Monday, August 29, 2011

Taipei After Hours

Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2010

Taipei, TAIWAN --
Taipei is more an eating city than a drinking city. You won't find here the raucous public drunkenness of Tokyo, the hip watering holes of Beijing's restored hutongs, or the alcohol-fueled debauchery of Bangkok.

What you will find is a culture in love with food, and the pursuit of food -- in all kinds, shapes and sizes, but especially snacks (xiao chi). Drinks are often an afterthought.

That's not to say there's no booze culture. For wealthy male Taiwanese movers and shakers, serious drinking is tucked away in private, high-priced clubs and karaoke halls packed with nubile staff. Linsen North Road, though hard-hit by the economic downturn and an expat exodus, still caters to the thirsty -- carving out a strip of Japanese-style hostess and piano bars south of Nanjing West Road, and Filipina-staffed hostess bars in the former U.S. military's R&R "Combat Zone" further north.

Western-style lounge bars and cookie-cutter hip-hop clubs have sprung up in recent years, too, especially in the sleek new Xinyi shopping district in eastern Taipei that's clustered around the landmark Taipei 101 skyscraper. Taiwanese are justifiably proud to boast all the same luxury brands as Tokyo, Paris and New York, and Xinyi is where Taipei flaunts how far it's come -- from a garbage-strewn developing-world town with nightmarish traffic to a clean, neon-washed and brand-savvy metropolis.

But at night, the city's soul is still in its crowded night markets; its narrow, dark side alleys; its corner fruit stands; and its incense-choked temples, where the clacking of wood divination blocks
mixes with cell-phone rings. So when the lights go down, to discover the real Taipei, give Xinyi a pass and head west, to the old city.

6:30pm: Wanhua (Monga)

Taipei has vaulted headlong into the 21st century -- but someone forgot to tell Wanhua.

This is the heart of old Taipei, still barely beating -- a commercial hub dating back to the early Qing dynasty that's far past its prime. It's an old person's neighborhood, a slice of the Taiwan of
yesteryear, full of crumbling beauty and earthy Taiwanese culture but faintly embarrassing to well-educated, upper class Taiwanese. Wanhua is the polyester-clad Taiwanese great-aunt who spits in public, never learned how to use the Internet, and tells you you're fat to your face.

The neighborhood got a boost recently from a coming-of-age gangster movie titled "Monga," after the old name for Wanhua. Now, the seedy charms of this former thieves' bazaar, turned second-hand market, is luring more tourists -- both foreign and domestic.

Start at the Longshan Temple subway stop. Turn right after coming up the escalator, walk a few meters, and it's like traveling 30 years back in time. The park and underground shopping mall are worthy of Fellini: groups of gnarled old men playing Chinese chess, middle-aged women in motorized wheelchairs belt out hackneyed karaoke with a Taiwanese twang, fortune tellers show off photos of celebrity customers and birds ready to peck out your fate (they pick slips of paper with their beaks), 'nakashi' bands entertain drunk retirees, a down-at-the-heels septuagenarian tries to grasp a Hello Kitty doll with a mechanical pincer at a glowing grabber machine.

Check out Longshan temple, then exit and take a left and then another immediate left to cut through pungent Herb Alley. Cross the street to the temple of the King of Hell. On the other side of the temple, you'll come to the newly restored, historic street of Bopiliao. It's Taiwan's answer to the hip, restored hutongs of Beiijing; a fragrant lane dedicated to the wood-and-paper-lantern nostalgia of small-town 1960s and 1970s Taiwan.

Now it's time to get down to the serious business of eating. Retrace your steps to the narrow markets, especially the Guangzhou Street night market. The idea here is to graze; moving from stall to stall, while chewing on your latest plastic-bag-wrapped treat with the help of a wooden skewer. Try the ren bing (NT$50), a Taiwanese-style jumbo spring roll, packed with dried tofu strips, radish, carrots, crushed peanuts and sprouts.

Dart down Snake Alley (the covered Huaxi Night Market), perpendicular to Guangzhou Street, for the snake-gutting shows, and -- if you dare -- to down a snake blood-and-sorghum liquor cocktail (it's supposed to be good for men, especially). Also on offer: "three-cups" field rat, turtle, and snake soup -- as well as sex toy shops and several stores offering foot massages so excruciating they've been known to make grown men cry.

Make sure you stop for a mango ice (NT$100) at the popular Lungdu Ice and Juice Shop, on Guangzhou Street near the entrance to the night market.

8pm: Changan Road, central Taipei

If you're scared of street-stalls or just prefer a sit-down meal, beat a retreat to central Taipei. Head to the standby Shin Yeh, which serves Taiwanese favorites like oajian (oyster pancake, NT$280) and sauteed sea clams with ginger (NT$295) in a lively setting not far from the Linsen North Road "Combat Zone." Efficient staff whisk dishes from the kitchen, and the noise reaches a dull roar as the alcohol flows.

Another excellent and quieter option is Jiu Fan Ken, where you'll find down-home Taiwanese cooking in a classy, old-Taiwan atmosphere of wooden antique furniture and slow-turning ceiling fans. The small joint, an old favorite of Japanese tourists and pro-independence politicians, closed briefly after its previous owner passed away last year, but has reopened by popular demand, with a slightly different look.

Try the fong rou (NT$350), a chunk of fatty pork slow-cooked to an almost custard-like consistency, and topped with a cilantro garnish. Other favorites here are the five-flavored-fish (wu wei yu, NT$480) -- a fried fish in a sweet red sauce -- and duck strips.

At Jiu Fan Ken you can also sample the island's sudsy pride, Taiwan Beer, served out of blue-and-white bowls. Or if you prefer more company, head to the Taiwan Beer bar, just ten minutes' walk away. It's a vast beer hall in a converted warehouse, where large groups of
Taiwanese revelers imbibe and celebrate with signature green mini-kegs of Taiwan Beer at picnic tables.

Also not far from here, and well worth checking out, is the 1914 Huashan Culture Park. It's a sprawling former winery complex that's been tastefully converted into an artsy, dimly-lit complex of cafes, boutiques, art galleries, the live music hall Legacy, and classy pizza and pasta joints.

9:30pm: Zhongxiao East Road, Dunhua road intersection

Hop in a cab or take the MRT's blue line a couple stops to this throbbing center of Taipei nightlife. It's a prime destination for the beloved Taiwanese pastime of "guangjie" -- slow-paced strolling, window-shopping and snacking. This nameless 'hood is the haunt of stylish twenty- and thirty-somethings, older scenesters who wish they were still that age, dandies, hip-hop kids in trucker hats, camouflage or Bathing Ape-wear, and la mei ("spicy girls") in body-hugging dresses and stiletto heels.

Check out the eye-candy from a good people-watching vantage point, visit a Taiwan-style teahouse in the strip on Lane 181, Alley 7, sample some pomelo or other locally-grown fruit at a corner stand, or try one of the hip lounge bars like 2046. It sports wicker furniture on an outside patio; glass bead curtains, plush chairs and moody lighting within, and serves up cool cocktails like the Honey Paradise (fresh apple juice, Southern Comfort and honey, NT$300).

To find out where Taiwanese flock at night instead of bars, walk a few blocks south and check out the 24-hour Eslite bookstore on Dunhua South Road, a favorite haunt of night-crawlers, book-lovers and Hong Kong tourists. Most nights the aisles and marble tables are packed with young Taiwanese soaking in the latest business fad, thumbing through travel magazines or devouring American and European bestsellers in translation.

10:30 pm: Anhe Road. Serious drinkers will want to retire now to Anhe Road, Taipei's premier lounge bar and wine bar strip, with a saloon, club and a few quirky watering holes thrown in for good measure. One of the first clubs here, and walkable from the Eslite bookstore, is the elegant Champagne, which serves up a cool champagne-and-lychee liqueur cocktail in a classy, glittering setting; it also does a super-sweet lychee Mojito (NT$300).

Further south and just off of Anhe Road (a 15-20 minute walk, or brief cab ride), pop in to China White to sample a truly diabolical concoction: the Tai Ji (NT$350). It's a stomach-battering blend of Kahlua, triple sec, Korean soju and 80-proof vodka, garnished with cinnamon and set alight along with a flaming absinthe garnish. Also popular here are Lemon Drops, served with a lime wedge.

Midnight, take your pick: Serious club-hoppers can head back to Zhongxiao East Road to hit Luxy, a standby of Taipei nightlife that's still going strong, with a steady diet of electronica, hip-hop, special shows by gyrating "Luxy dancers" and bottle-juggling bartenders, and cavernous dance floors with plenty of elbow room. Other nightclub options like Barcode, Primo and Room 18 are located further east in the Xinyi district.

But for pure dumb fun, Carnegie's -- just across from China White -- still can't be beat. Some long-time expats will groan and recoil at the name, as the Taipei incarnation of this pub chain is a notorious meat market with rowdy, drunken revelers spilling into Anhe Road late at night. But on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it's hard to find a better, more expat-friendly party, though definitely one geared toward those a bit long in the tooth.

On a good night, Carnie's, as expats call it, continues Wanhua's Fellini-esque theme with amateur dancing on its long, brass-railed bar, in front of a towering wall of booze. Sip your drink and feast
your eyes, if you dare, on the 50-something woman gyrating on the bartop in lingerie; the elderly gay queen shaking his booty, a group of Malaysian stewardesses attempting a pole-dance without the pole, and a pot-bellied, balding and be-spectacled European businessmen, well into his seventh Corona, working off his jetlag with jerking, a-rhythmic motions that at times resemble dance moves. By this stage, you might be ready to join them.

Late night, Fuxing South Road: To end your night like in true Taiwanese style, it's imperative to eat. An early-hours snack, if administered correctly, can help blot out the shameful memory of whatever happened at Carnegies, soak up alcohol and stave off a crushing hangover (that goes double if you've had the Tai Ji at China White).

Try one of Taipei's signature congee joints on Fuxing North Road, such as No Name Congee Snacks, open until 6 a.m. Select a few small plates like bamboo shoots (NT$50), sliced beef with yellow chives (NT$60), and cucumber with red pepper (NT$35), served with a bowl of congee
(the Chinese answer to oatmeal) with sweet potato chunks. Some like to dip bites of food in their congee; others dump everything in their bowl, mix and slurp away.

Now you're ready for the Sandman -- and if you're a true Taiwanese, you're already thinking about where to get breakfast.

Mentioned in this article:

Lungdu Ice and Juice: Guangzhou Street #168, +886 (0)2-2308-3223

Shin Yeh: ShuangCheng Street #34-1, +886 (0)2-2596-3255

Jiu Fan Keng: Changan East Road Section 2, #172-1, 2F, +886

Taiwan Beer Bar: Bade Road Section 2, #85, +886 (0)2-2771-9131

1914 Huashan Culture Park, Bade Road Section 1, #1, (Includes Legacy, +886 (0)2-2741-7065,

2046: Zhongxiao East Road Section 4, Lane 205 #24, +886 (0)2-2711-5589
(MRT stop: Zhongxiao Dunhua)

Eslite Bookstore: Dunhua South Road Section 1, #245, 2F +886
(0)2-2775-5979, (MRT stop: Zhongxiao Dunhua)

Champagne: Anhe Road, Section 1, #75, +886 (0)2-2755-7976

China White: Dunhua South Road Section 2, #97-101, 2F (just off Anhe
Road in the Modern Mall),,, +886 (0)2-2705-5119

Luxy: Zhongxiao East Road Section 4, #201, 5F,,
+886 (0)955-904-600 (MRT stop: Zhongxiao Dunhua)

Primo: Zhongxiao East Road Section 5, #297,, +886
(0)2-2760-5885 (MRT stop: Yongchun)

Carnegies: Anhe Road Section 2, #100,, +886 (0)2-2325-4433

No Name Congee Snacks: Fuxing South Road Section 2, #130,, +886 (0)2-2784-6735

Original site

No comments: