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FEBRUARY 11, 2002 VOL.159 NO.5

Weekend Wanderings: Get Away To Taipei
If it's a quick holiday or long weekend you're after, head to Taiwan's capital for culinary and cultural delights that won't break the bank 

Hot Spot: Try Tamsui's seaside for a change of pace
Short Cut: Rest for weary souls
Hot Deal: Low prices for high tech
Detour: Taipei's Juming Sculpture Park

The Friday night flight from Hong Kong to Taipei is atwitter with excitement. It's full, but not with the factory managers and motherboard sales reps you might expect. Crammed into the aisle seat beside my girlfriend, a young woman is touching up her makeup. Meeting someone special? "I'm seeing friends," says Coco, a 27-year-old clerk in a Hong Kong jewelry store. She snaps her compact shut and leans over to confide with a broad smile, "We're going out."

Taipei's great food, hip nightlife and gritty music scene are attracting young urbanites from across Asia. And no wonder. It has become an around-the-clock city with half a dozen bustling night markets, a shiny new 24-hour mall, and an educated, jaded and demanding population of young professionals. In these girdle-tightening times, it's also refreshingly affordable. The battered New Taiwan dollar makes a dinner bill resemble the tab for a light snack in Hong Kong. Getting there doesn't break the bank, either: I found a weekend package from Hong Kong for less than $200 and set off after work to see what the fuss is about.

When the 50-minute flight touches down, we cruise through the official formalities to find my girlfriend's xiao gugu, or little auntie, waiting for us. It's after 9 p.m. but Xiao Gugu, a high-school Chinese literature teacher and staunch epicure, has plotted out an evening of eating. (When flying to Taipei, don't bother touching a morsel on the plane.) We head to Liaoning Street in northeast Taipei where vendors famous for their seafood concoctions line the crowded alley. Xiao Gugu waves us over to a woman who is ladling taro batter onto a round grill. We watch as she nonchalantly cracks two eggs over the clear taro and smooths the mixture into a perfect circle. She then sprinkles plump oysters over the omelette and folds it all together. Served with a sweet and spicy sauce, one uhwajian, as the oyster dish is called, splits well between two people, leaving room for more of the night market's delights. And there are many. Tangyuan, gnocchi-shaped parcels of rice paste filled with meat and scallions, are especially delicious, but pause a moment before popping the piping-hot morsels into your mouth. A burned tongue is not an impairment you want on a weekend in Taipei. Our bellies full of xiaochi, or snacks, we thank Xiao Gugu and hop in a cab to join some friends for the last set at Brown Sugar, a popular jazz haunt; call (886-2) 2322-4677 for reservations. There's no cover charge—just a $13 minimum on weekends, which six of us put toward a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label priced at only $80. We watch a sultry Louisiana jazz singer whisk the crowd into a merry meringue with a version of Teresa Teng's The Moon Represents My Heart, then, sated with food, drink and song, we roll back to the hotel.

At noon on Saturday our local gourmand comes around to guide us to lunch. Xiao Gugu ushers us into an inconspicuous little dive, explaining that when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian wants to treat foreign dignitaries to authentic local dishes, he brings them to this charming place—the Lian Hsin Yuan Vegetarian Restaurant on Hsinsheng North Road; call (886-2) 2560-1950 for reservations. Xiao Gugu orders a flurry of dishes. First out is xueyu (snow jade) doufu, a two-tone brick of bean curd, green on top, white on the bottom. The top "jade" layer gets its color from a soak in a spinach marinade. We share hefeng (gentle wind) salad—a cold plate made up of star fruit, dragon fruit, octopus, asparagus and spinach drizzled with a savory sauce—and a plate piled with plump bamboo shoots. The three of us eat our fill for less than $25.

If you happen to skip the exquisite kumquat cake for dessert (we didn't), just a few blocks away at 15 Youngkang Street is Bing Guan (The Ice House), a small stand that has become a Taipei institution serving shaved ice covered in fruit and cream. Because the line curls around the corner, Xiao Gugu has us hover over a table while she queues up to get the special of the day: flaming red strawberries sliced over thick cream on a bed of finely ground ice. A simple delight no one should miss.

For dinner Xiao Gugu sends us to Mitsui, a modern Japanese restaurant near the Intercontinental Hotel. The dEcor is trendy and clever, but the food doesn't hide behind wily frills. Our yellowtail sashimi literally melts away into a mouthful of flavor. Nothing tastes anything short of delicious, and at less than $30 for the two of us, Mitsui serves the best sushi I've ever eaten without having to hock the koi farm to pay the bill. Bookings can be made by calling (886-2) 2594-3394.

After dinner we meet friends at Vacuum Space (known as VS to those in the know). Phone (886-2) 2700-6535 to ask for a table in the vip room, set off from the dance floor by sliding glass doors that would suit a space pod. If you're still buzzing after the clubs close, Fuhsing South Road in southeast Taipei has food stalls open until the wee hours. Try the niurou laobing, a beef-filled pancake, or, if you're brave, a steaming hot pot of chou doufu, stinky bean curd.

On Sunday, we abandon plans to visit the Palace Museum in favor of sleeping in. The plane ride home isn't fun. But heading to work on Monday, I feel delightfully mischievous, like I've just pulled a holiday out of a weekend.

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