Long devoid of options for authentic Latin cuisine, Taipei in recent years has seen the emergence of several restaurants serving up delicious fare from all over the Americas.
With Central and South American countries accounting for more than half of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies (even taking into account Nicaragua’s surprise departure last month), you’d be forgiven for thinking that the region’s varied cuisine would be well-represented in Taipei. Sadly, that has not been the case, but it looks like things are finally changing.
Once, one of the only places you could find reasonably authentic Latin food was at Eddie’s Cantina in Tianmu. Nowadays, a growing number of expats from Latin America are opening their own restaurants selling dishes they grew up eating, with a focus on fresh ingredients and homegrown tastes. Largely contributing to this development is the increasing popularity of food festivals in the capital – such as Fiesta Del Taco and Latin American Food & Music Festival – where a chef can earn a bit of recognition before making the jump into a permanent brick-and-mortar establishment.
Because authenticity is a crucial factor and mediocre Taiwanized versions of Tex-Mex favorites are a dime a dozen in the city – “someone should have been arrested for those things 7-11 used to call ‘burritos,’” notes one Nicaraguan who’s been living here for a decade – I made sure I identified the real deal by asking Latinos living in Taipei where they love to eat and why. Below are the top four places according to my necessarily unscientific survey.
48 Tongan St., Da’an District, Taipei
Tel: 02 2709 0603
No. 9, Lane 140, Section 1, Zhongshan N Rd, Zhongshan District, Taipei
Tel: 02 2522 2737
Ironically, the first in my list is not owned by Latinos at all, but it received the most enthusiastic rating among survey-takers. The name Masa comes from the Spanish word for dough – the dominant carbohydrate in Mexican and Central American cuisine composed of ground corn moistened with lime and water, then fried and flipped into tortillas. The eatery was founded by a pair of Michelin chefs – Chinese-American Long Xiong and local Ishan Wang.
“Our background has been mostly fine dining,” says Long, who explains that they started Masa because they were “looking to tackle something simpler and fun.” When they decided that tacos were the answer, they came up with Masa. “Since we’re not Mexican, we recognized that authenticity isn’t our strong suit, but setting up systems and organizing a restaurant is,” says Long. “We decided to do some classic tacos and, as time goes on, we’ll introduce some more playful ones since we’re not bound by tradition or authenticity,” he adds.
The recipe has clearly worked. The original Masa, a corner establishment a few blocks south of the Xinyi Anhe MRT station, with its handful of tables and window ledges, is always jammed at mealtimes. It has a bright, youthful vibe; orders are served up on greaseproof paper-lined trays, with a chunk of lime and some cooling cucumber slices on the side for when you’ve gone a bit crazy with the chili sauce.
The menu contains around a dozen types of tacos, including chorizo (spicy blood sausage), carnitas (shredded pork), fried fish, and – joyously for this non-meat-eating author – three different vegetarian options. Of those, the fried cauliflower taco wins hands down with its smoky flavor, slivers of red cabbage, crispy vegetables, and tangy sauce.
These plump and crunchy creations are messy to eat but definitely a hit in Taipei with both locals and Latinos – so much so that a second location opened near the Zhongshan MRT station in July.
Yadia Colindres, from Honduras, has been living in Taiwan for 12 years and works in the Internet of Things sector. She tells me Masa is her “new favorite Latin American restaurant… it provides nice Mexican tacos at a fair price.” It’s true. You can load up on three tacos for around NT$300. “Even though their Da’an location is not big, they make up for it by using authentic masa to make the tortillas for their menu,” she says. “Usually, I get three to four tacos.”
Belizean Tefarra Smith, a radiology resident at Far Eastern Memorial Hospital who has been in Taiwan for two years, is even more impressed. “The tacos are amazing,” she says. “They remind me a lot of home and the price is reasonable as well. Three tacos might sound like a small amount, but I usually leave very satisfied. The setup reminds me a lot of taco stands in Mexico and Belize where you stand and eat.”
Sabor Venezolano en Taiwan
At first it was loneliness that got Karen Mujica into the restaurant business. The Venezuelan mother moved here 14 years ago with her Taiwanese husband. Around 2017, she came up with the idea to sell traditional food from her country at international festivals as a way to get out of the house and meet people.
“Every time I went to these events, I would sell out in just two or three hours; I saw that people really liked my food, so that gave me the idea to open my own restaurant,” she says. And she promptly did. In the second half of 2020, she started Sabor Venezolano (Spanish for Venezuelan flavor) in Shida Market, a student haunt near National Taiwan Normal University.
Looking like a cross between a cafe and a slightly disorganized IKEA showroom, Sabor Venezolano serves up homecooked authentic Venezuelan fare – with not a taco in sight. The two staples are arepas – cornmeal patties stuffed with meat, cheese, black beans, and fried plantain doused in coriander sauce – and pabellón, plates of shredded meat with salted beans and rice. Service might be a little slow but that’s because it’s all prepared and cooked seemingly entirely by Mujica herself, who emerges only at the end of an evening to enjoy a beer with her customers, many of whom she’s befriended. “I don’t feel lonely anymore,” she says.
She keeps the flavors authentic by importing everything from home – the flour, sauces, and seasonings (no mean feat in the age of COVID and a global supply chain crisis) – and whipping up everything fresh each day. She even makes her own cheese – salty, white, and bouncy chunks like non-squeaky halloumi, that pairs crushingly well with the creamy black beans in her vegetarian arepas. “I make homemade dishes, not commercial food, and that’s the big difference with my restaurant,” Mujica adds.
Catalina Torres from Colombia is a fan. “It’s not ‘Taiwanized’ Latin food, but the real deal, with local ingredients brought from there,” she tells me. Torres, who has been in Taiwan for 11 years and works as a translator, says that she likes the food because it reminds her of home. She adds that the prices are affordable – NT$150 per arepa – and the atmosphere is friendly.
“Whenever I go there, there are good vibes. It lifts my spirits when I feel homesick,” she says. “The pabellón arepa is the perfect combination; it has all that I like in one: the arepa, beans, plantain, fresh cheese, and beef. It tastes sweet and salty at the same time, but well combined.”
No. 5, Lane 49, Shida Rd., Daan District, Taipei
Tel: 0918 200 304
For Peruvian Leon Rios Joels, it was the lack of any decent foreign dining options when he first arrived in Taipei as a tourist in 2004 that inspired him to open his own restaurant. After settling here in 2010, it took him a few years of planning until he finally opened Polleria (literally chicken shop) in 2014 in a back alley near Guting. The simple menu, unchanged since the restaurant opened seven years ago, centers on marinated rotisserie chicken, a dish as basic and essential to Peruvians as ordering a pizza is to watch a game on TV in the U.S., he notes.
Chicken was a no-brainer, Rios Joels says, as not only would Taiwanese be keen to try it, given they grow up eating their own version of roast chicken, but the dish is much loved back home. “In Latin America, we eat chicken like there’s no tomorrow; we almost grow feathers,” he chuckles. “Rotisserie chicken is found all over the world; what we marinate it in and how we pair it with rice and salad is what makes it Peruvian.”
The giant rotisserie oven sits outside the entrance. Rios Joels imported the parts from Peru and assembled it himself, tweaking it to adapt to Taiwan’s climate and chicken breeds. Everything is prepared fresh, he assures me, and the herbs, including huacatay (black mint leaves) used in the marinade and the other sauces, are imported either directly from Peru or from a Peruvian supplier in Japan.
No. 61-5 Guling St., Zhongzheng District, Taipei
Tel: 0979 511 540
With its plastic-topped tables, laminated menus, and black-painted walls, Polleria is a cozy greasy spoon dishing up big plates of its famous chicken paired with fragrant long grain arroz verde (green rice) and French fries, freshly cut and peppery like British chips. For vegetarians, the chicken is swapped out for a basic salad drenched in a tangy sauce. It’s a nice match. My dining partner, who unlike me is a meat eater, tells me the chicken is salty and savory, deep into the flesh, unlike other roasted chickens where the flavor sits solely in the skin.
For robotics engineer Andrés Gaona, from Ecuador, who has lived in Taiwan for five years, it’s also the chicken that draws him to Polleria. “The flavor is very unique as the chef uses traditional Peruvian seasoning, so you can really taste what a real Andean chicken tastes like.”
Even the drinks options invoke memories of home. “There are other interesting items you can find there,” Gaona says. “First, Inca Cola, which is a Peruvian soda; it is very tasty from my point of view and reminds me of the times when I was a teenager because we would drink it after playing soccer. Second, chicha, which is a fermented drink based on corn, and a very traditional drink in the Andes.”
The King Taco
No. 231 Binlang Rd., Xindian District,
Tel: 0906 367 761
The clear winner in terms of authentic tacos is the king himself, Lucas Casares. The King Taco is stuck away in a back alley in Xindian, a Mexican flag marking the unassuming entrance. Casares acquired his culinary skills as a young boy. As punishment for being naughty, he was often sent to the kitchen to be with his mother, where he watched and helped to make the kinds of food he now sells to eager customers.
When he accompanied his Taiwanese wife back to Taiwan 12 years ago, he decided there was definitely a market to sell good, fresh tacos here. “The food here was terrible,” he says.
In the early days, in the daytime he would provide clients with ingredients such as corn he ground into flour himself, while in the evening he would peddle his tacos from a stand outside bars, such as Crafted in Maji Square. A little over a year ago, he signed the lease on his current premises, a narrow shopfront with a few tables and distinctly Mexican decorations such as sequined sombreros, a framed painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a calavera – an ornamental clay skull, the kind you see in Day of the Dead celebrations.
Tacos are served in threes, lined up on wooden cutting boards; optional extra fillings such as coriander, chili sauce, chicharrón (deep-fried pig skin pellets), and lime for squeezing are added by the diner according to taste. There’s pastor (marinated pork from a spit roast), chicken, beef, carnitas and vegetarian options, plus his playfully named Taimex – a twist on the word Tex-Mex, part Taiwanese, part Mexican – a larger flour wheat taco stuffed with meat, beans, and cheese. My vegetarian Taimex also came with fat grains of rice and fried potatoes.
Agustin Chavarria from Nicaragua and founder of Macho Raton, a premium beer importer, has been in Taiwan for seven years. He told me The King Taco was the real deal. “This food is greasy and there’s a lot of fat on it, but that’s the real authentic taco – not the clean little taco that you see in some other places,” he tells me. Casares “knows how to play with the sourness and how to cut the meat with the fat and pair it with the chilies.”
Irrepressibly optimistic, Casares has plans to expand his diner and open more branches around the capital. “I am always waiting for the right chance,” he says. “As long as I do this, things will go well.”
We wish him buena suerte!
Hola Caribbean Kitchen: Offers a good spread of Latin American and Caribbean dishes. The owner is Taiwanese, but the food is pretty authentic and good value for money. Nearest MRT, Yong’an Market.
Gaucho: Fine dining Argentinian steakhouse in Maji Square near Yuanshan MRT.
Teotihuacán: Gets good reviews and has lots of veggie options, but portions are a bit on the small side. Near Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT.
El Sabroso Mexican Food: This hole in the wall near Gongguan MRT serving Mexican favorites is always humming.