Special for Taiwan Scene by Jenna Lynn Cody
I’ve lived in Taipei for twelve years, not as long as some scions of the expatriate community, but long enough to have sunk into a groove running comfortably between my apartment and a few favorite cafes and restaurants. When I first moved here, local beer meant Taiwan Beer, and local food meant noodle joints and restaurants serving a dozen or so time-honored Taiwanese dishes. But times change, drinking and food scenes evolve, and sometimes it takes a travel writing opportunity to get a crusty old expat out of her groove (or is it a rut?) and into the city to experience Taipei’s flourishing new craft beer and modern Taiwanese food offerings. Over a couple of weeks, I dined at five local establishments from intimate watering holes to spacious hangouts, trying everything from tableside taps to guava beer to a burger with chocolate sauce. Though the restaurants were all different, some common threads united them: traditional flavors and ingredients brought into the 21st century, friendly service and a typically Taiwanese lack of pretension.
Burgers and Beer at Moon Bear Loves Dancing
In my early years in Taiwan, Keelung Road was a long, gray slash across Taipei connecting Gongguan to Xinyi, not a great street for restaurants. But times have changed: just a short walk south of MRT Liuzhangli Station brings you to a clutch of interesting food and drink options. Quite possibly the most unique among them is Moon Bear Loves Dancing, my first stop on this modern Taiwanese culinary adventure.
Beyond its delightful name, Moon Bear Loves Dancing creates a fun, youthful atmosphere by drawing together elements of Taiwanese traditional decor – including a brick wall hung with teal-green window casements reminiscent of Japanese-era farmhouses – with modern splashes. A screen near the counter rotates through some of the restaurant’s signature offerings, including hamburgers on a variety of brightly colored buns.
Many food lovers argue that a restaurant’s quality can be determined by how well they prepare the most pedestrian items on the menu. I believe precisely the opposite: that a restaurant can be judged by how well it pulls off its most gimmicky dish. With that in mind, I ordered the most unusual item on the menu: a cheeseburger topped with a sauce concocted from red wine, cranberries and chocolate. The burger arrived with a generous dollop of deep brown sauce; I could smell the chocolate before it even reached the table. Don’t think of it as Hershey’s from a bottle or something you might put on a sundae: this chocolate was dark and thick, not sweet. It worked well. Other burgers include a spicy chicken burger with a sauce made with ingredients from Hualien and a ‘double-decker’ burger that includes a beef patty and cow stomach from Gangshan, a region of the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung.
I washed down my burger with a bottle of Mikkeller Taiwanese Dream – a locally-targeted pilsner offering from the international Danish brewing company. Despite its relatively low alcohol content (by my standards), it was flavorful and perfectly carbonated, with more of a bite than a regular pilsner. Although my Taiwanese Dream might differ from that of most locals – mine involves dancing moon bears – this is a beer everyone can enjoy. My dinner companion tried the apple pie moonshine. It was more of a liqueur than actual moonshine, to be honest, but it tasted just like actual apple pie (if apple pie were booze).
One of the more innovative aspects of the menu is the use of osmanthus barbecue sauce. Osmanthus (locally known as “gui hua”) is a flower with an intensely sweet fragrance often included in tea blends, and which adds floral and fruity notes to food and drink. I couldn’t resist trying the osmanthus barbecue chicken wings. They were piquant and slightly sweet and herbal without being overwhelming. I ended up licking the sauce off my fingers and resolving to come back and try the osmanthus barbecue pork with mushroom risotto. Although I still don’t know whether moon bears actually love dancing, I need that taste in my life.
URBN Culture: A Vegetarian Paradise in Taipei
Because day drinking is always healthy, I met a friend for a flight of beer and some vegetarian cuisine at URBN Culture. An intimate downstairs with bar and cafe seating and locally-brewed Taihu beer on tap gives way to a spacious upstairs with plenty of family-style seating. Although the place caters to vegans and vegetarians, the food is so delicious that omnivores won’t miss the absence of meat.
I tried the grilled eggplant, mozzarella, goat cheese and tomato on grilled rye while my friend ate the avocado sandwich with lemon-marinated shallots served on ciabatta. My sandwich was both cheesy and healthy (a difficult combination to pull off), with the mozzarella adding just the right amount of creaminess alongside the salty, gamey tang of goat cheese. Each sandwich came with fries or a small (but good-quality) salad. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the chefs at URBN Culture have figured out the secret to perfect eggplant: each piece was seasoned well and grilled to fleshy, creamy perfection. Who needs meat when vegetables are that good?
My beer flight included the Taihu Lab Apple Pie Cider – perfect for autumn with a strong apple and spice flavor. I also had the Sambar Milkshake IPA which was a bit thicker in both texture and flavor with a lightly spiced coconut undertone, the 55th Street Longan Amber Ale which was rich, fruity and flavorful and the Taihu Lab Nine-to-Five Lager despite my not being much of a lager drinker, which was slightly less fizzy and more flavorful than a typical lager. I finished off my flight with a 55th Street Rye Porter with cherry, which was dark and satisfying, with just a hint of fruitiness.
Needless to say, our day drinking session turned into a lively conversation about Taiwanese political history and lasted well into the late afternoon.
Taiwan IPA and Craft Beer at 23 Public
Opened by two foreign residents seeking to expand Taiwan’s craft beer scene, 23 Public is an intimate space on Xinhai Road near the Taipower Building MRT station. I’d cruised by it several times without stopping in, so when I found myself going there for work I was pleased to discover a motley crowd of expats and internationally-minded Taiwanese snacking and drinking together in a convivial atmosphere. 23 Public doesn’t shy away from local politics, either, with pro-marriage-equality paraphernalia prominently displayed near the restrooms.
Being a small space, food offerings are limited, although snacks that go well with beer abound, and it’s possible to get a small homemade pizza. I shared a flight of beer with my husband along with edamame and dried fava beans, both common bar snacks in Taiwan. The edamame were simple but well-seasoned with salt, black pepper and fresh red chili and the bartender was attentive in emptying the bowl for discarded shells regularly. The fava beans were satisfyingly salty and crunchy with a rosemary seasoning.
Our flight of beer included Taiwan #1 Pale Ale, 23 IPA, Love Motel Love, 22k IPA and Pub Stout. The Taiwan #1 Pale Ale was flavorful and fizzy to exactly the right degree. The 23 IPA was the hoppiest of the klatch of IPAs I ordered, with a pleasant, biting bitterness. 22k IPA, named for the rock-bottom low salaries offered to entry-level office drones in Taiwan and the source of much public mockery, was also hoppy – as IPAs typically are – and had a smoother more “herbal” bitter finish. Love Motel Love was easy and drinkable. The Pub Stout was a classic stout, but without the stodginess of most stouts. It was slightly fizzier than its typical British brethren, providing a smooth, dark finish to the set.
Beer and Traditional Taiwanese Dishes at bEEru
Named for the Taiwanese word for “beer”, which entered the Taiwanese language via Japanese (“beeru”) via English (for, of course, “beer”), bEEru strives for a more local feeling than your typical modern restaurant. The concept behind bEEru lies in having taps at the table offering three different kinds of beer. You are given glasses and pitchers and can pour as you please, with a set fee for each cc you drink. Our taps included a lager, a pilsner, and a scotch ale. The lager was light and refreshing and went well with the stir-fried dishes we ordered. The pilsner was fizzy and more like a pale ale. My favorite was the scotch ale, which stood out from the others as being the most flavorful.
The dishes came as a set of five, and we were given some choice as to what was included. We chose deep fried sliced pork seasoned with salt, black pepper, dried red pepper and what I could swear was a hint of tongue-tingling Sichuan flower pepper. The dried peppers along with the bright seasoning gave it a Sichuanese tang. The cold dish of meat topped with heaps of crunchy lettuce, julienned radish, and fried shallots and served with a vinegary, sesame-tinged sauce was also quite good. The fried noodles were oily in the way that fried noodles should be and were topped with a generous portion of juicy, seasoned chicken. While a bit salty, it went well with the beer. The most Taiwanese dish was a twist on classic ingredients – oysters, chopped deep-fried savory pastry (you tiao), cubed soft tofu and chopped green onion served in a simple but delicious sauce redolent of garlic.
Desserts include dou hua (a pudding-like lightly sweetened local dessert made with tofu) and a set of “mushrooms” which are made with bread, dusted with cocoa to get the mushroom cap crackled look, and filled with crushed peanuts. We tried the mushrooms and were pleasantly surprised by not only the quality but how much they looked like actual mushrooms.
We ended up hanging out until the MRT was about to close – tableside beer taps are strong encouragement to stick around – and found it to be a comfortable place to hang out, with friendly but unobtrusive service.
Old Taipei Made New at My Yacht
When I moved to Taipei in 2006, the old Songshan Tobacco Factory was an abandoned industrial complex just northwest of upscale Xinyi District. In 2011, the old tobacco factory was renovated and opened to the public as Songshan Creative and Cultural Park, along with an attached eslite shopping mall. In the surrounding lanes, small cafes, bars, and restaurants began popping up, turning the old no man’s land into a hip neighborhood with a thriving nightlife and weekend activities. Among these new businesses was My Yacht, a small beer cafe with long, blonde wood bar tables and chic lighting. A glittering Zhao Cai ‘prosperity cat’ greets customers next to an “I Eat Tips” jar, and as with most of Taipei’s craft beer hotspots, the day’s on tap offerings are written in chalk behind the bar.
My husband and I had the white ale with a snack of “boned sausages” – two meaty sausages wrapped around bones for each of us. The sausages were perfectly fatty, heartily flavorful and lip-smackingly good. The wheat beers were light and refreshing and provided a perfect counterpoint to the rich sausages, effervescent but not overly fizzy, flavorful but not overly wheaty. We stuck around after the meal the friendly atmosphere inviting us to linger and chat about how the beer and food scene in Taipei – and the city itself – had changed for the better.
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