I love the sounds of the Feng Cheng restaurant, one of my favorite places to eat in Taipei. I try to sit by the kitchen door, so I can hear the stove, roaring as loud as a blast furnace smelting iron. There’s a crackle and sizzle as the cook tosses something – maybe shrimp – into a wok. Then the rhythmic din of clanging and scraping, the tinny tune of metal on metal, begins as the stir frying starts. It’s over in about three minutes, then there’s a pause, and it begins again and again and again.
Up front, the woman working at the counter shouts orders in clucky Cantonese to a guy working at the butcher station at the restaurant’s front window. He chops up chicken and duck with glazed brown skins on a circular wooden block. Fans mounted on the walls whir and hum as they cool the crowded restaurant with 12 or so tables. A group of college students, sitting in the back corner with their backpacks in their laps, are lost in a loud, animated debate.
Feng Cheng is a Cantonese-style greasy chopstick joint in an alley off Roosevelt Road in the Gongguan area near National Taiwan University. It literally hasn’t changed since I first started eating there 30 years ago. Every time I move away from Taiwan and return, I go back to the neighborhood thinking that the restaurant will probably be gone, replaced by a bubble-tea shop or claw-machine game place or some other trendy outlet. But to my delight and astonishment, it survives and thrives.
When I first arrived in Taipei, I used to find the restaurant extremely intimidating. That’s because the only menu was the one hanging on the wall, written vertically in red and black Chinese characters displayed in a series of long picture frames.
I usually avoided these types of eateries when not dining with Taiwanese friends because I had just started studying Mandarin and couldn’t read the menu. I would stick to buffets that allowed me to see what was on offer and simply point to the things I wanted. But buffets get old really fast, and after four months of them, I needed to try something else.
One day a classmate took me to Feng Cheng and changed my culinary life by teaching me four words: “Cha Shao Chao Mian” – barbecue pork with fried noodles. The sweet pieces of pork mixed with bok choy on a bed of crispy yellow egg noodles, smothered in a brown sauce, became my signature dish and saved me from the monotony of buffets.
I’m an adventurous eater and enjoy trying new restaurants and sampling trendy new cuisine. But as I try to keep up with the world’s constant change, it’s comforting to know there’s a place out there that’s stuck in time – a place that has found a winning formula, an unpretentious identity, and is sticking to it.