Eating in Taiwan is not so much a bodily necessity as it is a passion. There is no cuisine known to man that isn’t available in some form or another somewhere in (or around) any of Taiwan’s major cities, and even if you’re out in the boonies you’ll be able to find a decent meal.
Though there’s no shortage of trendy spots to spend your hard earned dough in Taipei (We’re looking at you, Niu Ba Ba; click here to read about this elite eatery’s NT$10,000 beef noodle soup), in this article we’ll be focusing on eating around Taiwan without breaking the bank.
We’ll start out with options under NT$100 and work our way up to the princely sum of NT$400 per meal, or just around USD$12. (So for readers not into doing their own math, that makes Niu Ba Ba’s top of the line beef noodle soup close to USD$300, or about half a month’s rent for a decent one bedroom apartment in Taipei, hence not appearing again in this article).
Lets start with your cheapest options:
Super-cheap eats: Filling up for under NT$100
Unless you’re eating in hotels (in which case breakfast is generally included) or restaurants catering to Expats (oh, how me miss you, Grandma Nitti!), you shouldn’t be spending over NT$100 on breakfast in Taiwan. Asian breakfasts tend to be lighter than their western counterparts. Cheap breakfast joints are in every city and nearly every town – look for the characters zǎo cān (早餐) . Items served range from grab and go breakfast sandwiches to the ever popular Dàn bǐng (蛋餅) – sort of a rolled up egg pancake with a variety of fillings including ham, bacon or cheese, and a tasty turnip cake called Luóbo gāo (蘿蔔糕) .
Most breakfast places these days also serve coffee, and you can generally find them open from about 6am until noon.
Convenience Store Meals
Backpackers, cheapskates, and travelers disinclined to look at menus rejoice! Taiwan is blessed with more convenience stores per capita than any nation in the world; according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, in 2016 Taiwan’s four major convenience store chains ( 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, OK Mart, and Hi-Life) boasted a total of 10,199 outlets around the island, which translates into one convenience store for every 2,304 citizens. What this means for travelers on a budget is that from Matsu (Taiwan’s northernmost outer island) to Lanyu (the southernmost) if you’re a) standing on land, and b) within walking distance of anywhere where more than a few hundred people live you’ll be able to find a convenience store.
Should you chose to take the majority of your meals at a convenience store, you’ll be in surprisingly good company – they’re popular with everyone. There are a surprising variety of things available at any Taiwanese convenience store, with even the smaller ones offering curries, a few varieties of pasta and rice dishes, chicken nuggets (all microwavable) and a few healthier items like reasonably good pre-made salads. Quick grab-and-go items include tea eggs (basically a hard boiled egg, but cooked in a mixture of spiced tea and soy sauce), rice triangles with a variety of fillings, and parboiled vegetables, fish and meatballs. Bigger convenience stores offer more variety. If you’re spending more than NT100 on a convenience store meal, congratulations, Monsieur or Madame Moneybag, you’re ready to move up to the next cheap eats tax bracket:
Slightly less cheap: Meals between NT$100 and NT$200
OK, this may blow your mind, but one of the most expensive things you can eat in Taiwan also happens to be one of the cheapest things you can eat: Sushi. While you can easily spend a few thousand kuai on an excellent sushi meal at a good Japanese restaurant in any city, you can also get a perfectly serviceable meal at any of the many bargain sushi restaurants around Taiwan. The most common of these is a chain called Sushi Express, where any plate you take off the conveyor belt will cost you the princely sum of NT$30. There are other places serving pre-made sushi of about the same quality, which is to say edible and filling, but nothing to brag to Anthony Bourdain about.
OK, a cheap (pardon the pun) cop-out on our part, but statistically speaking you should be able to eat at most restaurants in Taiwan for under NT$200. Obviously this is something of a generalization, so let’s narrow things down a bit. You’ll always find plenty of inexpensive restaurants around any university – the bigger the university, the more you’ll find. So taking out your mobile phone, typing university into Google Maps and head for the nearest red mortarboard (graduation cap) symbol is pretty surefire way to find yourself in a nexus of cheap restaurants. Another good indicator that a sit-down restaurant isn’t going to be expensive is if the sign outside reads “小吃” (xiǎochī). The direct translation is “snack”, but tons of cheap restaurants around Taiwan call themselves some variation of “Place/Family Name +小吃”. These places are generally cheap, but almost never have English menus. If you’re not into guessing or just pointing at stuff, a better bet might be…
Buffet restaurants are a great, cheap, and found all over the place. Some are vegetarian (look for the characters 素食 (sùshí) or the Buddhist symbol 卍, not to be confused with the Nazi symbol), but most aren’t. The biggest chain is Taiwan Buffet, but there are tons of others. Charges are made either by weight or by the person ringing you out eyeballing your tray and assessing a price. In either case, you’ll have a difficult time fitting more than NT$200 worth of food on your tray. Best of all for the Mandarin-shy traveler, no ordering is involved. Outside of the telling you the price, the person ringing you out will only ask you if you want rice for an extra NT10-15. Just nod or shake your head, as the case may be.
There are so many cheap street food options in Taiwan that covering them all would turn this article into a manifesto. Check 8 Taiwanese foods that you don’t even know you need to try (yet)!, Gluten Free Eating in Taiwan (Part Two): Wheat Free Snacks and Gluten Free Night Market Fare, and Take a street food foray into Taiwan’s night markets for some ideas. Most street food dishes should come in well under NT$100, and thus Street Foods could easily go into the first category, but for the sake of this article, we’re looking to go from famished to completely full, which isn’t guaranteed at on street food at the NT$100 price point.
And on the subject of 吃到飽 (Chī dào bǎo, or “eat until full”)…
Hey, Big Spender: Full meals between NT$200-400
OK, at this price range most decent meals are within reach, so in keeping with the overarching theme of this article, we’re going to skip to the best caloric bang for the buck option Taiwan has to offer:
All You Can Eat Restaurants
If you’re the sort of traveler who budgets for one big meal a day (or doing the intermittent fasting thing, which apparently has some health benefits), then you’ll get the a ton of bang for your food buck at any restaurant advertising all you can eat, rendered in Chinese as 吃到飽. All you can eat joints are pretty much all over the place as far as price goes, with NT$299 at the low end of the spectrum. (Hotel buffets are always 吃到飽, but are generally at least NT$600 and thus kind of out of the scope of this article.) The least expensive and best of these all you can eat places tend to be hot pot joints.
Taipei city has thousands of “fire-pot” restaurants, all of which have the same basic setup: The customer sits at a table in the middle of which sits a pot of boiling water. At some restaurants you order the ingredients for your personal stew from the waiter; at others, you get it yourself, buffet style. Anything is fair game for the pot. Sliced meats from animals that cluck, moo, bray and squeal; vegetables of all colors, flavors and textures, and seafood that, in life, swam, crawled, walked, or just sat there sucking in the ocean. (Expect to pay more for any 吃到飽 experience offering seafood). On any given night at a Taiwanese fire pot restaurant, the chances of two tables eating an identical fire pot are astronomical.
Some hot pot places (usually the more expensive ones) have the apparatus to bar-b-queue meats on the side of the pot. There are also all you can eat BBQ places, but these are harder to find and generally more expensive.
Nearly all all you can eat places offer beverages and dessert included in the price. Deserts, naturally, are also all you can eat. If you aren’t full after an hour at a 吃到飽 restaurant, you might want to consider having yourself checked for intestinal parasites.
Maybe all that bargain sushi wasn’t the best idea?
Looking to spend a bit more to experience Taiwan’s fabulous cuisine? Check out MyTaiwanTour’s Taipei Culinary Experience.
Food, fun and tons of culinary culture, and we promise you’ll leave full!