Written and photos by Stefan Martin
Translated by Annie Liu
What is it about the lack of luster, the deprivation of decoration, the sheer informality of some restaurants that make them so good? For sure, some of the best meals I have had have been accompanied by lace tablecloths, chandeliers, and sommeliers, but when good food is all I aim for I hit up a favorite, comfortable, little hole-in-the-wall.
Perhaps the unadorned walls and lack of plate presentation allow for the food to speak for itself. When the customer's senses aren't being attacked by a barrage of "bling bling", or aren't confronted by a menu that seconds as a novel, they may sink more fully into their chair and allow themselves to be fully taken by that moment and that place. Such is the magic performed by the following three restaurants.
First is a place so small that it cannot, by definition, be called a restaurant. It is more of a "food stall". Located along the south end of the giant traditional market on TzYou Rd., in Tsoying, this stand offers very little in the form of variety. This, however, is a good thing. Something by and large lacking in my own North America is the specialty restaurant that for generations has been serving a small number of simple, but delicious menu items.
Even with no English name, this place is not hard to find. It is a fish balls and noodle soup stall- easy to pick out by the massive pots of soup simmering away and the three types of fish balls on display. Everything here is hand made by the same people serving it to you. This husband and wife team comes from Penghu Island, but their recipe for stuffed fish balls hails from their origin, FuTzso in China. The noodles have a wonderful doughy texture and are complemented perfectly by the crunch of the spicy, pickled cabbage set out as a condiment. In fact, feel free to personalize your dish with the array of flavorful condiments available
Second is a restaurant that, at first glance, doesn't even exist. Along a back alleyway, tucked in behind the World Gym, and peeking out from behind a plastic tarp, there is a secret that I am hesitant to share. Some of the best, certainly the most comforting, Thai food is cooked in a kitchen built on the street in front of two homes (the second was acquired in order to expand the business). Be careful though, if you're seated in the wrong house, you have to trek next door to use the bathroom. The charm does not stop there. The walls are adorned with pictures pulled from a Thai Airways calendar, and simply stuck to the walls with red tape. At the rear of the dining room sits a residential fridge, from which you are invited to get a drink, provided you don't mess with prepped food therein.
Happily, the owner is an actual Thai. After years spent cooking in Thailand he was hired to cook at a Thai food restaurant in Taipei. Incidentally, that restaurant no longer serves Thai food. Perhaps that is because their best chef moved to Kaohsiung--lucky for us! After scribbling our order onto a pad we sit down, and the waft of wonderful smells immediately whets the appetite. Freshly fried shrimp cakes with a sweet and sour sauce are quickly eaten, making room on the table for the creamy, sweet Red Curry Chicken. Steamy hot jasmine rice is the best vehicle to deliver their ground pork dish to your mouth. The starchy sweetness cuts through the flavorful fattiness of the pork, allowing the cilantro and red chilly to perfume the palette. Anyone who's been to Thailand may tell you this is not the most authentic Thai cuisine, but bona fide or not, it's just good.
Finally we arrive at our third destination. With no English name here either and no sign whatsoever, it is still rather easy to find this spot. Simply ask anyone working in the area where they buy their dinner. Or, while wandering through the WuFu market, simply keep your eyes open for groups of people waiting, staring, and drooling. The waiting part is because many local shop owners order take out from here everyday. At this place, fried noodles and tomato egg fried rice are two of the most popular choices.
The staring part is because, while the walls have absolutely no adornments and the tables and chairs serve more function and less form, the one point of interest is the rear doorway into the tiny kitchen. Half covered by a cockeyed curtain, one can still catch glimpses of the two women who help prepare the food. A snapshot of vegetables here and quick glimpse of orders being packed up there, are followed by a flourish of red and green aprons.
And finally, the drooling is all in anticipation of expertly made local dishes. I say expertly with all sincerity; the same dishes have been served here for over 22 years, and the prices haven't changed in 15 years. Now that's dedication! Furthermore, one cannot imagine a smaller or more efficient kitchen. With a menu listing over 40 items, it is a wonder how they can do it all in a space no larger than an elevator. Even with a large menu and a small kitchen, Mr. Huang is still adamant about his cuisine, insisting that each ingredient and each dish be treated individually. Thus, he ensures that the best variety of different flavors may be achieved. One can visit here and taste something unique everyday, and each time leave completely satisfied.