雄鄉松山村松仔腳48-27號 (No. 48-27, Songzijiao, Songshan Village, Minxiong Township, Chiayi County). But don’t come unannounced. As you might expect from a dish with a seven-day prep time, you’ll want to make reservations in advance. Contact Chou directly at (05) 272 -1597,  [email protected], or through his Facebook page.

The Colorful and the Crude

We finish off our exploration of Taiwan’s out-of-the-ordinary culinary scene with a visit to a picturesque tea shop that’s well worth a visit, and an infamous chain restaurant that unashamedly relies on bad taste as the source of its appeal.

Bobbii Fruiti

Bubble tea shops are a ubiquitous in Taipei, but Bobbii Fruiti is the one to bring your friends to for a different tea shop experience. Located just off the main strip of the Yongkang Street “gourmet ghetto,” Bobbii Fruiti fits the bill on a couple of levels. Forget the brown bubbles in tan tea color-scheme of most bubble tea. Bobbii Fruiti’s beverages border on the psychedelic, with each drink offering a dizzying array of color.

At Bobbii Fruiti, the bubble tea is gloriously colorful as well as refreshing. Photo: April Chen

The names of the drinks are also amusingly creative. “Don’t Want to Work” is a beverage made with oolong tea, fresh milk, and translucent blue bubbles. “Pandora’s Treasure” is an ethereal beverage made with layers of white and blue pearls floating in colorful shaved lemon ice. Army veterans will find Bobbii Fruiti’s “Camouflage” simultaneously triggering and refreshing, as the beverage’s mix of green tea, matcha, and milk is layered in a fashion that’s more than a little reminiscent of uniforms designed for jungle combat.

The most provocatively named item is kept off the general menu – you need to ask for it at the counter. It’s a mixed mango and cranberry iced drink which shop owners have inexplicably decided to call “Evil Bitch.”

Bobbii Fruiti is located at No. 8, Lane 13, Yongkang Street (台北市永康街13巷8號) in the Da’an District, just a quick walk from Dongmen Station. The place is generally filled with Instagrammers taking pictures of their colorful, oddly named beverages.

Modern Toilet

No article about unusual places to eat in Taiwan would be complete without a mention of the nation’s best-known theme restaurant, a place built almost entirely on a concept stated eloquently in the “About Us” section of the restaurant’s own website: “In an age where creative marketing is king, even feces can be turned into gold!”

In short, this is the restaurant (now a chain) where people sit on toilets while eating feces-themed food out of toilet- and urinal-shaped bowls. The food ranges from barely edible to downright unpleasant, and if you’re older than 10 the ambiance of the place is amusing for five minutes, tops. But if you live in Taiwan and have children, or are visited by friends with children or a friend with an Instagram account, you will at some point find yourself visiting the place.

While the sensible thing to do would be to sip hot tea (one of the safer things on the menu) and watch your guests try to finish whatever ill-advised meal they’ve ordered, Modern Toilet’s management, realizing that cuisine is not what brings people through the front door, imposes a per-person minimum to ensure everyone orders something that vaguely resembles “food.”

You would be well advised to stay away from the pastas, the curries, anything au gratin, and any of the amusingly titled “classic theme meals.” Stick to the deep-fried dishes (you’ll find these on the menu under the heading “Crappy Items”). Having been run through boiling oil for a few minutes prior to serving, they should present no more than the usual long-term threat to your arteries.

Modern Toilet’s flagship restaurant is in the Ximen District at 2F, No. 7, Lane 50, Xining S. Rd., Taipei (台北市西寧南路50巷7號2F).