Thursday, February 13, 2020

What We Ate In Taiwan

For longtime readers of this blog, you are aware that I don't often mention specific food dishes, nor do I include lavish pictures of food that I have eaten.  However for once I'm departing from this format with a 15 part pictorial write-up of the food that we ate on the trip we took late last year to Taiwan.  The reason for this departure is the wonderful tour put on by Supera Tours (, the English language arm of the Signet Tour Company in the San Gabriel Valley and the array of extraordinary meals we had on the trip.  

For those who have taken a tour packaged in the Chinese communities of California or Canada, tour food wasn't anything to talk about, unless the talk was grousing about how boring and repetitive the food was.  That's because for many tour companies, food is a cost to be minimized in order to keep the tour price economical.  But in the end after hearing a number of people say that it seemed like they ate the same food every day on these tours (a description with which I concur) I wondered if it had to be this way. Fortunately we came across Supera Tours, which while not operating a high priced gourmet, foodie tour, provided food highlight after food highlight, which made me completely rethink the concept of the culinary end of Chinese tours.

The first segment of What We Ate In Taiwan, which covered the food we ate before the tour began,  was previously posted here. 

The next fourteen segments, generally discussed in chronological order on a venue by venue basis, can be found after this posting, except that the last segment does not appear here on the main blog page, but has to be linked directly due to a website glitch at

What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 2 -- The Original Din Tai Fung

While the Supera/Signet Tours ( promotional materials use the catch phrase "food=life" I was anxious to see if the tour would actually live up to the promise.  Well Supera Tours showed that they really meant business when they took us to lunch for the first official meal of the tour at the original location of Din Tai Fung in downtown Taipei.

Now Los Angeles area diners have been familiar with Din Tai Fung and their signature xiaolongbao, their open kitchen where you could watch the XLB being made, and other goodies created in the kitchen for 20 years now, ever since they opened up in Arcadia in the San Gabriel Valley.  It did not take long for that restaurant to reach cult status, and Din Tai Fung was the toughest Chinese restaurant ticket in town, as people lined up outside the restaurant daily before opening, or experienced extended waits during the day.  Despite everything, Din Tai Fung refused to expand beyond their relatively small Arcadia store.   Their fame spread far and wide across the United States.  A week long pop-up in Flushing, New York Chinatown was sold out, leading New Yorkers to believe that they were in for their own branch of Din Tai Fung, but that didn't happen.  Heavy rumors said that Din Tai Fung was going to open up in the Vallco Mall in Cupertino in California's Silicon Valley, but that did not come to pass either.  (Ironically years later, Apple opened their Apple II headquarters just up the street.)

Word on the street was that Din Tai Fung had an in-house astrologer that nixed most expansion plans.  The only expansion activities that Din Tai Fung did engage in was a second Arcadia branch, two doors down from the original, and two locations in Seattle, where some family members had moved.   But then a half dozen years ago, Din Tai Fung did a 180° turn.  Not only did they go on an expansion tear, but all of their new locations were in major regional shopping malls with hundreds of seats.  Since then they have opened up in the Americana in Glendale, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia, Del Amo Fashion Square in Torrance and Westfield Century City in Los Angeles, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Valley Fair in Santa Clara, and Washington Square in Portland, OR.  And the funny thing is with all this extra capacity, you still have a long wait to eat in the restaurant.

While all of the Din Tai Fung US locations are highly regarded, I have always heard that the original Taipei location was clearly superior to all the US and other overseas locations.  Consequently, I was looking forward to making the comparison.   Despite the fact that we arrived before 11:30am and were part of a tour, we had to wait nearly a half hour before being admitted to the restaurant.  

When we finally got in we were broken up into four different groups on different floors.  First up was the cucumber salad, an excellent version.

Of course, Din Tai Fung sets the standard for xiaolongbao.

But I've never had on choy at a Din Tai Fung before.

Nor hot and sour soup.

Something interesting were these hui tou dumplings.  These dumplings are upside down to show that they were cooked slurry style so that the bottoms meld into a single piece.

This may not look like it, but here is the definite star of the show--truffle xiaolongbao.  Wow!

A really nice dish was pork siu mai with sticky rice.  My mom used to call siu mai "stacks" because they looked like a haystack way back when in Los Angeles.  These babies certainly do.

Another interesting item--they may look like regular XLB to you, but these were filled with squash.  Creative and delicious.

 A special off menu item for our group was the fried rice.  People who have eaten at the Los Angeles area branches of Din Tai Fung know they make the best fried rice in town, and this did not disappoint.

And what are these XLB with a dark filling?  Why, taro.  I've had these in Los Angeles

And lastly and leastly, chocolate buns.  Perhaps not the best idea.

All in all, this was an excellent meal.  Indeed some of the tour members not from Los Angeles went on their own to eat at other branches of Din Tai Fung.  But while the original Din Tai Fung is indeed better than what we get in California, I would say just incrementally so.  Which is fine with me knowing that our branches of Din Tai Fung are nearly as good as the flagship location.

What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 3 -- Evergreen Resort Hotel Buffet

Having taken a number of tours over the years organized by Chinese tour companies in both California and Canada, the daily breakfast buffet and occasional dinner buffet at the tour's hotel stop typically provided the culinary highlights of the tour because the restaurant meals provided on these tours were largely forgettable.  A fairly common assessment of these restaurant lunches and dinners is a lack of quality and variety, with seemingly the same rice, cabbage, scrambled eggs, soup and watermelon at each stop.  In the same manner that some people characterized disco music as one song being played continuously, the Chinese food on the typical tour has been widely described as like eating the same meal every day even though you were in a different city.  Against that backdrop, since even the most economical Chinese tours stay primarily at four star hotels, the accompanying buffets provide a welcome contrast, both in the context of food quality and variety, and the ability to fill up your tank.

However, on our Taiwan tour with Supera/Signet (, the hotel buffet meals paled compared to our restaurant meals, not because the hotel buffets were inferior, but because the restaurant meals were so good and interesting.  But this is not to say that the buffet meals on the tour weren't worth mentioning.  To the contrary many of them were also memorable, such as our first road stop at the Evergreen Resort Hotel.

The hotel had a nice buffet which I thought a bit reminiscent of Las Vegas.  It had a fruit and vegetable smoothie bar, a shaved ice bar, Haagen Dazs self serve, a noodle soup station, two kinds of self-serve beer and a refrigerator of canned Chinese drinks.   Interesting dishes included stir fried pork with cuttlefish.

Ham siu mai.

Crab cakes.

This wasn't what I expected when I saw the sign that said "cornbread."  This was actually a danish topped with cream corn.

Everybody's favorite, the hot dog Danish.

And just to prove I wasn't lying about the buffet beer.

Other interesting items included shark, tofu thread salad, and quinoa jook.  On any other Chinese tour the Evergreen buffet would have been a highlight.  It was really enjoyable. 

What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 4 - Hualien

It's one thing to find excellent and interesting Chinese restaurants in a large city like Taipei with over 2.5 million people, but in a city like Hualien with perhaps 150,000 people, one would not have high expectations.  Consequently it was a credit to the Supera/Signet tour operators (  to find a food highlight in this town.

The meal started out with the most interesting seafood salad--mostly seafood and very little salad!

Some crispy dumplings, a bit slurry style like what we had a Din Tai Fung in Taipei.

Here is a most interesting gua bao, or rather I should say interesting gua bao bun.

With the pork belly itself.

The real highlight was the mola mola fish, a.k.a. ocean sunfish, a giant fish weighing up to a ton.  The fish came two ways–the skin was battered and fried in a tasty dish.

The second course was the rubbery meat cooked in soup, which was not tasty.  But what an interesting combination.

And for dessert, a toasted, sesame seed topped bun, and a giant sesame seed topped onion type pancake filled with red bean.  A great end to a most interesting meal.

In an unexpected postscript to this meal, I had posted a couple of pictures from the restaurant on Instagram.  Two weeks later, after I had returned home, the restaurant posted a reply, thanking me for visiting their restaurant.  But the real thanks go to Supera/Signet Tours for uncovering this gem.

What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 5 - Indigenous Food

In my only other visit to Taiwan nearly 40 years ago on a trip assembled by the pioneering but defunct Jet On Travel Agency in San Francisco, we were taken to this hokey Aboriginal village near Sun Moon Lake.  (I learned they took the "hokey" out of it a few years later by turning it into a full fledged Aboriginal themed amusement park.)  But back in 1980 it was just a few aboriginal buildings, along with a combination restaurant and theater, if you call a small stage with a stylized Aboriginal backdrop in front of a few tables and chairs a theater.  As our tour group of a couple dozen was escorted to our tables in front of the "stage", loudspeakers blared out what apparently was a call to arms.  After a few minutes four women dressed in bright aboriginal garb dashed over, presumably called by loudspeaker to pause their other village duties.  After some singing and dancing we had our lunch by the stage.  Unfortunately the meal is a complete blank to me 40 years later (as was much of that Taiwan tour), but I'd be surprised if it was anything more than a plate of food.

This is in contrast to the Supera/Signet ( tour indigenous meal we had at what appeared to be a converted farmhouse.  Proving that they indeed eschew tourist traps in favor of actual adventures, Signet/Supera took us to a fabulous Indigenous lunch.  The lunch itself was preceded outside the restaurant by a demonstration of the unique hot stone cooking used by the restaurant.   Hot stones are dropped into a cooking vessel full of liquid and fish and other items are cooked.

The cooking vessel and the resulting broth is then brought into the dining room to provide a delicious soup served directly from the vessel.

Meanwhile, the tilipia which was taken live from the pond near to the outdoor cooking area is deliciously salt baked.

Here's the multigrain pumpkin fried rice along with a vegetarian dish.

The most interesting vegetarian dish was referred to as "valentine tears" for which I could find no internet reference.  Supposedly seaweed/algae related.

Next on the menu, pork patties.

How about some pork chayote soup?

And lastly for dessert, passionfruit yogurt.

All in all a most distinctive, interesting and delicious meal which had the tour group members talking about the meal as we headed for our afternoon destination.

What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 6 - Upscale and Buffet at the Royal Chihpen

Once again, Supera/Signet Tours ( did a remarkable job of finding excellent Chinese food in out of the way locales in Taiwan.  The Royal Chihpen Hotel in Beinan is located in a rural town of about 15,000 people, though the area is heavily populated by tourists seeking hot springs and scenic areas.  Even so, it was surprising to find something as upscale as the restaurants in the Royal Chihpen Hotel.

In the La Han Teppanyaki restaurant we had our only non-Taiwanese meal and not only was the food good, but surprisingly I was just as impressed by the plating of the food.  First came the appetizer of salmon, a seafood roll, and candied tomatoes.

Pumpkin foam soup as delicious as it looks.

Grilled scallop, squid and vegetable.  Too bad there was just a little of each.

Finally steak cubes with more vegetables.

We were still a little hungry in the end but with food like this so visually and culinarily well prepared, you can't complain too much.  

Meanwhile, in the Naruwan Restaurant, how often do you see foie gras in a breakfast buffet?

For some reason, this sausage roll seemed to be untouched during the period that I ate at the buffet.

A very common dish in Central Taiwan was stir fried gluten.

Given our locale in rural Taiwan I certainly had no complaints about the food here and props to Supera/Signet Tours for identifying this location.

What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 7 - The Unique Juoncun Cuisine

When you think about any particular type of cuisine, it's always the food associated with a particular racial, ethnic or geographic group.  Then there's Taiwanese Juancun cuisine which can't be pigeonholed into national, racial or ethnic terms.   When the Nationalist Chinese government evacuated to Taiwan in the late 1940s with an unknown number (estimates are all over the place) of its soldiers and their dependents, they arrived at a locale that did not have the conventional infrastructure to house the new arrivals.  Furthermore, the new arrivals thought they were only temporarily stationed in Taiwan, until they were able to return to their Mainland homes.  Indeed, I still recall hearing in the news about military "drills" in Taiwan where soldiers were falsely told that the invasion to retake the homeland was about to begin.  

Juancun were villages built to house the dependents of Chinese Nationalist soldiers pending the return to the Mainland.  As villagers bided their time until they could go back home, they salved their homesickness by cooking the foods they remembered from their homes.  But the residents of the Juancun originated from all parts of Mainland China.  Consequently, the food of these villages evolved into something different from that of any particular location on the mainland.  As such I am particularly grateful for Supera/Signet Tours ( taking us to a traditional Juoncun restaurant

The meal began with cabbage soup in a most interesting cooking/serving vessel.  The food at this restaurant trended more to Northeast Chinese food which might have been indicative of the makeup of the nearby Juancun.  This is the sour cabbage soup which is identified with that region.

Here's the beef roll and onion pancake.  The beef roll comes with something like mayonnaise instead of the hoisin sauce we're used to at home in California.  I think this solves the raging debate in California as to whether the hoisin sauce beef roll is authentically Chinese from the homeland, or an American creation.  I think the US version is close enough to this one to make it authentic.

Some nice steamed pork dumplings

An overview of the meal.

And for dessert, literally red bean cake.

Thanks again to Supera/Signet Tours for ferreting out this interesting and unique cuisine.  I subsequently found out that this was not my first exposure to Juancun cuisine, as the now nearly defunct Liang's Kitchen chain in California based their menu on this style cuisine.

What We Ate In Taiwan, Part 8 - Seafood in Kaohsiung

As far as all of the great meals we had on the Supera/Signet ( tour of Taiwan, I would award the silver medal to the seafood dinner we had in Kaohsiung, for both quality and the mix of interesting dishes.

First on the menu was this nice dish of sliced grilled fish.  Except that it wasn't fish, it was thinly sliced squid.

Stir fried tender bamboo was a highlight.

Nothing like boiled shrimp.

Followed by stir fried grouper

Fried sticky rice appears to be popular in Taiwan.  This version was made with scallops.

Here's the star of the dinner!  So what can be so great about Chinese broccoli?  Well this wasn't Chinese broccoli.  It was a fern--bird nest fern to be exact.   Much crunchier than Chinese broccoli, it blew everybody away.

Something for clam lovers.

Great crispy seafood rolls. 

But wait!  There's more!  Tofu fish ball soup.

And finally dessert, hai yu jelly.

What a meal!  Lunch was a little light, but this more than made up for it.