Taipei is amazing, especially if you love food with a single-minded fervour usually reserved for cute animals and Wes Anderson movies.
From their night markets to streets of food (not just street-food) to little sandwich cafes popping up just about every corner, it is Asia’s little slice of gastronomical paradise, usually with less than two blinking dollar signs attached.
That is one of the reasons why Taipei will always sneak into my top five travel destinations. It is incredibly budget-friendly. The country is possibly the most progressive out of the South East Asia bracket, having banned the consumption of dogs and cats back in April, and only a month later, legalising same-sex marriage. Add inexpensive gourmet fare into the mix, and a pretty white, idyllic mist will cloud over your eyes and project childhood buffet dreams.
For the Virgin Taipei Visitor:
“How much should I bring (to eat)?”
Assuming that you’ll be having three meals a day in fancy restaurants, then estimate about $30 to $40/day for food. Otherwise, I find myself spending around $15/day because when in Taipei, eat like the locals.
It may not be as cheap if you compare it to places like Phnom Penh, where I can easily get a bowl of noodles for $1.50USD, but Taipei is a developed city and hardly never compromises on quality. $10 will go a long way, and that really becomes clear when you see people lugging bags of night-market goodies back to their hotel rooms, their facial expressions perpetually a little dazed, a little smug, and very hungry.
“What are the must eats?”
Taiwanese cuisine really exemplifies how a melting pot of cultures should taste and smell. The influences are aplenty. You can choose from the classics: xiao long baos, beef noodles, braised pork rice, oyster omelette, and stinky tofu. Or fresh off recent years’ menus: scallion pancakes, dan bing (egg crepe/pancakes?), overflowing egg yolk sandwiches, sticky rice-rolls, pig’s blood, fish soup, pork soup, and gua bao — Taiwanese hamburger that is really just an excuse for us to eat a whole luscious slice of fatty braised pork belly with a sprinkle of parsley and peanut powder.
The list really goes on because there are also Japanese favourites (takoyaki with whole baby octopuses!), South Korea trends (cheese potatoes and tear drop dessert), the undiscovered terrains covering grilled seafood, dessert, bubble tea variations, and so much more.
“Should I eat at Din Tai Fung?”
Not really. Unless you love to queue. But still nah.
“Where should I stay?”
In my opinion, the best places for students to stay for easy access to food and drinking options are: Ximen (young, hip place with lots of night time options), Zhongshan (lots of cheap Japanese bars and restaurant options, also 無老鍋/Wu Lao Guo/Elixir Health Pot is within walking distance and not appreciated enough), or Songshan if you prefer somewhere further from the town bustle. Songshan also houses Raohe Night Market, which I strongly recommend over Shilin.
In fact, Taipei’s metro system is really efficient and extensive, so just keep within walking distance from a train station. If you are a night owl, their 24 hours Family Mart and 7-Eleven is heavily stocked with equally awesome food, such as rice balls, sandwiches, bentos, tea eggs, and oden.
“Besides eating, what else is there to do?”
Hike the Elephant Mountain, visit Longshan Temple, and visit the Taipei National Zoo (it is supposedly the biggest in SEA and entry will only set you back about cost $3SGD). If you have time, take the train out to Jiufen or Shifen or anywhere that catches your eye. Do a lot of walking, visit all the night markets, and hide in the cinema when it gets too hot.
Where to Eat:
Everything on the table (and a rice roll) cost us $120TWD, which is around $5SGD. We came for the salty beancurd and youtiao, but stayed for the dan bing and carrot cake. The latter was surprisingly good despite being a little too floury for my taste, but then again, the rule is to transform anything floury into a vehicle for obscene appreciation of chilli oil. Their dan bing, plain with egg and spring onions, went superb with their slightly sweet & savoury dark sauce.
Maybe give their steamed baos and/or xiao long baos a miss. They are often unsatisfactory, with thick outer skins hiding insubstantial meat fillings, so you end up getting full on the wrong type of food.
Where? No. 102, Section 2, Fuxing South Road Taipei 106
Closest metro? Da’an Station
A seriously underrated restaurant for high-quality Japanese food, but perhaps it’s only underrated from a tourist’s perspective. Japanese food in Taiwan can range from very expensive to very cheap, but usually, it is easier to locate the sweet spot outside of the town area. From my mediocre foray into the Mandarin side of the Internet, this place blew up about a few years ago and people do make reservations one month prior to their visits because the alternative is to wait for an hour. It is located at Banqiao, which is quite far from anywhere central and even the metro station itself, so the best way to get there is to opt for a cab, then walk about 20 minutes to the station after the meal.
The whole menu is in Mandarin, but they do have an English version where everything is roughly translated. Our total bill, which included their sashimi platter, two trays of assorted sushi, a whole grilled fish (seasonal special), and beef carpaccio, came up to $1320TWD ($60SGD). Honestly, the quality of their ika is beyond words and their aburi salmon sushi? I’m still dreaming about how it melts in my mouth.
Where? No. 36, Section 3, Zhongshan Rd, Zhonghe District, New Taipei City, Taiwan 235
Closest metro? Banqiao Station
This is where you can consider in place of Din Tai Fung. They have a few outlets around Taipei but reservations are still recommended. The menu is almost a replicate of DTF’s staples, but they also feature adventurous alternatives such as oolong tea xiao long baos and more. Other than XLB, I strongly, strongly recommend their pork chop fried rice, beef soup noodles, and drunken chicken slices. The last is a cold appetiser and super strong in terms of alcohol flavour, but makes for a great break from all the hot and fried food. With two baskets of XLB, two appetisers, beef noodles, and a large bowl of sour & spicy soup, the total for three people was under $1000TWD ($45SGD).
Where? No. 13, Lane 155, Dunhua N Rd, Songshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 105
Closest metro? Taipei Arena Station
I’m not really sure why, but I always end up at this “no-sign” place for Taiwanese beef noodles. Priced at $220TWD ($10SGD) per bowl, it might not be really budget-friendly but I assure you, it is definitely worth it if you are a fan of beef. They only have two noodle options on the menu, clear or spicy broth. For me personally, the clear broth allows you to enjoy the soup flavour better, especially since their chilli oil is amazing?
Not that the bowl is anything close to being bland, since the noodles are springy and flat, and the beef is just tender, juicy, lean perfection. The steamed spareribs with rice might seem daunting at first, but it is really just crammed with tender pork meat all around the basket, and rice bits that have all the porky juices cooked into them. All the serving sizes here mean serious business, so a proper nap after is recommended.
Where? No. 16, Taoyuan Street, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan 100
Closest metro? Ximen
All images from Cally Cheung / Popspoken
Keep culture journalism alive, at just the price of a kopi. For a little bit more, get access to exclusives and a monthly gift box. Donate at patreon.com/popspoken