After flying from Sydney to Taipei via the sticky heat of Singapore, we arrive in the middle of a rainstorm and cold weather.
Mistake No 1: Guess who didn't bring any warm clothes. We were still in our stylish sandals and summer wear, it was 6.00 in the morning and we were pretty tired. Now we were cold as well.
Walking from the bus station to the MRT we see this sign. The whole time we have been together there has been a promise to one day go to a classy restaurant. We missed out this time, but I do promise you one day, Shawn [edit - Alison wouldn't take me to the Hello Kitty restaurant in Taipei either, mean lady - Shawn].
Alison was in charge of accommodation and cleverly (so she thought) booked the Odeon Guesthouse for an extra (previous) night so we could check-in at 8.30am and sleep off our jet lag.
Mistake No 2: Booking a guesthouse for early check-in. Some guesthouses are well oiled machines with 24 hour check-ins. Others are like the Odeon Guesthouse: somebody might be there, maybe not... It's a gamble.
We arrived around 9am and nobody was there, even though the manager confirmed by email that early check-in would be no problem whatsoever. Not only was there no reception staff, there was no reception. The joint was a bar, devoid of any signs of life, and devoid of any signs whatsoever that this place had anything to do with accommodation. No signs, no tourist paraphernalia, no nothing. We were up poo creek. We didn't know when or if anybody was going to arrive, they might be closed all day Sunday for all we knew. We were too tired to find another hotel. All we could do was sit and stew.
Around 12.30pm we gave up and waddled off to find some lunch. We stumbled upon a payphone and gave the guesthouse a call. Alison tells the manager that nobody was there for the early check-in, we have been waiting for hours and we really need to sleep after an overnight flight. "Check-in is at 3pm" is the manager's response. Alison asks again why nobody was there to check us in. "Why didn't you call?" asks the manager, like we're stupid. Mmmm yes, every international traveller has a phone.
By 3.30pm we are finally checked in, comotosed from lack of sleep and wandering the streets to kill time.
Mistake No 3: Taking a punt on a guesthouse that had only two reviews on Hostelworld, neither of them good...
The Odeon Guesthouse was well located in a pub/university kind of area, and was one of the few cheaper options that had an ensuite bathroom. The photos on the web showed a nice cafe that was assumed to be part of the guesthouse. In reality it was a room inside a second floor apartment around the corner from the cafe in the photos, there was no one there except other people in their rooms. It was weird, quiet and clean, but weird.
We finally got to check in after wandering the streets for a few hours, comatosed from lack of sleep after an overnight flight. We decide to stay awake rather than sleep to minimise jet lag.
Mistake no 4: Locking the door at the guesthouse.
We went out for a while in the evening and when we got back we locked the front door behind us, as you do. However if you lock this type of door from the inside it can't be opened from the outside, even if you have a key.
We are woken in the dead of night by somebody frantically ringing the doorbell. We didn't get up and answer it. Hey, we were guests, we can't let strangers in, it's for the manager to deal with. Would you answer the front door when: a) you didn't speak the local language and b) you're strung out with sleep deprivation in some weird, empty apartment in your first night in a foreign country?
We don't know how they got in, they must have called a locksmith. The manager left us this note under our door the next day. What kind of manager can get locked out of their own guesthouse even when they have a key? And don't put a sign up telling stupid foreigners not to lock the door?
After our door lock mishap, we headed out for breakfast. Apparently breakfast was included at our guesthouse but the owner informed us the cafe wasn't open that day. Great service.
Mistake no 5: Checking out.
There was no staff around ever so there was nobody to pay our rent to. We checked out by leaving the money under our pillow and hiding the key. We check the cafe and pub before we leave but there are no staff. Just as we head off the manager comes out of nowhere and says "Hey, you haven't paid you rent!"
Mistake no 6: We'd go back!
After all that crap we'd actually stay here again. It's cheap, clean, very quiet and private. The manager was actually a nice lady, she was working a twelve hour a day running a cafe and pub. All they need to do is put up a sign here and there to let folks know what the hell is going on...
While homeless on our first day we wzombie shuffled into this restaurant nearby. The tables had been scrubbed so often the laminex was worn through to the wood. The staff were hanging out roast duck and pork, fresh from the oven, so we headed in for breakfast.
A simple chow mein style pork on crispy noodles. The plates reminded us of the ones from cafes in the 1970s.
Roast duck noodle soup. Great duck. The egg noodles were soft and thin. We prefer a chewy noodle which is pretty hard to find in Taiwan. It was nice food but not the uniquely Taiwanese magic first meal we were after, and it was all we could find on a sleep deprived Sunday morning. Zombies can't be choosers.
Our street for the next couple of days. The rain had settled in and we were in for a wet time.
We have a few hours to kill before we can check-in to our guesthouse, we ditch our bags and set out to explore. Rain sends us underground around central station.
The Q Square Mall is by far the fanciest food court we found in Taipei.
The Q Square Mall food court has pretty much every cuisine you can think of it. Traditional and fusion Taiwanese stuff, lots of Western and Japanese. It's jam packed on a Sunday afternoon.
The Q Square Mall has lots of little food stalls, it's like a Japanese depachika in parts. There's plenty of cutesy food, such as these animal themed roll cakes from a bakery stall. I want the cow cake.
Out of the mall and back into the main underground walkways we found a cluster of excellent looking Indonesian restaurants. If we hadn't come all this way for Taiwanese food we would have dug in.
The underground walkway has a special roped off areas for teens to practice their potential girl/boy band dance moves. The underground serves as a social space rather than just a passenger thoroughfare.
Near the Indo eateries we spy this little stand with a small queue, looks like a good place to start our Taiwanese eating adventure.
A definitive Taiwanese dish is a bowl of rice with a spoonful of braised pork mince on top, we saw this dish everywhere from one end of the country to another. We asked for an additional tea egg, it adds a good extra protein hit.
Small bowl of spicy soup with knots of noodles and tofu, and giant hunks of what looked like blood tofu.
This one of the ugliest but yummiest food we had in Taiwan, and we had a lot of yummy ugly food! A rough translation was goose liver. We searched for an equivalent flavour to this all over Taiwan and never had anything as good. Even offal agnostic Shawn drooled over this.
All over Asia we notice freaky pictures of western women on billboards and posters, like folks aren't quite sure how to Photoshop them. This is the freakiest we've seen.
After we finally check in we head out to explore our local neighbourhood, Gongguan.
Off Roosevelt Road is a little patch of night markets. The rain and sleep deprivation scares us off exploring anything bigger.
Our first market bite is a classic 'big sausage little sausage' - or dachang bao xiaochang according to Google.
A juicy pork sausage (little sausage) is layered inside a 'bun' made of sticky rice (big sausage). Excellent snackage for only $50 NT. We thought these would be a fun 'try once' kind of deal but they're quite addictive. The sausage is surprisingly good, meaty and not overly sweet as some Asian sausages can be.
Next up we dine inside for a quick soup.
A pretty picture it isn't, but we've come a long way to try it.
A mee sua, or vermicelli soup, with tiny pieces of pork in a thick gloopy fluid, $35 NT. A little splash of vinegar adds some tang. Simple food perfectly cooked. We quickly develop a craving for these in the cold weather.
Dessert bar selections. After eating at Meet Fresh in Sydney, we needed to try some fresh tofu desserts here.
More snack potential, we can't wait around to find out what it is.
3 Sisters Dou Hua served up fresh tofu desserts, we were in.
Wonderful sweet berries in a mountain of shaved ice and fresh tofu pillows, two desserts for $75 NT.
Shawn has a slight obsession with steam cake, this one turned out to be not as sweet as the ones we get at the East Ocean stall at the Friday night Chinatown markets. It has a slight mouldy flavour. Yuck.
Next day. Breakfast time. This lady is ready with something hot and freshly made. But what was it?
Lots of fixin's ready to go, a big pot of steaming hot sticky rice, different types of floss, pickles, bread sticks and shredded omelette.
The result? One of the best breakfast takeouts we've come across, a 'fan tuan'. A pile of rice is spread out in a circle, the fillings are placed inside and the whole of the rice encases the fillings. Like a giant hot and tasty sushi roll only better. These are also found in Shanghai, but we liked them better in Taiwan.
Detail of the inside. The bread sticks (youtiao) were super crunchy, like they had been given an extra go in the deep fryer.
As usual, we go for a walk across the city and end up lost.
We climb a hill and could see Taipei 101 (big pointy building) from the top.
The most intelligent dog in the world. Not. Here he is on a path in a park. He is looking at an old man who must be 80+ years old walking towards him. The old man is walking backwards, for exercise sake, and can't see the dog in the middle of the path. The dog watches the old man inch closer and closer to him and doesn't move, until the old man bumps into dog, who then seems to say "where the bloody hell did he come from?"
We saw a lot of this particular breed around Taiwan. They all seemed particularly stupid. But lovely.
This fellow was a little brighter.
After our encounter with the super intelligent dog we made it back to the city and straight into a little marketplace. This seemed to be an older part of the city, one that hadn't been pulled down for sparkling new highrises.
Steam buns cooked in the street at $10 each. We could see there was a mix of choices, some meat and some vegetable options.
The buns are soft on the outside and super crispy at the bottom.
The buns are steamed in a large pan on top of a big steel can. As the water reduces the buns cook and crisp up underneath. Simple and delicious.
Random market street.
Around a market there's always food stalls. We waited a little while to get ourselves a position on the little red seats, then started watching what every one else was getting.
In one large pot was a mix of tofu, noodles and cut up innards, all bubbling together nicely. Another had clear broth to add to soups.
Our table top view of the action. Love the clutter.
We ordered from the bubbling big pot. A few pieces of innards (intestines, guts, etc) are fished out and cut up with scissors, and a few pieces of tofu likewise. They are drizzled with a dark soy and served with shreds of ginger. The stall holder was pleased when we ate up the pig bits and gave us a second helping, perhaps she wasn't sure if we would like them in the first place.
A good serve of greens doesn't go astray.
Neither does a big bowl of noodles, fragrant, rehydrating and filling.
Done! If we eat all our intestines can we have dessert?
We had to fight for a seat and by the time we leave it's empty. If it was empty when we arrived
Can't get the kiddies to eat their soup? Throw in some of these beyond cute fish cakes.
The standard 'juxtaposition of old and new' shot.
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry. Seems to help, I know. Downtown.
Walking around is thirsty work. We stop for a iced juice with the friendliest juice guy in all of Taipei.
We ended up with a sweet plum or date flavoured number, way too sweet. Meh.
More markets on our way to Taipei 101.
Random street stall.
We are intrigued by this stall with steaming bamboo baskets.
Once served, the pudding is dissected and a mix of pickled radish and chilli sauce is added. The pudding was like hardened congee and not much to our liking, but the sauce topping was delicious. If we weren't already stuffed we would have liked this a lot more, it's filling food.
Dudes in sharp suits eating street style.
Still seeking snacks, we decide to try Master Stone 'Chinese Hamburger'.
The 'chinese hamburgers' are soft buns filled with pork so beloved by uber chefs. The ones we try are a roast pork with pork floss and a roast pork with pickled greens. Both are wonderful and we regret not getting the address of where we tried them. We've had these in Australia and always found them disappointing, usually with an overly sweet filling, but here they are fantastic, a wonderful balance of fresh soft bun and moist fatty pork countered with veggies and meat floss.
We expected to see a lot of these around Taiwan but they were scarce.
We're almost at Taipei 101. But the clouds are rolling in, we had better walk fast.
The view from the top. Our first impression of Taipei from the street was 'it isn't so big as we thought', it seemed like a big regional town. Our impression when we got up the tower was 'Wow Taipei is huge!'. The lowrise sprawl just goes on and on and on.
The city is surrounded by green mountains. Purdy.
In the tower cafe we resisted the temptation to try a fruit beer with a frozen yoghurt float on top. We decide to be grownups and not waste $10 just to get a wacky food photo for the blog. Now we wish we got it...
More street side bao, right near Taipei 101.
We headed back to our guest house via the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. The museum was interesting for the story it tells of Taiwan's relationship with China, and for the plastic models of the departed leaders favourite food.
The next day it's still raining. Lucky for us we were almost across the road from the National Taiwan University (NTU). The best thing about university districts is students, which means cheap student food! The campus is all wide tree-line boulevards, bicycles and old buildings. It reminded us of a flasher version of the ANU.
We were busting to know what was to eat in a Taipei student canteen. Yes, that's our idea of a good time. We hit it for breakfast.
The surroundings are pleasant indeedy. An open building nestled among old trees.
A fan tuan on the right, and an eggy pancake sometimes called a dan bing on the left.
Another ripper fan tuan with the same amazing balance of crunch, stodge and light, fresh goodness.
A little breakfast bento of hard tofu, seaweed and hard boiled googy eggs. There were bought via an honour system, just grab one and drop your money in a tray. Must be wealthy students here...
Apple flavoured milk tastes like milk flavoured apples. And Hello Kitty is as tall as five apples. What's the connection? An old bloke next to us gets a sausage and a beer for breakfast from the 7 Eleven. Tops.
We take a train out to the beachside town\suburb of Tamsui. Yes, we're off to the beach in the rain. It's pouring, pouring, pouring rain and we're soaked and freezing within five minutes. No need for the bucket'n'spade
Tamsui has a small but buzzy little town centre with some pockets of ye olde Chinese life with dark snaking alleways and little markets.
We find some fantastically ancient restaurants but our stomachs aren't feed-ready yet. Oh the cruel timing of travel. As we write this back home we'd give anything to magically materialise here for a quick lunch with the locals.
A fishball shop, so many kinds. Fishballs ain't fishballs ain't fishballs.
Alison read somewhere that Tamsui is famous for fishballs, there's even a fishball museum here (ye olde fishballs?) and sniffs out this great looking aunty-run resto amidst a string of dull looking tourist places.
After eating around much of Asia we make jokes about how every town seems to be famous for some cuisine or another. Such famous local specialties seem kind of arbitrary and made up by the local tourist board. Eg. "Wagga Wagga has the finest hamburger extender in all Australia". The famous local product somehow becomes a rule and a mandatory, expensively packaged gift for travelers. "What, you went to Wagga Wagga and didn't buy me any meat extender in a dicky gift bag? And you said you loved me!"
Or sometimes the "local specialty" seems to be derived from a singular popular restaurant. We wonder if the Tamsui fishball was popularised by these lovely ladies in their aweseome, awesome fishball restaurant. We've got no idea, we're just making stuff up.
Fishballs by the bag or by weight.
The ladies basically tell us what we want to eat: a couple of fishball wonton soups and steamed buns.
By this stage of the day we are rain-soaked right through to our socks, cold to the bone and miserable. But these fishballs are filled with pork and the soup is clear, simple and comforting. Hallelujah. As always when we travel, the best foods are the simplest ones served at the right time.
Steamed pork bun innards.
A couple of doors down from the fish ball joint we see this auntie's street stall.
She fries up wantons then you paint them yourself with a selection of sauces.
Saucy fried wontons on a stick. Saucy.
Another couple of doors down we find dessert.
We don't know what we'll give it a shot.
Turns out to be a blob fresh, warm mochi (rice pounded into goo) on a bed of nuts and black sesame.
The fun part is rolling up the mochi and mixing it in with the goodies.
After rolling slice them ninja style with the steel chopsticks. So good. We made a small video to show you how it's done:
At the time of writing, Sydney folks can find this fresh mochi treat in Chinatown's Friday night markets in the Dixon Street Mall, look for the stand that does the little sweet redbean pancakey things, near the octopus ball stand.
The main tourist walking street in Tamsui would be a hoot if it wasn't raining. It feels like an episode of Scooby Doo where the fun park has closed due to paranormal activities, and we are those pesky kids.
There's several dishes we wanted to try at this resto but our stomachs were full. First world problems. The dish labelled 'Arcade' we find out is another Tamsui specialty, tofu stuffed with rice vermicelli.
No deep sea squid burn for our full tummies. Next time.
We head back into central Taipei and track down a local's nightmarket in Shida near our "hotel". But the nightmarket is dead, not sure if it's the rain or an off night or what. We are completely soaked and freezing cold and as miserable as Morrissey. So we buy a little bottle of Suntory whiskey and all of a sudden we're warm and happy. Alcohol is good.
Random food joint.
Noodle stall with a 'pick'n'mix' option. This seemed to be typical of a lot of noodle and oden stalls, where you could have all your favourite things cooked together to order.
We find ourselves wandering some tree lined neighbourhoods that would have been sensational to explore in better weather. Suntory time.
Street side stall where nearly every dish comes with eggs.
Kebab joint. We saw a lot of these across different markets. Kebabs always look festy in Asia. Later in the trip we lose our Asian kebab virginity.
The kings of chicken.
It's getting dark and we head home. We see block after block with great looking restaurants. Food is Taipei.
Around the corner from home, we find this lovely lady spruiking her wares.
And what fine wares! Meat filled buns cooked in a barrel of hot coals. How good do you think these are where you're freezing cold and wet?
The bottoms are super crunchy...
And the fillings are fresh and moist... We ate these sitting on the porch of a closed shop on a main street. We're so classy.
After drying off and warming up we head for this beef noodle soup restaurant we'd spotted earlier. They had an award on the window which was proof enough for us.
This place is basic and cheerful, it seems almost posh after trudging around in the rain all day.
Cold tofu skin side dish.
Cold shredded potato side dish. The Taiwanese are masters of the tasty little side dish.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup - a classic. The broth here was thin and beefy and with little extra flavour added, very subtle and rather divine.
This lovely lady ran her street stall in quiet alley opposite our favourite 7 Eleven.
Magic pot with various goodies in their own sections.
The secret to her specialty, little pots of savoury cooked rice, ready for fillings to be added as desired.
We go for rice blood cakes, a favourite of ours.
Steamed blood rice cakes in a plum kinda sauce. Divine. Blood rice cakes may sound bad to you but you don't taste anything funny, they don't have a lot of flavour truth be told, but have a wonderful texture and work with all kinds of flavours.
Goodnight Taipei, we're off early to Hualien the next day, but we'll be back at the end of the trip for New Years Eve and all that jazz.
We love Taiwan.