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
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.