Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Taipei Eats - Zhongxiao East Road area Part II (忠孝東路, Picture heavy!)

More food ^.^

Hotpot is a must-try in Taipei, especially spicy hotpot (麻辣火鍋). That said, surprisingly hubby and I weren't too thrilled. I like it enough and hubby does too, but for some reason the spice really bothers his stomach and so we didn't eat it as much. When my sister visited though, we did take her along with J., her old friend from high school, to a hotpot restaurant, Artisan Hotpot (火鍋世家)

The place is a chain, and it's nothing fancy or "famous," but it's unique in serving "individual" hotpot, as in everyone gets their own hotpot and no sharing is required. If you ask me, it really defeats the purpose of hotpot but whatever, we weren't too picky and the place was packed, so we figured it couldn't have been that bad.

And it wasn't bad, although it wasn't great either. The menu was kind of confusing, and as we were trying to figure things out our waitress kept coming by every other minute to rush us to order. After we told her several times we weren't ready, she showed some attitude as she walked away. It must be a trend or something in Taipei for waiters and waitresses rushing their customers to order, because the same thing happened at Wang Steak as well as Mr. Onion. It was particularly absurd at Mr. Onion since we were there super early (around 5PM!) and the place was practically empty! Super annoying.

Our second hotpot experience was at Zhangbai Xiaoguan (長白小官) with hubby's colleague from Tokyo, A-san. This place is famous for their hotpot with load and loads of shredded pickled cabbage in it. I thought it was just okay, and I definitely enjoyed their spicy escargot (left picture, upper right) and their string beans with sauteed minced pork (left picture, below the escargot) more than the main feature itself LOL!

Kiki's Restaurant was a personal recommendation from hubby's colleague G. and his wife M., both of whom share our fondness for spicy Sichuan food. I remember M.'s words for me, "D., if you like Szechuan House (川妹子), you will love Kiki's." That was enough to send me on a mission, because I love Szechuan House and every time we visit the state, I must eat there at least once. 

Needless to say, Kiki's got some pretty large shoes to fill with me, and I'm actually quite difficult when it comes to my favorite foods. Not to mention the place was started by a celebrity, which after my painful Wang Steak lesson, anything attached to the word "celebrity" became a big gigantic red flag to me. I also read that it's more of a poshy place and not so much a "traditional" Chinese restaurant. Even more off-putting.  But hey, M. recommended it, and I trust her taste, so off we went to Kiki's. There are several locations, but we picked the Fuxing location, a 10 minutes walk from MRT Zhongxiao Fuxing Station

Well, I am happy to say the restaurant lived up to its reputation. Hubby and I enjoyed every meal we had there, so much we went three times (or was it four?) within our last month in Taipei! That's dedication, no? They have a large menu that makes it easy for you to pick out their most popular dish because they're all in the front. Don't you just love user-friendly menus?

Our first time there I got a sour plum smoothie, and it came out in this gigantic glass! It was yummy though, so I drank it all ^.^

Our first time there I had a very hard time deciding which dishes to order. They all looked and sounded so good! I the end, I settled with 6 dishes and even then, hubby had to stop me. This was my exact exchange with the waitress:
- Waitress: "你點了六個菜..." (You ordered 6 dishes...)
- Me, utterly shameless: "對, 我很餓." (Yes, I'm very hungry.)
- Waitress, utterly speechless: "..."

Minced Pork with Preserved Black Beans (left) is among Kiki's popular dishes and I totally see why. It was salty, spicy, and delicious! I thought they could have cooked scallions a little more because they overwhelmed the black beans a little bit, but I still enjoyed every bite of the dish. In fact, I regreted not ordering "very hot" (大辣). Because hubby couldn't have been able to take the heat, we compromised and went for "medium hot" (中辣) but damn, I could have gone all the way! Yes, I can eat pretty spicy, though I'm not at the "native Thai spicy" level yet. I tried that once at Thai Avenue, and after 3 bites I began picking out the freshly chopped Thai chile peppers that were mixed into my food. I should have taken a picture, because there was more than half a rice bowl full of them! Do they have iron stomachs in Thailand or what?!? Anyway, the Sauteed String Beans (right) were great too. Yes, they're common and boring, but I like them!

Another famous dish at Kiki's is this Silken Tofu that was just out of this world! The tofu was so silken they jiggled when I poked at them, and they melted in my mouth. Yet somehow, their sides were perfectly pan fried, just enough to hold the tofu cubes together in between my chopsticks and not so much crisply deep fried. And for those who dislike tofu because it has no taste, try this tofu and you will eat your words - they were flavorful. Flavorful tofu, folks. Damn. How do they do that?!?

The Kungpao Water Spinach (left) was surprisingly meh though. They were just "minty" and not much else. That said, I love water spinach so I ate it all up happily. The Shredded Pork with Red Chile (right) was also delicious though not spicy at all, probably because they didn't use the same chile peppers they did in the Minced Pork with Preserved Black Beans dish above.

I looked forward to this Spicy Diced Chicken (辣子雞) dish the most, however it somewhat disappointed me. It was very decent, but I found it to be lacking without at least some scallions. Also, they used a lot of chile pepper powder, which made me sneeze like crazy!!!

The second time hubby and I went to Kiki's (same Fuxing location) we had another feast of 7 dishes, although this time I tried to vary it up with a few new dishes we didn't order last time, including this Red Chile Pepper Fish here. In hubby's words, it was the best fish he's ever had! I thought it was yummy, though not the best I've ever had (I told you I was picky!)

Still, the fish disappeared first thing ^.^ It was crunchy on the outside and super tender on the inside! The sauce was done well, not too salty or sweet. I would make it a little more spicy, but that's just me ^.^ They use the same red chile peppers in the shredded pork dish above, which were milder than the little ones they chopped up for the minced pork dish. 

Of course the Silken Tofu made a reappearance ^.^

Ordered Beef and Scallions (left, 蔥爆牛 I think) and it was great! In fact, hubby loved it so much I had to fight him for a bite or two before he inhaled the plate. I went for the other Minced Pork with Preserved Eggs (right) dish, just to mix things up a bit. The preserved black beans were way better, hands down. I thought the preserved eggs blanded out the taste a bit. That said, if you prefer texture over saltiness you might like this preserved eggs version over the version with black beans.

Ordered the Sauteed String Beans (left) again too, although it came out cold :( I thought hubby would hate the Water Spinach Sauteed in Preserved Tofu (right) but it turned out he liked it better than the kungpao version we had last time!

Yes, I got curious and ordered the Kungpao Chicken (left) ^.^ It was great, though again not spicy enough. And here's the Red Chile Pepper Fish (right) that disappeared in a flash.

We went back to Kiki's for the last time with our old college friends P. and R. a few days prior to leaving Taipei. This time, we went to a different location on the 4th floor of the Xinyi Eslite Bookstore. Again we tried a few new dishes that we didn't order before.

From left to right: me, hubby, P. and R. We didn't even notice we were seated right in front of the kitchen door until the meal was almost over ^.^

I don't remember what this dish was called, but it was braised pork belly (left), although not Black Pork (東坡肉). It was good, but surprisingly chewy being pork belly braised. I didn't care the pickled vegetables that were buried underneath the pork slices, but I really liked the sauce! It wasn't too sweet as a lot of the soy sauce braised flavors I have had in Taipei tend to be on the sweet side. Hubby particularly enjoyed the 水煮牛 (right, no idea how to translate this one...) even though he did admit that the Szechuan House's version was still better. I thought it was okay. Yes, it was spicy, but not enough flavor in the beef.

R. ordered this oyster and tofu dish (left, no idea what it's called). I hated the oysters (don't like the texture) but loved everything else, the tofu, the sauce, yum! P. ordered this Cabbage in Preserved Tofu dish and it reminded me of an almost identical Vietnamese dish, only you dip the boiled cabbage in the preserved tofu as you go. 

Had the Spicy Diced Chicken (辣子雞, left) and the Red Chile Pepper Fish (right) again too. Yes, the chicken made me sneeze so much they had to move the plate to the far end of the table. The fish tasted different this time too, not as good as the Fuxing location made it. In R.'s words, it was more like sweet and sour fish LOL!!!

Anyway, after dinner with P. and R. (on the 4th floor of the Eslite Bookstore Xinyi Branch) we all went down to the 1st floor and had tea and dessert at the same Agnes B. Cafe hubby and I visited after having spent all afternoon up in Maokong. I tried something different this time, although I don't remember the name of the pastry. It had flaky crusts like a napoleon too.

Hubby and P. ordered this chocolate fudge layer cake and R. ordered this strawberry tart.

Anyway, after the first few times at Kiki's, we happened upon another Sichuan restaurant, also called "川妹子." It is of no relations to the one I love in New Jersey of course, but whatever, the name was enough for me to give it a try.

We went all out here too, ordering many of the same dishes we ordered at Kiki's. Why, because I wanted to give them a fair chance, of course! ^.^

Well, big mistake. The first beef dish (left) that came out made the both of us cringed with disgust - the grease was about half way up the plate and it wasn't 水煮牛! See it for yourself - yes, that's all grease and *not* sauce! Yuck! The second plate didn't help my disappointment. We ordered bean curb strips with pork (right), and it came out with all bean curd strips and sliced garlic, and may be a few strips of pork! It was also very greasy. Do you see any pork in the picture? Not really? Yeah, because there weren't really any to begin with!

The third plate was worse, and it was my favorite Spicy Diced Chicken (辣子雞, left) too! Sure, they had the sense to put in scallions, but that heaping plate of food wasn't what you think. In fact, it was heaping because there was a bunch of lettuce underneath a thin layer of food. And underneath the lettuce was, well, a puddle of grease. Urgh. They even screwed up the string beans (right), which is probably one of the most common dish! The string beans were way over cooked and were mushy in addition to being greasy.

I think the place's only redemption so far is their version of Silken Tofu. The tofu wasn't as flavorful as Kiki's, but the dish as a whole was at least decent in comparison to everything they'd brought out so far. I still didn't like that the cubes were swimming in this runny and greasy sauce though. Look, I know Chinese food is greasy, and I've eaten tons and tons of greasy Chinese food, both at fast food joints and dine-in restaurants. Seriously, this place was the first to actually gross me out with the sheer amount of grease!

This last dish was Shaoxing Prawns. It looks good, no? Too bad all it took was one bite for me to stop eating - it was salty and bitter. Make that very bitter. The cook must have spilled half a bottle of Shaoxing wine into it, but it tasted like cooked shrimp drenched in table wine. Anyway, we couldn't take anymore of this food, so we asked them to wrap it up to go. When our leftovers came out, I almost laughed out loud. No, it wasn't my first time seeing this as almost all street foods in Taipei are packed this way. The problem? This was a nice sit down place (our bill came to NT$2,100+, US$70+), and so far every nice sit down place we'd eaten at had packed our to go food in a more "polite" paper box. So I strongly do *not* recommend this restaurant. If you want to have a nice Sichuan meal, go to Kiki's.

Went back to Thai Town Cuisine for some more of the clams in coconut sauce that I couldn't have enough of. 

The clams in coconut sauce (left) was every bit delectable as I remembered it! The water spinach in shrimp sauce (mắm tôm, right) was a bit too pungent for hubby though. I didn't mind it, as I'm used to all the shrimp sauce in Vietnamese food but I guess it was new for hubby.

I was very much looking forward to the Chicken Green Curry (left), but had chopped asparagus in it, which overwhelmed the curry's flavor and it ended up kind of odd, nothing like Thai green curry. The Chicken Satay (right) was ho-hum too, which was a shock to me because, well, it's chicken satay!!! Come on!

The Spicy Seafood on Sizzling Plate was good, but it came out to us barely warm, let alone sizzling. The minced beef in spicy sauce was meh, partly because they left the minced beef in huge clumps. This plate also came to us cold.

I had high hopes for Tom Yum Koong, however they had put one too many tomatoes in it and it blanded out the soup. That's the danger of putting tomatoes in tom yum koong, too much and it will neutralize the signature tartness that makes the soup unique. Thankfully, I finally had the opportunity to use the fish sauce with mashed Thai chile pepper that I didn't touch last time. Man oh man, it was spiiiiicy, exactly what I was craving for. So I dumped the whole bowl of it into the soup ^.^, which made it so spicy hubby could only take a slurp or two (muahaha evil scheme successful...). And guess what, it rescued the soup, made it somewhat tart again and brought out lemongrass's flavor. Delicious!

Finally ordered a dessert this time. It was yummy ^.^

After Thai Town Cuisine, I wanted to try a different Thai place, and we picked the Crystal Spoon on the 4th floor of Q Square (京站店, Taipei Main Station, technically Zhongxiao West Road but whatever ^.^). 

That's me without a speck of makeup on. Scary huh?

I liked their Thai ice tea right off the bat, so that was a good start!

Hubby ordered the papaya salad (left), which turned out to be too tart for him. I thought it was okay. I liked the water spinach in spicy sauce (right) better!

I had to try the shrimp pancake (left), but these were too thick and, well, way too much if you ask me. The ones at Thai Town Cuisine were thinner and not as shrimpy. I thought I ordered a spicy chicken dish, but it came out a lettuce wrap (right) instead. Whatever, I ate it ^.^ It was good, although they didn't dry the lettuce properly and the water on it diluted the chicken and made it taste watered down. Well, it was, quite literally.

The beef stir fry noodles (left) was delicious though! The noodles were soft and tender and the flavor just right. This dish disappeared first! And oh my, the Chicken Green Curry (right) was amazing! It was spicy and coconut-y, exactly as it should. In fact, it was a little too spicy for hubby, but he inhaled it anyway. He took one bite and said, "Wow, you'll like this one." Yup, I loved it alright. So much I came back a second time just to have it again xD

We ordered the seafood sour soup (the seafood version of tom yum koong) and it was fantastic! Tasted quite authentic, wasn't spicy enough but at least hubby could eat it without getting teary ^.^

On our second visit (yep, we came back for that green curry!), I ordered Pad Thai (left), which didn't taste anything like pad Thai, but was good nonetheless ^.^ Too bad the spicy string beans (right) were only ho-hum though.

The beef with lemongrass was alright. It would have tasted better had it been a bit hotter, as in temperature wise because it came out to us cold. Ahh...that Chicken Green Curry. Soooo good!

And we tried the chicken satay too, which was way, way, way better than the ones at Thai Town Cuisine. I guess each restaurant has their excellent, good, and ho-hum dishes, no?

We tried the Tom Yum Koong this time, and I actually like the seafood version better because for some reason, the briny flavor didn't come out as well with just shrimps.

Tried a dessert this time too, the Black Sticky Rice and Taro in Coconut Milk served warm. Very good. Not too sweet at all!

Our second feast at the place, which wasn't as big as our first but enough to feed us two meals!

The Christmas displays at QSquare (left) and the main ticketing hall in Taipei Main Station (right). Pretty, huh?

Towards the end of our trip, hubby got really sick of Chinese food and in addition to giving him a dose of "home food" at The Diner (樂子), we also branched out to try some Indian cuisines. We tried out Aaleja first and had a pretty funny experience looking for the place. Aaleja has 3 locations. Instead of having a website, they have a FB page with google maps and some hand-drawn directions to each of the location. So on a rainy night, we hopped on a taxi and gave the driver the address of location #3 attached to one of the maps we saw on FB. The driver took off in the opposite direction (we had the map on our phone), which we thought was odd but figured he was taking a short cut. Well, it turned out to be quite a long cut because 20 minutes later, we were still driving. So we asked the driver, "Where are we going?" He got quite offended and said he was only following the address we gave him. We showed him the map on our phone. He said, "That's not the map for this address!" even though it was pasted right next to the map. In the end, he pulled over and we had to call the restaurant. Turns out they pasted the address for location #2 next to the map for location #3. Gah, what's up with that, folks?! 

Anyway, so we ended up at location #2 instead, which was a tiny hole in the wall place where the dining takes place on the covered side walk. Whatever, we didn't care. The place looked charming, the waiter was cute, and they served their hot Chai in giant beer glasses ^.^ And even though it was raining dogs and cats, all the seats were full so it couldn't have been that bad. Luckily for us, a table opened up 5 minutes later and we were seated.

We ordered spicy naan (left) and seasoned naan (right). The seasoned naan was seasoned with what looked and tasted like aonori, which was quite odd but it wasn't bad.

The samosas (left) were okay, but we didn't like the tandoori chicken (right) at all. They came out on the bone and was smothered in a sauce that pretty much killed their flavor in addition to making them super messy to eat.

The curries were much better though. Hubby loved his lentil curry (left, Dal something...sorry, I forgot), and I really liked my Chicken Tikka Marsala.

I also ordered a Chicken Vindaloo, and while it was great it also came with bones, which made things very complicated to eat. Thankfully, the chicken were tender and weren't hard to removed from the bones, but still, I would have preferred no bones.

See my previous Taipei Eats - Zhongxiao East Road area (忠孝東路) post.

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