Friday, July 30, 2010

Variations on fried fish paste (賽門甜不辣)

天婦羅 tian fu luo (賽門甜不辣)

I have a real love-hate relationship with tempura (甜不辣), in the sense that I love to eat it, but it hates me in the form of a very minor seafood allergen that makes me itch like mad (anytime you see a post about something that came from the sea, please realize, I probably regretted that decision very much that night). Anyway, enough about me and my allergies... there are more important matters at hand... like what happens when you make giant patties of fish paste and fry them. Answer... you get something called 天婦羅 (tian fu luo), which are pretty much the same as 甜不辣 (tian bu la), but are fried... so way more awesome. I think?

Bought from the very same 賽門甜不辣, for 50 NT (~$1.50) you get the dish seen above. It's basically 2 larger pieces of tempura that are deep fried until a golden crust develops, cut into slices, and served with the same orange-brown miso based sauce. They do have a fantastic crust, which is nice and different from the soup based tempura, and the inside is chock full of burdock root, so the textural nuances continue throughout, but taste-wise, they're more or less identical to 甜不辣 (and it's still the sauce that makes everything right in the end). I like the fact that they're fried, but they're not nearly as incredible as I thought they'd be. Sadness right?

甜不辣 Tempura (賽門甜不辣)

Normal tempura! Of course I got both. The fat kid on my shoulder insisted. Except this time wasn't nearly as good as the last time I came. Maybe it's because I've experienced the same dish at a multitude of different places since, or maybe the novelty of glorified fish sticks is wearing off, but it just wasn't as phenomenal as I remembered it to be. Don't get me wrong, it's still good. Just not something I'd return to for a while.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fu Hang revisited (阜杭豆漿)

厚餅油條 fried cruller + pancake (阜杭豆漿)

I'm thoroughly confused by the kids that live here sometimes. Despite the culinary brilliance that is 燒餅油條 (shao bing you tiao), most of them will still choose to grab breakfast from McDonald's or 7-11. While there's nothing fundamentally wrong with that (the rice balls from 7-11 are damn good), it just feels... off. Anyway, I really don't think I write about traditional Taiwanese breakfast nearly enough (although I did go here before). It's the stuff of champions. When you fry dough and shove it inside of baked dough, of course it'll taste good. There's not much wrong with that equation. When you pair that with a bowl of sweet warm soy milk, it becomes pretty much the perfect breakfast.

Holy batman of a line!

A line of Chinese people! If Asians are willing to wait on line, then there's probably a good reason...

So I revisited the place on 杭州南路 called 阜杭豆漿 (Fu Hang Dou Jiang). The fried cruller with 厚餅 (hou bing) is still excellent. The cruller itself wasn't awe inspiring, since they're pre-fried to handle demand, but that's acceptable, since it's far out shined by the outer bread for which they're known. Delightfully sweet, the bread is speckled with green scallions for an additional savory aspect. The outside is toasted to a light crisp, which yields to a soft center that pulls apart in strands. Perfect in every way (which kind of makes you wonder how good it'd be with a freshly fried 油條). Hm...

豆漿 soy milk (阜杭豆漿)

Like I said, when paired with a bowl of warm soy milk (sweet or savory varieties available), it's pretty much an unbeatable combo. I don't think there's much to say about soy milk (although Asian soy milk is far different from the kind you'd imagine in a carton), but theirs is pretty well known for its nutty flavor. In the best explanation I can come up with, it tastes like someone forgot about a pot on the stove, and turned it off after it just started to burn. No, that doesn't sound like something you'd want to replicate, but it does taste good. Anyway, point of this post...? Traditional Taiwanese breakfast is awesome, kids should eat here instead of McDonald's, and NYC needs to start serving this.

PS - Last time I went, it looked super crappy. If the food weren't so freakin' good, I doubt anyone would want to eat their breakfast in such a depressing location. When I went this time, they had bought out the entire floor and renovated the entire thing. So if you went back when it was shitty, revisit and prepare to be impressed.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

99 NT steak (Hot Doufu)

99 NT steak (Hot Doufu)

A friend of mine in college once told me I had to get steak from a night market. I don't really think my friend ever gave a satisfactory answer as to why... he just kept saying, "it's not the same as steakhouse steak... it's not better, it's just... different." As dumb as it seems, I sort of understood what he meant. Night markets have a lot to offer, but there's something special about the smell of beef on a metal that can stop me in my tracks. When you offer it for 99 NT ($3)... well, then I can't really say no, right?

Yes. It doesseems questionable that you can serve steak dinners for $3 and still turn a profit. That's probably true in America, where you know... there's standards for what constitutes a 'cow,' and what's considered 'beef.' In Taiwan though, these places are all over the place. With several shops in a row with people touting their budget 100 NT steaks. Naturally, I went to the first place I saw in 臨江夜市 called 'Hot Doufu.' Yes, I'm the idiot that goes into a place specializing in tofu to buy steak.

Anyway, it's 99 NT for a steak. No lie. For $3, you get a hot metal plate filled with a piece of beef, some noodles stir fried in beef fat, and an egg fried in beef fat. The liberal use of beef fat has to be commended. The steak is... meh. Made with a cheap cut of beef, it's chock full of tendons, and they kind of ignore your order (or maybe my Chinese is worse than I thought, since when I said medium, they apparently heard rare), but it's not all bad. They mix the juices from the meat with pepper, soy sauce, and suger, and it magically becomes the perfect steak sauce. It is phenomenal. When combined with a satisfactory, if unremarkable, piece of beef, it acts as the saving grace... making the overall meal pretty damn pleasant. At the end of the day, I guess I should put this in perspective. I spent $3. I got what could pass as decent steak. That should count as a win... I think.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Knife cut beef noodle soup (良品牛肉麵)

良品牛肉麵 (Liang Pin Beef Noodles)

If I committed some God awful crime, was sent to jail, sentenced to death, and asked what my last meal would be... it would be a bowl of beef noodle soup from here. Yeah, it's just that good. Sure, Taiwan is a land chock full of 牛肉麵 joints... in fact, I don't think you can actually walk more than a block before seeing another noodle place, but there's something special about the noodles at Liang Pin that keeps me going back. Whether it's the spicy beef broth, the quality of the noodles, or the tenderness of the beef, this is the golden standard for beef noodles in my opinion.

Their spicy beef broth is stewed continuously for hours on end in a giant vat at the front of the store... I'm pretty sure this is done purposely to attract people in with the smell of beef, because the scent is spectacular. In what I can only describe as... sweet and rich, even the smell is oddly intoxicating. The beef? Just as good. While they don't give you the choice of tendons or not, theirs is always striped with tendons anyway, so all is good in the world. The meat gets simmered in the same pot of broth until it's just short of falling apart. In this jacuzzi of meat and soup, each lends the other flavor, almost to the point where both are identical in taste. It's a wonderful thing. When you couple that with this...

Knife cut noodle

You get the perfect bowl of beef noodles. Yeah yeah... I know there's people that don't like thick knife cut noodles (and maybe you would after you tried these), but I absolutely adore them. Theirs are just the perfect thickness, just enough so the textural nuances of the noodles can be appreciated. They're chewy and springy, but at the same time, incredibly soft (if it makes sense, they kind of possess the characteristics of knife cut noodles and rice noodles). That's the only way I can describe it.

With every bite (and accompanying sip of soup), your mouth'll be confused on what to focus on. Is it the spiciness of the broth... the delicate texture of the noodles... or the rich flavor of the beef? It doesn't really matter, since everything melds together so well. Before you know it, you'll be left with an empty bowl of sadness. Sadness that you couldn't even really enjoy it, because you were trying to figure out what part was the best. Sadness that you have a ring of spicy beef oil on your lips and no more noodles. It's okay though, it's only 100 NT ($3). You can always buy more happiness.


Fried squid w/seafood fried rice (烏賊燒)

Fried squid... rice burrito?

Fried squid is a pretty common affair when it comes to night markets. Chinese people love that stuff. Fried rice too. I'd probably die if I went too long without having fried rice. So of course it's a Taiwanese guy who decided to combine the two into a travel friendly package. That's what you get with 烏賊燒 (wu zei shao), whose shop is located in Taipei's 饒河夜市. It's basically a burrito. Except instead of a flour or corn tortilla, you have a thin shell of fried squid... and instead of beans, rice, and cheese, you have salmon fried rice. Magical right?

Indeed. It tastes as phenomenal as you'd expect. Think about it, fried squid that's well prepared is like chicken nuggets with a more interesting texture (and a very subtle hint of seafood flavor), and let's be honest... pretty much no one can screw up fried rice. What can go wrong? Absolutely nothing. Offered in 5 different flavors (of which I can only recall honey mustard and wasabi), the combination rice/squid roll gets drizzled, very generously, with your sauce of choice. I only tried their honey mustard, but it's pretty freakin' good, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they're all that good.


And the innards. The fried rice would be pretty good on its own. They actually use short grain rice, so it stays stuck together instead of falling apart into a giant mess of rice. It's flavorful, although the salmon part is overstated. It doesn't really have any fish flavor at all. In fact, it kind of tasted cheesy. No problems there. I like cheese too. The squid is nicely fried, crisp, and texturally perfect. Just elastic enough to make you work for each bite, but not annoyingly so. Like I said, each of these things would be fine on their own, but it's the synergy of the flavors that makes this interesting. For 65 NT ($2), I have absolutely 0 complaints.

Although... because they just opened their first store in Taipei(I think the original is in 逢甲夜市), their popularity is currently through the roof. You pull a number to order, and at any given time, there's about a 15 to 20 order queue. I'm pretty sure I waited close to 20 minutes. I'm pretty sure I didn't care.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

胡椒餅 pepper buns (饒河夜市)


I honestly have no recollection if I've written about these before. Nor does it really matter, since they deserve repeated mention. Anyhoo, the basic premise is this... if you take dough, stuff it full of peppered pork and scallions, then stuff it into a giant metal trashcan of fire you end up with Fuzhou style pepper buns, known in Chinese as 胡椒餅 (hu jiao bing). Okay, maybe it's not that simple, but whatever. When it comes to these fist sized buns of meat, there's no place more famous than the stall at the end of 饒河夜市. See? There's Chinese people in a line... so it's sure to be good.


And oh the line is epically long. No, not as long as the Shake Shack line, but I'm pretty sure that's because they've implemented the dumbest, least effective ordering system in the world. Still, in an area as cramped as a night market, it's kind of impressive when a line stretches for 30 people, and meanders around a bunch of barriers. What's nice though is you get to see them making the buns. With the fury of underpaid factory workers, they stuff large balls of dough with heaps of marinated pork and scallions. Then some guy shoves his arm into a pit of fire and puts them on shelves inside the pit. No joke, that guy is masculine as hell. I bet he fights bears or shits nails or something awesome like that.


PIKCHUR! I had to wait home before I took it, so it's soggier from the steam than it should be (I have the dexterity of an elephant, so taking pictures, eating, and walking simultaneously wasn't going to happen). It looks plain on the outside. Kind of just like a sesame studded piece of dough... that's slightly oily, and what appears to be burnt on the bottom. Don't be deceived by the exterior though, because in actuality, the outer bun isn't bad either... it's slightly sweet (as almost all doughs used in Chinese cuisine are), dense, and chewy.


Inside hides the greatest treasure this side of the Pacific. Not really. There's peppered pork and scallions though. Lots of it. In a perfect union of carbs and protein, you find cheap fatty pork marinated in peppered soy sauce baked to a medium texture inside a subtle sweet layer of thin, but dense, bread. The kiln like baking pit yields a temperature suitable for exactly this. The bun cooks rapidly, forming a thin crust like bottom, while the meat releases it's juices without overcooking. End result is this... one of my favorite things in the world. Think about it this way, you're paying 45 NT (~$1.25) for culinary crack. In bun form. If you ever have the opportunity, definitely try it.

PS - if you buy 10, you get 1 free.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where fried chicken meets pineapple bun

Spicy McChicken (altered)

I love McDonald's in Taiwan. I really do. They have a vastly superior menu, with items such as rice bun burgers, burgers with extra layers (up to 4 on the Big Mac), and even green tea (and red bean!) McFlurries. On top of that, their lunch hours give discounts so that full meals cost as little as 79 NT ($2.25 for the double cheeseburger). God... damn. No wonder there's so many overweight kids in Taiwan nowadays. Anyway, they've been pimping their new spicy chicken leg sandwich pretty hard lately (full combo meal for 99 NT!), and shit... it's delicious as sin.

The patty is freshly fried (I would know... I burned my lip on one), has a crispy layer of spicy breading, and uses actual chicken meat. The skeptic in me wonders how McD's is turning a profit here if they're charging less for a meal than for a sandwich back in NYC. Maybe they're using steroid filled chickens on the brim of death? Maybe. Don't really care though, these sandwiches are fantastic... but that's not the point of this post.

Pineapple bun!

Having just been to a bakery, I sat with my combo meal staring out the window. I realized I had a bag of freshly baked pineapple buns. Lacking a knife, my only option was to delicately pry open the still warm bun apart. I worked gingerly, trying not to break off the sugar top crust. I have oafish hands, so that didn't work out as planned. With the bun opened successfully (debatable), I began the transplant. I scraped the mayo lettuce mix over using a sacrificial french fry, then slammed the patty inside. Then you get what you see. Mmm, to be honest, it wasn't as jaw-dropping incredible as I thought it would be. You can't really taste the sweetness of the crust, since the spicy chicken is legit spicy, and it's kind of wasted in sandwich form. I guess the one thing it did improve upon was texture, since the bread is supremely elastic, pulling off in strands of buttery goodness (compared to the plain white sesame bun of course).

Point of all this? I don't really know. Don't waste pineapple buns making stupid sandwiches... and I love McDonald's in Taiwan I guess?


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wontons, noodles, and soup (阿宏小吃)

Wontons in hot & sour soup (阿宏小吃)

Yes, I know there are really good dumpling houses in the states. I also know of places with really good hot & sour soup (although not quite the same). How many places serve wontons in their hot & sour soup though? Seriously, if I've just been overlooking this classic combination, then shame on me, but the last time I asked a restaurant in NYC to combine the two, I was given the dirtiest of dirty looks (and though they ultimately did it, I think I was charged double for it). There's nothing strange about it at all, everyone loves dumplings! and most people I know love hot & sour soup. The sum of all parts will surely be greater than the individual components!

And so it is. Located on 遼寧街, at a place called 阿宏小吃 or 'Ah Hong's Eatery,' there's a restaurant that's supposed to sell Taiwanese dishes. Evidently, to them, that basically means beef noodle soup, dumplings, and hot & sour soup. Their rendition of dumpling + soup combo is legit. Thick skinned, chive dumplings made in house, are dumped directly into a bowl of hot & sour soup. The dumplings themselves are really nothing special, and actually, neither is the soup (which is the same as in America, plus the addition of pig's blood a.k.a. red tofu). Nope, what makes me love this combo so much, is actually the addition of flavors. If you poke holes in your dumplings, and allow the soup to seep into the skins, with every bite you get a blissful symphony of pork juices and hot & sour soup... in your mouth. It almost makes plain dumplings sound boring eh? I think the fact that I only paid 60 NT ($2) for 8 dumplings and soup made me that much happier.


Yeah, I'm an idiot. I always order beef noodle soup. ALWAYS. For 85 NT ($2.50) I got this. Mmm, it's definitely not in my top 5 (actually, I don't have a top 5, but I'm pretty sure this wouldn't make it in if I did), but it's also not bad. My advice though? Skip the beef and just get the soup noodles. The broth is where it's at. While the beef is tough, and made from a rather cheap cut, you can literally smell the broth while walking past the outside of the shop. It's the kind of broth where the restaurant has probably stewed beef for several days continuously (which sounds like a DoH disaster), just to achieve the proper beefiness. Mm, the soup is definitely worth drinking.

One thing that's charming/annoying (depending on your point of view)... there's a single person running the entire shop. Which means it'll take damn near 30 minutes for you to get your food. My opinion? Well worth the wait.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Knife cut noodles & scallion pancakes (一品山西刀削)

木須炒麵 (mushu knife cut noodles)

Oh, how I wish they did mushu remotely close to resembling this stateside. In the traditional meaning of the word, 'mushu' is nothing more than the combination of thinly sliced pork, wood ear mushrooms, and scrambled eggs, stir fried together. Sometimes they add in other greens for color or things like bean sprouts for sheer volume, but the basic premise stays the same... pork + fungus + eggs = happiness. When you cook it with noodles it becomes 木須炒麵, and when you make it with knife cut noodles, well then it becomes something of a culinary masterpiece... sort of.

Wall of awards...

Located on 永康街 (Yong Kang Street), there's a corner shop called 一品山西刀削 or 'Yi Pin Shanxi Knife Cut Noodles.' Barely larger than a studio apartment, this little shop is apparently pretty damn famous (LOOK AT ALL THE AWARDS THEY HAVE!). Having claimed several of the top awards during Taipei food festivals, I'm pretty sure they're most well known for their beef noodles, but hey, no one (not even me) wants to have that every day.

Their take on mushu knife cut noodles was pretty good. The flavors were all there... even the smokiness that stir fried oil needs to have. Egg and pork were perfectly balanced by the mushrooms, and even though they added in cabbage and carrots, nothing seemed inappropriate. The noodles were spot on, which is to be expected from a place specializing in knife cut noodles... thick and chewy, but not overbearing. All things considered, I would've loved this dish even more had they not also served this...

木須炒餅 (mushu scallion pancakes)

In one of those moments where you actually want to cry tears of joy because of food, you're greeted with a plate of mushu scallion pancakes... where the pancakes are cut up into strips of instead of noodles. This is actually all the proof I need that there's a higher order. You might be thinking, "Man that sounds dumb, who would want fried pancakes as a substitute for noodles?" First of all, me. Second of all, the 蔥油餅 is freshly fried, and is texturally sound. It's chewy, yet it peels apart into layers. It possesses the subtle scent of sesame oil, yet is flavorful because of the scallions. When mixed with that very same mushu... well, that doesn't sound so stupid after all eh? For 85 NT ($2.50), you can buy true happiness... so there.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cafe de Coral (大家樂)

Toast... and a roasted chicken wing (大家樂)

Only in Hong Kong... would a chicken wing and a piece of French toast qualify as a meal. On the suggestion of more than a few, I was told I had to make a trip to Cafe Coral, otherwise known as 大家樂 (Da Jia Le). As explained, Cafe Coral was basically the Asian equivalent of McDonald's. This analogy never really made sense to me, since... there are already McDonald's all over Asia, but I guess the gist of it was that they're all over the place. In any case, I didn't actually get a chance to try it during the span of my 2 days, so I was pretty ecstatic when I heard there was one in the HK airport.

I'm not entirely sure what I was thinking, but when I read the menu, all that went through my head was, French toast... good... and roast chicken wing... good. Plus they came with coffee. Uh, what's there to say about this? The toast is pretty good, nice and fluffy with a fresh buttery crust. It possessed that characteristic butter/milky taste that all Asian breads have. It comes with jam (and more butter!), but I don't think you need it... unless your life goal is to have multiple gastric bypasses. The chicken wing was just a tease. Really good sweet soy sauce lathered on top of a wing with just enough meat to make you hate the person who suggested wing over breast.

Fried chicken, a hot dog, and a roll (大家樂)

Chinese people seriously confuse me at times. In another combination that they dub a 'meal,' you get a fried chicken cutlet, a hot dog, and a butter roll. Let me summarize this for you. Cutlet = supremely oily, but oddly intoxicating (possibly from the constriction of my arteries). Hot dog... uh, just a hot dog? Ditto on the roll. I tried in vain to make a fried chicken, hot dog, butter sandwich, but it wasn't meant to be. Total price of both combo sets... 35 HKD ($4.50), and definitely a mistake. Damn, I can't believe the last thing I ate in HK was this. Oh well, I guess that's another reason to go back. To wash the sour taste of Cafe Coral out of my thoughts.

PS - maybe I'm not giving them a fair chance, they had plenty of 'normal' roast meat and rice combos. Knowing my luck, I probably just picked the 2 duds in their entire lineup.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Yes, more dim sum (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

小籠包 soup dumplings (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

Over the course of 2 days, I felt compelled to go to multiple dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong. Not for lack of variety or anything, but just because my first experience had been so... scintillating, that I wanted to see if every dim sum parlor in HK was just of another standard compared to the US and Taiwan. In hindsight, I probably should've stopped at the first one, since things can only really go downhill from an experience like that, but on the morning before my flight, I stumbled into a smaller place called 'Shamrock Seafood Restaurant.' I had high hopes that a cheaper atmosphere would foster a more 'authentic' flavor... whatever that means.

Anyway, note to self (if I ever do end up going back to HK). Don't get 小籠包 from a dim sum parlor. They're overpriced, and not all that good. Perhaps it's because incredible soup dumpling places are a dime a dozen in Taiwan, but I was thoroughly disappointed with these. Thick skins, lack of soup, and bland meat describe these to a tee. When you couple that with the fact that I'm only getting 3 per basket... well, that's just annoying. Sure they look nice, but they were pretty awful.

咸水餃 (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

Then there's these. Again with the 鹹水餃 (salty water dumplings) since I'm obligated to order this everywhere. These were actually good, but then again it's really hard to screw up frying glutinous rice and stuffing it with fatty pork isn't it?

Turnip cakes (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

More turnip cakes! Also remarkably well prepared. Flaky exterior holding together delicate shreds of steamed turnip just waiting to fall apart. Sound familiar?

潮州蒸粉果 (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

Oh great, it's more of those stupid things called 潮州蒸粉果 (Chao Zhou steamed fen guo) with the water chestnut filling. God I hate them so much. They're bland, they have a strange texture, and the only reason we bought them was so my grandmother would stop complaining about my unhealthy eating habits. Argh, sometimes I honestly don't know why old people like things that taste like nothing.

Char siu noodle wraps (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

Ultimately it was okay though, because I also got char siu noodle wraps. Like I said, rice noodles = awesome, char siu = awesome, rice noodles + char siu = still awesome. I realize that some people prefer getting these with shrimp, or beef, or vegetables inside, but that's not my cup of tea. Nope, 10 times out of 10 I'll go with char siu. Goddamn I miss this so much.

Meatballs (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

I didn't really love these all that much. I don't even remember what they're called (they did have a special name). What I do remember though, is that they were on the day's special menu, and that you get 3 meatballs for 4 HKD. Which is like 58 cents. That's stupid cheap. So cheap that I felt compelled to order it even though I wasn't sure what I was ordering. Plus they're bright red. Bonus points for bright red meat. That's always a plus in my book.

Char siu pastries (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

This is actually a dish I looked for at the other dim sum place but couldn't find. It's basically layered pastry with char siu stuck inside, which is then baked, and glazed over top with sugar. End result is a sweet and savory dish. One that I'm not sure should be classified as dessert or not. Still valid here is the fact that char siu in Hong Kong tends to be sweeter and more sauce based than the ones in Taiwan, so the filling is much more apt to spill out upon biting. Call it a plus or minus, whatever, basically this shit is irresistible.

Egg tarts (新樂 Shamrock Seafood Restaurant)

Of course I got egg tarts too. Except these were shaped like footballs, and bright orange instead of yellow. All the same, the pastry portion is light and buttery, the filling is delicate with a subtle sweetness. All the previous superlatives regarding egg tarts still apply here. Nothing new, carry on. Anyway, I realize most of these pictures look really similar to the ones from the other dim sum place, and some people might say I'm an idiot for taking pictures of things that look exactly alike. Well... yeah that's probably true, but I actually have nothing better to do. So... there.


Hakka cuisine (桐花小吃)

Hakka oil noodles

Close your eyes (wait no, nevermind... you can't read if you do that) and imagine taking pork fat, rendering it in a wok over high heat, stir frying noodles in it, followed by a drizzling of pork broth over top of it. I'm probably trivializing the preparation process, but that's basically what it boils down to. In Hakka cuisine, 豬肉油麵 (pork + oil noodles) is a dish that's served at almost every meal. By taking thick cut pieces of plain salted pork and laying it on top of noodles glistening in fat, a simple yet incredible dish is created.

Found near the Taipei Main Station, 桐花小吃 (Tong Hua Small Eats) is a restaurant that specializes in 古早味客家菜 or 'old style Hakka cuisine.' Places in Taiwan like to say they serve traditional or old style stuff, but those few words have really lost all meaning in the past few years, since everyone's been using it. In any case, their oil noodles are nothing short of spectacular. While the pork on top is nothing to write home about, the noodles themselves are a revelation. Plain noodles that possess a certain 'springiness,' are well coated in a layer of pork soy broth, pork fat, and adorned with fried bits of garlic and scallion. The flavor starts muted, but after a few bites, you're left with light spiciness in your mouth which is accompanied by the guilt of pork flavor on your lips. There's another aspect to the flavor than that... one that I associate with old Chinese person cooking... that I can't really explain in words. If you've never tried Hakka food before though, let me say this, start with this dish.

Hakka pork chop rice

I also got pork chop over rice. Uh, this was pretty disappointing actually (which is my general impression of Hakka food). When I ordered the pork chop, I was expecting a grand piece of pork, glistening with a mix of a sweet glaze and oil from frying. When I ended up with 3 strips of measly pork, it was an absolute and total let down. Coupled with the fact that they delivered the salted pork pig fat oil noodles first... well, it was sure to be down hill after that. Basically, the 3 strips of lean pork are served in a slightly sweet broth over a rice and sauce mixture that's eerily similar to 魯肉飯 (lu rou fan). What I got was basically a glorified bowl of soy sauce rice. Anyway, long story short. Pig fat + oil noodles is mega awesome. Soy sauce rice + stingy serving of pork is not.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Stir fried noodles and rice balls (人和豆付)

乾炒牛河 gan chao niu he

In what can basically be summarized as a stir fry of thick rice noodles, beef, scallions, and bean sprouts... 乾炒牛河 (gan chao niu he) is pretty one of my favoritest foods in the world (so much that I'll make up words to describe how much I love it). When I was younger (and refused to touch any sort of seafood or vegetables), it was pretty much the only item on the menu that I'd accept at dim sum places. Yes. I was very stupid as a kid (which isn't to say I've improved much on the intelligence, but I'll eat pretty much anything now). At a restaurant called 人和豆付, which translates to 'Friendly Tofu,' I was mesmerized by the picture of their noodles on the glass outside... I knew I had to order it.

Ha, actually I'm lying... I'm pretty sure the only reason I walked into this restaurant was because I wanted a place to photograph my egg tarts. I'm really glad I did though, their take on this dish was superb. I know, the dish has like 4 parts to it. How can anyone really screw something like that up? Well, it's not so much about screwing it up, it's about achieving the right flavor. I suppose I could throw some beef and scallions in a pan and add noodles, but I doubt it'd come out right. When it's properly executed, gan chao niu he has a certain 'smokiness' aspect of flavor. Combined with delicately sliced thin cuts of beef cooked just barely to completion, chewy, yet light, strands of wide rice noodles, and topped with ever so fragrant pieces of spring scallions and bean sprouts, a truly well prepared gan chao niu he is something that I can't even begin to describe. And they did it just that well. Way to go 'Friendly Tofu.' I think it was like 30 HKD (~$4), which is well worth the price of ecstasy methinks.

Rice balls

They also had rice balls. In my mind I was thinking of the HK spin on Taiwanese 飯團. Except it wasn't. It was just a fried cruller that was dipped in some sort of soy broth and rolled inside of sticky rice with a few shreds of pork floss. Except... their sticky rice smelled like feet. Did I really just pay 10 HKD ($1.25) for foot flavored rice? I thought maybe they just messed up royally with my order, but my mom explained that, what I described as the odor of foot was just how they're prepared in Southern parts of China. Well then. Duly noted. I will not be having any more foot flavored rice balls. I'll stick with the semi-sweet, yet savory, Taiwanese variety...


Egg tarts in Hong Kong

Egg tart

I really love egg tarts. It's hard not to. Going to Hong Kong is like traveling to Mecca, except instead of religious stuff, you get egg custard based pastries. In an effort to see if the reputation was well deserved, I made it a point to try an egg tart from 蛋塔王 or 'Egg Tart King.' Well, I did try, and I walked around like a moron in blazing heat and humidity only to get more and more annoyed. I finally gave up. No egg tart, no matter how good, was worth this kind of idiotic effort (blasphemy... I know). Determined to stuff something egg based in my mouth, I settled for the generic egg tart you see above. Sadness... and failure too.

Except not really. The egg tarts I bought were 2 for 5 HKD (that's like 25 cents per if you're converting). Whilst I obviously can't compare them to the mythical creations of 'Egg Tart King,' these were splendid in their own right. Flaky and light on the first layer, buttery and rich throughout the remainder of the shell, and finished with a custard that still jiggled if you poked at it, this thing was... magical. When I realized that I only paid a quarter for this miniature replica of heaven, thoughts began rushing through my head of how many I could logically fit in a carry-on suitcase (trick question. If you're thinking 'practically,' the answer is actually 0). My conclusion? Don't bother looking for a specific place that sells egg tarts. I'm pretty sure there's a bunch of random places that do a damn good job.

Then again... I'll forever wonder if that place really is that good.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pork cutlet sandwiches at Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園)

豬扒包 (pork cutlet burger)

Multiple people mentioned Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園)as a place I had to visit during my stay in Hong Kong. They couldn't really explain what was so great about it, aside from the fact that they served some sort of pork cutlet sandwich (from what I gathered, it was essentially an Asian diner). That vague description of a food item just elicited memories of a certain video. "My god did that smell good." Anyway, I happened upon this place by accident when I suddenly remembered I was supposed to eat there. How could this go badly? Pork + bread = good... always.

蘭芳園 storefront

If the store front doesn't look too familiar, it's because I got lazy and went to the one in Kowloon. I only had 2 days to spend eating stuff, so I really didn't have the time to run off to Hong Kong island to look for the original, although I was dangerously close when I visited Victoria peak. Oh well, I'm sure it tastes the same (or so I tell myself).

Anyway, my order consisted of the sandwich you see at the top, which is called 豬扒包 (zhu pa bao). Basically it translates to pork stuffed bun. Not a tremendously detailed description, but like I said, I like pork, and I like bread. Win.

豬扒包 (pork cutlet burger) innards

So what you see is what you get. The sandwich itself is pretty modest in size. I forget what I paid for it exactly, but it was around 15 HKD (~$2), so that seems pretty fair. In all honesty, if you bought 3 and stacked them together, it'd probably rival a Big Mac in size. Hmm, I probably should've done that. Anyway, the bun itself is a plain seeded white hamburger bun, lightly toasted. Nothing special, just a generic bun. Inside, the bottom layer is spread with butter (another thing HK does well... they butter the crap out of everything), a couple of tomatoes, and a thin spread of mayo (not Kewpie, but sweetened). The meat is comprised of multiple smaller pieces of marinated pork chop. Not the thick cutlet kind associated with Japanese cuisine, but rather... the kind you'd find in Taiwanese shops, pounded ultra thin, simmered in pork soy broth, then pan fried. Topped with another dollop of mayo (seriously, they don't understand the idea of heart disease), the sandwich is finally capped with the top of the bun. My opinion is this, it's nothing life changing, and nothing that would make me say "HOLY CRAP I NEED MORE PORK CUTLET SANDWICH," but for $2, it's definitely worth trying, and something I'd definitely eat again if I were in HK.

pantyhose milk tea (絲襪奶茶)

I also got the HK take on bubble tea. Yeah, there are multiple interpretations of bubble tea in Asia. Go figure. Called 絲襪奶茶 or 'pantyhose milk tea,' the way they make it there is apparently to strain it through a cloth that's as fine as pantyhose, leaving a milk tea that is unrivaled in it's smooth texture. That's cool. I can't really tell the difference in texture. I can tell you that it's probably twice as expensive as a larger cup in Taiwan though. I feel ripped off, but then again, it's one of Lan Fong Yuen's specialties, so I had to at least try it. That said, it tastes fine and good (you're an idiot if you screw up mixing tea and milk), but it doesn't warrant the price tag. Or maybe I've been spoiled by Taiwan. Hm...


Friday, July 9, 2010

Char siu in HK (源記粥麵)

Char siu pork over rice (源記粥麵)

Asian people love roasting meat and putting it over rice. It's probably coded into our genetic material or something. Roast meat + rice = delicious. In Taiwan, if you walk around, every one of the 燒臘 places claims that they have Hong Kong style roast meats. So naturally I thought, man... the food there must be the pinnacle of roast meats and rice. When I arrived in HK though, everything said their food was 台式口味 or basically 'Taiwanese flavored.' I was thoroughly confused. If Taiwanese people want to cook like HK people, and HK people wanted to eat Taiwanese cuisine... which is better? I had to do some investigating. Also I was hungry.

I think the above plate was 30 HKD (just short of $4), which is kind of expensive compared to Taiwan, and pretty damn cheap when compared to NY (in this, I also came to the conclusion that HK is basically what would happen if Taipei collided with NYC, but in Cantonese). Impressed by the bright red radioactive hue emanating from my strip of pork, I was pretty overjoyed when I tasted it. The char siu that this shop makes isn't made with loins as normally expected, but rather a cut of pork belly. Half fat and half meat might seem disgusting and overwhelming, but quite the opposite is true. A delicate crust formed by the caramelizing of the maltose leads to a crispy layer that is basically fried in pork fat whilst roasting. The meat remains tender and juicy (without question due to the fat content). Slice and throw this over rice (+ greens for more color) and you have an undeniably satisfying meal.

Now... back to that age old (in my mind) debate over meat roasting superiority? Mmm, this round goes to Hong Kong, but I'm not convinced that there isn't truly tantalizing roast meat in Taiwan either. I probably haven't been looking hard enough.

PS - if you're intoxicated by the unnatural red color too... 源記粥麵 is located in the middle of Kimberly Road.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dim sum at (稻香超級漁港)

Shau mai (稻香超級漁港)

I don't think anyone would believe I actually visited Hong Kong if I didn't make at least one trip to a dim sum restaurant. I mean, it's pretty much the holy grail of the push cart right? The place with which all dim sum hails from and so on. Anyway, since I had put off visiting any dim sum places all the while I've been staying in Taiwan, it was only fair that I'd get to go multiple times. The first time was at a place called 稻香超級漁港 on Nathan Road, which translates to "The aroma of rice super harbor restaurant," or so I think. With a name like that, how could I go wrong?

First dish is always 燒賣 (shau mai). I forget why, but for some reason, all the dishes were considered 小點 that day, so everything was uniform in price. Don't ask me the price, I don't really recall that. I was too happy stuffing my face with pork & shrimp balls.

Turnip cakes (稻香超級漁港)

I pretty much went with all the conventional dishes. I wanted a standard of comparison (which I'll get to later). Their turnip cakes were amazingly soft in the center, but with an impossibly crispy outer skin. Deceptively difficult to pick up with chopsticks, the eventual struggle is ultimately rewarded with the stark contrast in feel. They should get bonus points for the unknown sauce. Not oyster sauce, not soy sauce, and not hot sauce, but some perfect blend of the three.

Char siu noodle wraps (稻香超級漁港)

I don't know what this is called in English. It's 叉燒腸粉 (cha shao chang fen), or basically char siu wrapped in rice noodles. I love this dish so much for a few reasons. Char siu is like the greatest of all meats... it's semi-sweet pork that's bright red, and it's wrapped in rice noodles... which is pretty much the combination of everything good in Chinese cuisine. Plus it's really hard to screw up. I thought that I had already experienced really good takes on this dish in NYC and NJ, but I was wrong. When it's made to order, with freshly steamed noodles and just finished pork, the dish is transcendental in flavor. Nothing against the places in the US that serve it by pushcart, but a lot is lost in time of transit.

潮州粉果 (稻香超級漁港)

Called 潮州粉果 (chao zhou fen guo), these steamed dumplings are filled with water chestnuts and other crap I don't really recall. Why? I didn't really like them. Hm, why'd we order them you might ask? Probably because my grandmother was flipping out that all I was having was fried pork and fried shrimp. Well, this was to appease her. There... healthy food that doesn't taste all that good.

Steamed char siu buns (稻香超級漁港)

Ahhh, more char siu. In the form of steamed buns. Let me reiterate the fact that HK does a mean char siu. The same sweet bright red pork is stuffed inside pillowy pockets of white dough and steamed to perfection. Softer than Taiwanese 饅頭, and with a filling sweeter than what I've come to expect in either Taipei or NYC, these were definitely good. Nothing life changing, but certainly worthy of use as a standard to which other char siu buns can be compared.

Fried seafood dumplings (稻香超級漁港)

Goddamnit I'm bad at translations. They're called 鹹水餃 in Mandarin, or I guess 'salty water dumplings' if you go by literal translation. Whatever, it doesn't really matter, I'm sure you've seen them if you've been to dim sum. They're fried pockets of sticky rice with shrimp and pork and other assorted elements inside. Normally larger and cut open with a pair of scissors, I was kind of surprised to find miniature golden puffs placed on the table. Still, the concept is the same, and the execution was spot on. The fact that they still squirted hot oil upon biting was a nice reminder that these were just made.

Sesame balls (稻香超級漁港)

And of course, to close out the meal. Sesame balls. Filled with lotus paste. The one dish I didn't really like. Primarily due to their diminutive size, the shell to filling ratio is skewed in the wrong direction. Yeah, I'm nitpicking a bit here, but given the choice, everyone likes more filling. Although the multicolored sesame seeds were a nice aesthetic touch.

Basically, dim sum in HK is fantastic. Not because they make outrageous changes to any of the dishes or anything, and not even because they prepare stuff more meticulously. Nope, I'm pretty sure the main difference between dim sum in Taiwan, the US, and HK is the fact that they do everything to order. Dishes are made as you request them. None of your dishes arrive lukewarm or steamed to death, but rather... everything is exactly as you'd expect and more. Oh, and it's cheaper. I think everything I ate (which is everything here + doubles of some dishes) ended up being $20 for three people, and that's at a somewhat nice restaurant.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

義順牛奶公司 (Yee Shun Milk Co.)

Steamed milk with lotus seeds

In a process I won't even pretend to begin to understand, the 義順牛奶公司 (Yee Shun Milk Co.) specializes in making milk based desserts by steaming them into solids. Yeah, I was/still am confused by that whole deal. After a long struggle with trying to order in Mandarin (and ultimately feeling like an idiot when I realized the owner spoke English), I ended up with their trademark dish... a steamed milk dessert accompanied by a layer of floating lotus seeds. I was unequivocally disappointed by what was presented in front of me. I paid like 25 HKD ($3) for this? First off it's hot (I don't want 'hot' desserts when it's 35 degrees outside!), and secondly, it's in a bowl the size of my fist. I DEMAND ANSWERS OWNER MAN!

Well, my answer came in tasting. In a mix of delicate sweetness and creamy dairy, milk is, like I said... mysteriously steamed into a tofu-like matrix. Not quite as firm as silken tofu, but certainly more than just a viscous soup, it's like an amorphous blob of milky goodness. The lotus seeds were an afterthought, but worth a mention in their own right. Stewed in syrup water for more than long enough, they were softer than any I've ever had before, with a sugary layer penetrating the entire seed. As far as it being ordered hot... well, that was my own fault. You have the choice of hot/cold... there was a lot that was lost in translation during the ordering. Anyway, back to the point. Would I get another order? Probably not, I guess I still think it's kind of small and unsatisfying, but did it hold up to the taste test? Yeah, I'd say so.

義順牛奶公司 logo

Intrigued yet? If you're actually planning on going here... just look for the delightful cow. Look how happy he is.

More condensed milk butter toast

Goddamn, why is toast with condensed milk and butter so freakin' good? Ha, this blog is quickly becoming nothing more than a toast log. Since they serve this everywhere, I was compelled to getting it here too. There's just something different about plain bread in Asia. It's sweeter and lighter... as if a double thick slice of Wonderbread ran into a pat of honey butter. When you add butter and condensed milk on top... well, game over. It's still puzzling to me how people in HK aren't all overweight.