welcome back, Taipei
Photographs in this post by J, drawings by Y. This photo was taken at Spot Cinema, which screens foreign arthouse and Taiwanese films.
Since we are creatures of habit, discovering something new - a new cafe, restaurant, bookstore, day trip or tourist trap - was not top on our priority list when we visited Taipei again in October this year. In fact, it is always comforting when you re-visit a foreign city and still find that same ol' cafe at the same ol' street with the same ol' coffee served by the same ol' waitress. Perhaps in our own ever-changing island-city, this is a luxury we cannot enjoy.
Still, our October trip to Taipei yielded a few new finds that we would definitely revisit. And of course, we made sure to drop by several old haunts.
Friends, as a kind of "best-of" summary of our various Taiwan reports elsewhere on this blog, we present here a list (and images) of 3 New Finds, and 7 Old Haunts...
New Find #1 Le Park Cafe
For every chain cafe in Taipei, there is probably one that is owner-operated or independent, especially near the Roosevelt/Shida area. Not every one of them is as "pretty" as the one in the fairy tale-like Taipei Exchanges 第36個故事, but you may still be surprised by the stories you can cull when you step into one. This time, we stumbled across Le Park Cafe one rainy evening in a quiet street. The two-storey cafe used to be a children's clinic (J claims it still has the smell of an old clinic), which the owner of the cafe went to as a child. It has everything you want in a cafe - a good CD collection, free wifi, very tasty coffee, friendly and unpretentious owners and lots of vintage knick-knacks scattered about the place.
New Find #2 肥前屋
I'm not a fan of BBQ eel or queues, but this Japanese eatery specialising in eel warranted 2 visits during our trip. For me, what I liked was how hardworking and focused every member of staff was at that eatery. No one slacked off, every one of them did their part, no one got grouchy. The waitress packs the patrons in like this was a canteen (and it is priced almost like a canteen), so the queue - though long - moves fairly quickly. Warning: the eel runs out by 8pm. Amps' recommendation: egg roll with eel.
New Find #3 JiaoShi, Yilan
This doesn't quite count as a day trip, since we stayed a night at the Royal Jiao Shi Hotel. With the pre-Typhoon rains, we didn't get to see much of Jiaoshi's sights at all. But the town is worth revisiting for 2 things. One is the Royal Jiao Shi Hotel and its hotspring soaks (better than Beitou!). The other is the train ride there. Through the train windows on that 1.5-2 hour ride, you will see suburban Taiwan, agricultural Taiwan, mountainous Taiwan, desolate/abandoned Taiwan...and in the last 45mins as you near Jiaoshi, the train runs right along the beautiful coast where, for some stretches, it feels as if the tracks cut across the waters.
New Find/Old Haunt #4 Yong Kang Street
When we first visited Taipei in 2006, we stumbled upon and had our first meal at Yong Kang Street, in a restaurant called 吕桑 specialising in Yilan dishes. We didn't know then that it was called Yong Kang Street, and in 2008 we tried to trace our steps but failed to be as lucky. This time, we re-discovered the place via a write-up in a Taiwanese guidebook. The area features a cluster of mid-range eateries along the narrow streets all around Yong Kang Garden/Park, including the first Din Tai Fung at the furthest edge. This is a great place to go when you are sick of all that deep-fried or gooey Taiwanese street food. Besides, the small park in the evening is pleasant. In recent years, the area has also attracted some cafes and small boutiques, which helps to extend the dinner experience. To get there, amps recommend that you take the MRT to Guting, and from there, hop into a cab and ask for Yong Kang Garden/Park. The taxi ride should cost you no more than NT$70-80.
Old Haunt #5 Witch Cafe
Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, the Witch cafe offers a stage for a band or a musician. The few times we've been there, we have heard a group of blind folk musicians, a university pop band and more recently, 2 guitarists singing hakka folk songs inspired by their trip to China. NT$100 gets you entry and a drink at the bar. The performance schedule is available online [this website provides a comprehensive list of all the music venues in Taipei].. Just 20m away at the main street round the corner from the cafe, there is an excellent shaved ice shop. Amps recommend the strawberry milk ice and the red bean milk ice.
Old Haunt #6 Human-scale streets
One of the best things about Taipei is that a large part of the city is still made up of narrow streets, lined with narrow shops/homes some 2 to 4-storey tall. These streets feel somewhat improvised, certainly old (and with age comes dirt and grime), and most definitely at a human-scale. For us islanders, wandering around these human-scale streets - even when there is nothing particularly interesting to look at - is one of the best things about our holidays in Taipei. The contrast is somewhat simplistic - but unlike Taiwan, our island was planned and built by a bureaucracy and big-time developers, a system that is greater than the sum of its individual human parts. This is not to say it is not a caring or effective body, just that it wil never reflect all the ingenuity or fallibility of individual creativity. It will be, to the best of all its ability (and good intentions), an efficient system of conduits, nodes, rooms and the occasional "destination". As a system, it can mitigate human error and aggregate human industry.
If you are not too adventurous and prefer your human-scale streets to still contain commerce and entertainment, amps recommend you explore the little streets around the Zhong Shan MRT station, the Taipei MRT station and the Zhong Xiao Hunhua MRT station.
Old Haunt #7 碗粿
Top on our Taiwan snack list is still this steamed rice flour dish which has a piece of tender pork and salted egg yolk hidden in the middle, and is best eaten with a liberal addition of chili sauce, black vinegar and garlic paste. The stall in the photo is at the LongShan Temple MRT stop, on the row of shops before you get to the Snake Alley/Hua Xi Street Market.
Old Haunt #8 Eslite
This bookstore (chain) really needs no introduction, but the list seems incomplete and inaccurate without it.
Old Haunt #9 Les Suites Chung Ching
We've stayed in several hotels in Taipei, but if you are giving yourself a treat, we wouldn't recommend any other hotel than Les Suites - and the one at Chung Ching if you don't mind transferring on the Muzha line. The entrance to the hotel is 20m away from the Nanjing East station, but it is understated enough for you to miss it completely on the first visit.
Old Haunt #10 Chiang Kai Shek's summer mansion at Yang Ming Shan
Hidden in Yang Ming Shan is the summer residence of Taiwan's former president Chiang Kai Shek, aka the Yang Ming Shan Shu Wu. This tourist destination makes it to our list only because we have tried to visit this place three times already, but we've not been successful. Entry to the building and its gardens is ONLY allowed via the guided tours, and the tours take place ONLY four times a day. So unless you are prepared to hang around and wait 2 hours for the tour to start, please don't be repeatedly silly like us and check the website here for more information about the tour schedule. Well, should you really miss the tour, you can take a pleasant 30-45min walk along the shady road back down to the Visitor Centre/Bus Station.