Friday, November 27, 2009

vietnamese/pho: i strongly recommend YUE YUAN PHO



YUE YUAN PHO
or VIETNAMESE GARDEN PHO
No. 12, Lane 155, Dun Hua N. Road
(02)2718-0660

MRT: Nanjing East Road or Zhongshan Jr. High School

website: Facebook page

hours: 11:30 AM-3 PM: 5:30 PM -9 PM; weekends 11:30 AM - 9 PM

$-$$

Kid friendliness: clean and spacious, though fills up quickly during lunch/dinner time;

Visit reviewed: 11/10/2009



If you've never had Vietnamese food in Taipei before, get ready to try the real deal. Even before I stepped foot into the restaurant, I was drooling over photos of Yue Yuan Pho's banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches and pho soups, after reader Richard kindly recommended the new restaurant with "a yellow sign that says "Pho." (Thanks Richard!)

I quickly made plans with my friend S to give it a try and she said it was near Chang Chun Road. Good thing because otherwise, I would have ended up on Dun Hua S. Road instead of Dun Hua N. Road when I confused the two when telling the taxi driver the address in Chinese. I know, I'm retarded, but I still confuse the two in my head sometimes because I'm thinking of the "N" sound for "North" = "Nan" when in fact "North" is "Bei" phonetically.



Anyways, once you end up on the lane populated with restaurants, you can quickly spot the bright yellow sign. At 11:30AM, we didn't have to make reservations, but the restaurant quickly became full after 12noon.



The simple menu is on a sheet of white paper in English and in Chinese. It's funny that instead of using the word "pho", it's instead titled "beef noodle soup."



The space is sleek and clean, with lots of light from the storefront windows and a long mirror along the top of one wall that makes the space feel slightly bigger.

A bottle of Sriracha and Hoisin sauce are set on every table- believe it or not, I think this is my first time seeing Sriracha in Taipei. I don't know why, but it makes me excited- maybe because it reminds me of LA.

If you've never heard of Sriracha, here is a cool NY Times article about its not-Thai, not-Vietnamese, but American origins.



We were set on trying the beef pho, a dry noodle and a sandwich. But we got talked into ordering the "Luna Shrimp" by the waiter with a sense of humor, saying that it was what he ate everyday. I wasn't clear from the name that it was Thai style fried shrimp cakes, but after ordering it, he said it was enough food and we shouldn't order the sandwich.



First came the plate of basil and bean sprouts and shortly after, a steaming hot small bowl of rare steak pho. (NT$140) The broth had a distinctive beef flavor, slightly sweet and spiced by onions and star anise. It really stood out from other broths I've had in Taipei. The beef quickly cooks after a few swishes inside the soup.



When I asked the waiter which of the rice vermicellis we should try, he suggested the BBQ pork over vermicelli with egg rolls (NT$140+30). You can also get bbq pork chop, chicken or beef with rice.



The large slices of grilled pork were tender and carmelized, like a Vietnamese take on the more familiar char siu. Buried underneath the pork were plain rice noodles on a bed of bean sprouts, where you could pour the house made dressing (or "nuoc cham") and make a sort of cold noodle salad.



Next came the fat slices of the shrimp moon cakes, or called Luna Shrimp on the menu here (NT$180). Sure they were crispy, hot and thick with mashed shrimp, but they weren't what my friend and I came here to eat. We ate a few and offered a few to the older couple sitting at table next to us. Out of pity (and probably curiosity), they took a few.



Though we were pretty full, I still wanted to try the sandwiches. After all, that was a rare find in Taipei. We reasoned with ourselves and decided we'd just sample it, and if we couldn't finish, we'd take it home. After ordering and waiting a few minutes, the BBQ chicken with pickled vegetables(NT$120) on french bread came.



O.
M.
G.



The succulent, hot, grilled chicken thigh, warm crusty french baguette, tangy julienned pickled carrots and radishes, and a slightly sweet mayo-ish sauce they used to "glue" it all together. It is perfection. And believe it or not, it's hard to find a good sandwich in Taipei, much less a good Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. I'm drooling as I write this and it's not even lunch time.

The food is so good, I must go again the following week with a gaggle of friends and order all the same things, but also try the spicy green curry with french baguette and the classic ham, meat loaf, liver paste with pickled vegetables banh mi sandwich (NT$120), which are both also amazing. Although this time, we have trouble getting service when the initial order of food is not enough (they are packed to the brim and running around like crazy. It seems only a few of the waiters are trained to take orders, some of the others are just delivering plates/cleaning up) and one sandwich order gets dropped for 20 minutes until we repeatedly ask for it.

It's pretty bold of a place to declare itself the best, as Yue Yuan Pho does on its Facebook page (or maybe a superfan set it up for them), but in this case, it is earned. It even kicks the butt of my former favorite local Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Hoa. The word of mouth is quickly spreading for this six month old restaurant in the good Vietnamese food deprived city of Taipei.

A second shop is already set to open this week or next, in the killer location between the Dun Hua Diner and Carnegies.


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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

2nd Annual 2009 Best of Taipei Restaurants Readers' Favorites Poll



It'a that time of year again! I had a lot of fun finding out what your favorite eats in Taipei were last year and I'm hoping more readers will share this year. Copy and paste the area below, fill in the ones you want to vote for and paste in the comments section.

I've added a few fun categories that I hope you guys will participate in... I know some of you are visitors, so you can share what you miss when you're not here!

VOTING

Voting will be open from November 24th - December 26th. There must be a minimum of 5 categories filled out (with different restaurants) in order for the vote to be counted. For example, you cannot fill out the same restaurant in 3 categories and nothing else. But if you really love that restaurant, vote for it in the applicable 3 categories and fill out 4 other categories, then it will count.

I changed it from "best" to "favorite" because some people told me it was too much pressure to declare something the "best" when they hadn't eaten everything. It's okay if you haven't tried everywhere in Taipei! No one has. It does not have to be a restaurant I've reviewed. So just vote for your favorites!

You don't have to have a google account to vote. Just pick the "name" or "anonymous" option and put in your first name or initials if you don't want to put in your name.

Also feel free to campaign for your restaurant or favorite eatery on Facebook, Twitter or your website with a link to this page. But only votes on this post will count.

I will tabulate and announce the winners by January 15th, 2010 (fingers crossed!).

2nd ANNUAL HungryInTaipei.com's
2009 BEST OF TAIPEI RESTAURANTS READERS' CHOICE AWARDS

Favorite Restaurant in Taipei
Favorite New Restaurant in 2009
Favorite Cheap Eats
Favorite Special Occasion Restaurant
Favorite Restaurant in a Hotel

Favorite Western Breakfast/Brunch
Favorite Chinese Breakfast
Favorite Late-Night Bites
Favorite Kid Friendly/Family Restaurant
Favorite Romantic Restaurant
Favorite Buffet
Favorite Night Market
Favorite Restaurant to take Tourist Friends
Favorite Unexpected Find in Taipei
Favorite Place to Meet for Drinks
Favorite Delivery
Favorite Food Court
Favorite Fast Food

Favorite Taiwanese Restaurant
Favorite Chinese Restaurant
Favorite Japanese Restaurant
Favorite Sushi/Sashimi
Favorite French Restaurant
Favorite Italian Restaurant
Favorite Indian Restaurant
Favorite Mexican/TexMex/Spanish Restaurant
Favorite Thai Restaurant
Favorite Vietnamese/Southeast Asian Restaurant
Favorite Korean Restaurant
Favorite American/Western Restaurant

Best Ramen
Best Beef Noodle Soup
Best Xiao Long Bao
Best Dim Sum
Best Hamburger
Best Hot Pot
Best Pizza
Best Steak
Best Vegetarian
Best Afternoon Tea
Best Desserts
Best Ice Cream
Best Frozen Yogurt
Best Shaved Ice
Best Coffee/Tea shop
Best Bakery- Breads
Best Bakery- Cakes

Favorite Food I Miss When I'm Away From Taipei
Favorite Food That Needs to Be Brought To Taipei
Favorite Restaurant that Needs to Open a Branch in Taipei

Monday, November 23, 2009

japanese/sushi: i recommend NIU SUSHI



NIU SUSHI
No.150, Xin Sheng N Road, Sec 1,
(02) 2542-9978

MRT: Zhong Shan

hours: 5:30pm-12am Open only evenings. advance reservations strongly suggested

$$$-$$$$

Kid friendliness: tight space, no high chairs spotted. mostly sushi bar seating, with only a few small tables

Visit reviewed: 10/20/2009



I'm pretty proud of myself. Somehow, I've slowly managed to try almost all the places that won the 2008 reader's poll that I had never eaten at before.... Flavors, Chicago Pizza Factory, now Niu Sushi, which won for Best Sushi/Sashimi. I think I only have Tutto Bello and Lao Zhang left. And speaking of the reader's poll, it's almost that time of year again- I'm going to be drafting up this year's categories, so start thinking about who you're going to vote for!



So back to Niu Sushi... It's located around the corner of Nanjing East Road on a row of restaurants, with a huge neon sign with "niu" or the Chinese character for cow to let you know you're at the right place.



Once inside, you know you're at the right place, as the sushi bar takes up most of the room. Make sure you make reservations as it's a popular place and the sushi bar sits about 22 people, with some table seating on both sides. A sushi bar seat will take you face to face with the sushi chef, and you can get up close to the fresh sashimi at the counter or on the left side, with the tank of shrimp and mussels that you might be eating for dinner.



I'm happy at the table on the right side and the air conditioning is a bit strong, so the waitress kindly offers me a pashmina to wrap my shoulders when she's turned down the AC a little and it's still cold. We haven't even ordered yet, and I already have a good feeling about the place.

The menu is in Chinese, but instead of ordering ala carte, you should put yourself in the chef's hands and order omakase or chef's choice. The prices range from NT$1000-NT$4500, so we end up trying the NT$3000. If we're going to splurge, let's splurge. Some of the pictures below are one person portions, some are two, as some of the nigiri and sashimi, they bring out a pair, one piece for each person.



First course- uni and monkfish liver (for one)

The first dish comes out rather quickly and I'm excited! It's one of my favorites- uni- and there's a whole mini-pile of the sea urchin, and on the right, I think monkfish liver. Both were slightly sweet and melt in your mouth, sort of like a foie gras of the sea. The creamy liver is slightly fishier than the uni, but was offset with a nice ponzu soy sauce that had a citrus touch. There's a bed of slippery seaweed underneath the liver and though it was a bit slimy, the viscous texture created a new sensation for my mouth.

This is one of my favorite courses of the night.



Second course- sashimi platter (for two)



The waitress explains that some of the sashimi is specially selected from a rarer kind of salmon, but to a casual sashimi eater like me, it tastes sort of the same as regular salmon. The waitress also notes that the roe on top are from the sweet shrimp. I do enjoy the seared sashimi and I love sweet shrimp. I'm not crazy about toro- it's a bit too fatty and rich for me, so I give my piece to my date.



Third course- Bluefin tuna handroll (for one)



Okay, now is where it starts to get a little fuzzy. Sometimes the waitress would announce what it was when she delivered it, sometimes she didn't. I couldn't really hear her when she did, and when we asked a few times what things were, I wasn't entirely sure- since she spoke in Chinese and I don't know a lot of the Chinese names for things that are less familiar to me. So if anyone can ID what we ate, I'd be happy to learn!

We are not sure what this is- we thought it was a tuna roll, but I'm not crazy about it. After a bite, I also give this to my dinner partner.

Fourth course- roasted heads of sweet shrimp (for two)



The heads are bigger than I've seen before and I get a little bit of the shrimp's brains out. Imitating my friend, I chew on a few of the crispy bits, but they are kind of tough. Of course, this is a bonus course from the sweet shrimp in the sashimi, so you don't have to eat it if you don't like shrimp heads.

Fifth course- nigiri



This was good, slightly warm with a slight chewy, fattiness.

Sixth course- abalone soup (for one)



Large pieces of abalone that were either steamed or cooked in a broth. Chewy and filling, while the broth tasted like the daikon oden soup.

Seventh course- grilled scallops with shiso leaf (for two)



The scallops weren't as melt in your mouth as I would have liked, and the seaweed was soft rather than crispy. I was still working on my abalone when I ate this.

Eighth course- nigiri (for two)



I liked the warm seared nigiri though my date thought that his previous visit to Niu Sushi was better (with a cheaper set). Perhaps it's because he sat at the sushi bar and could eat it right away, or the chef noticed what he liked or didn't like and could adjust what he gave.

Ninth course- seared beef (for one)



This was another one of my favorites. The two seared pieces of beef were pretty bloody on the inside, but it was good. Sometimes a few bites of good beef are better than a big steak that's overdone or not high quality.

Tenth course- half lobster in shell (for one)



I love lobster, but unfortunately, this baked lobster was a bit overdone and dry. The meat came out easily with the fork and after eating it I was starting to feel a little full.

Eleventh course- nigiri (for two)



Nearly translucent texture to the fish, the nigiri was again fresh and a mystery to me what I was eating.

Twelfth course- mystery ball(for one)



I wasn't crazy about this dish- it had a slightly tough texture and soft filling. It didn't taste like anything I had eaten before and I didn't finish it.

So one of the cons of not knowing what you're eating, is eating it and finding out later what it is. While I half joked that we were probably eating some testes with the shape and texture of this next spoonful... after some googling I found a site in Chinese that had the same dish. I cut and paste the Chinese into Google Reader and it said "Globefish Shirako (Swim Bladder)" and after googling "shirako" and "globefish" it turns out I was pretty much right. Not only was it male sperm sac of a fish, but a pufferfish!

Ewwww...

Thirteenth course- stirfried veggies



Solid stir fried vegetables, this was really good. Crunchy, fragrant and the right texture.

Fourteeth course- clam soup



By this time, I'm getting quite full. I think I ate the clams, but the soup was too gingery.

Fifteenth course- crab legs (for two)



What?! Crab legs?

I thought the soup was the last course and I wasn't mentally prepared for another course, so I'm a little too lazy to really dig into the crab legs and all the intricate shells. I get as much meat as I can out, but it's not super sweet so I'm not putting in the effort and I'm wisting for something easier...

So we request more scallop.

Sixteenth course- seared scallops



Now this is what I was wanting... If there were more courses like this, then the sushi chef would have been a mind reader. I think if I ever came back, or for first time visitors, you should start with a cheaper course around NT$1500 because I think the more expensive courses just get loaded with grilled/hot dishes that aren't really worth the price if you are just looking for sashimi.

Seventeenth course- honeydew and mung bean soup



Yay! We're finally done. It's been a long night and time to go home. I'm full, but indulge in the mung bean dessert soup and ultra-sweet honeydew melon. I can check another sushi place off the list, and the 2008 winner no less. After trying it, I can't say it's the best that I've had in Taipei, but it's definitely worth a try.

Speaking of the readers' poll, I'll find some time to set it up and so get your votes ready!

Friday, November 20, 2009

chinese: i strongly recommend XIAO SHEN JI



XIAO SHEN JI
No. 45, MingShen E. Road, Sec 4, 2 FL
SongShan District
(02) 2713-3232

$$

Kid friendliness: no high chairs

Visit reviewed: 9/26/2009 and 10/29/2009



If you're looking for spicy flavors of Sichuan (or Szechwan, the spelling I grew up with), you can try Xiao Shen Ji, a non-descript, but authentic eatery on the second floor of MinSheng East Road area with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it red sign flagging the entrance. Newly opened in August, the casual space is brightened by the orange felt chairs and clean decor.



Each time I've gone, the room is packed with customers that it can be hard to waive down someone to take your order. The second time we went during lunch, the wait staff seemed to be frantically running around the room and we asked three times if we could get someone to take our order. So we just helped ourselves to the small appetizer dishes on the side near the kitchen to munch on before we could grab their attention. This spicy soybean dish packs a huge punch in a small bite. There is also a cold blanched soybeans wrapped in soybean skin and sesame sauce appetizer that is quite good.



The large menu of affordably priced dishes is two pages of small Chinese type, so you might have to take someone that reads Chinese with you to this meal (if you don't). The menu includes small bowls of wontons and noodles, as well as a range of stir fried dishes, vegetables and hot pot.



I liked everything that was ordered both times I went and that's a measure of a good restaurant, especially one where you are sharing family style. I should just start a category called "My Grandma's Finds," as this is another one of her successful picks for our occasional family dinners. What's best about the places she picks are that they are usually delicious meals for can't-beat them prices.

Be sure to get the tightly wrapped wontons (NT$65) which you can get with or without the vinegar accented, blood red chili sauce. Here it's called tsao shou on menu.



I also strongly recommend getting the spicy stir fried eggplant which looks scary soaking up all the red chili sauce, but is balanced out by the slight sourness of the vinegar. The first bite slightly burns my mouth, but I built tolerance to the heat and it ended up being addicting in the end.




My favorite was the first dish to arrive to the table- the fen zhen fei chang steamed intestines and yams buried underneath a soft, couscous-like rice. Or if you don't like the chewiness of the intestines, you can get it with fork tender pork or fen zhen pai gu.



For those who cannot eat spicy foods, there's quite a bit to choose from as well. They did a wonderfully fluffy scrambled egg with shrimp for which you'll probably want a bowl of white rice to go with it.



Or the sesame shreddred chicken salad, which can be a refreshing alternative to all the chili flavors going on.



One family favorite is the stir fried green beans or gan bian si ji dou. The healthiness of them being vegetables are balanced out by the fact that they are fried in oil to make them tender and wrinkly before being stir fried with garlic and seasonings.



Are you getting full yet? We're not done yet! You can see that it's definitely the type of restaurant that you'd benefit from taking a large group so you can try a little bit of everything. This post is the combinations of two different meals, but there was some overlap.



I was a little scared to try the gong bao ji ding (NT$200) with the huge slices of fat chili peppers mobbing the diced chicken. But it turned out to be one of the best kung pao chicken I've ever had- the chicken was slightly crispy from being stir-fried and had a fragrant spiciness that was not overwhelming.



The first time, we ordered hot and sour soup which had a strong pepper flavor and silky slivers of tofu and pork blood. Flavorwise of the soup and ingredients, I liked the soup from Xiao Nan Men better.



It was a clear broth with meatballs, bamboo and cucumber was at the next lunch. The soup can be a light flavor to balance the spicy dishes, though some of my friends didn't like the starchiness of the meatballs.



All in all, a great place to try something new (or familiar, depending on how much Szechwan cuisine you usually eat). I'm still thinking about slow burn and sour notes of the eggplant and the chewy fattiness of the intestines, which were my favorite dishes.

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