Taipei’s classy eateries for budget nomads

taipei-cheap eats-2014

Being a freelance writer and creative is great save the infrequent and often low salary. This means I am reliant on searching out cheap eats, other than just McDonald’s which contrary to negative press are useful, the 7-11 and street eats which range from chicken to ‘god knows what on a stick’ as one of my fellow travellers put it. Searching out that rare breed of eatery – classy but cheap – is a mission I sometimes wish I didn’t have to undertake. Here in my current abode of Taipei are some I’ve come across for fellow travelling creative types looking for a bite. *prices in Taiwan dollars.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS

SAIZERIYA (Various locations including Ximen)

Also in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and China. This absolute God send is a budget persons paradise! I first stumbled across it in Shanghai and was hugely relieved to find it in Shenzhen and in Hong Kong (even if the staff there were the most glum of the lot). It is also in Taipei and has a few branches that are sometimes difficult to come by. The best one is in youth Mecca, Ximen (on the blue and green lines) and easily walkable from Main once you know where you’re going. It deals mainly in good quality pasta and pizza at ridiculously cheap prices! There are also salads, burger and Japanese doria dishes made of a rice base with cheese over the top but a lack of condiments, just ketchup or Tabasco, limits things somewhat. For those of us with a sweet tooth, desserts such as tiramisu are a welcome diversion as is the drinks bar. Not long ago this was real juice but as it’s refillable they have now replaced this with cheaper cordial (understandable but a pity). The coffee is OK and there are tea bags on offer (not western ones, more so Oolong and Jasmine for example). It is sometimes the case where I’ve opted for the drinks bar to find the coffee machine out of order or under maintenance. This can be annoying but as the staff don’t always speak English they can’t tell you as you order. The interior’s vary but are mostly clean and classy for the price. Especially the one in Ximen.

MEI LI HUA – TAIWAN BUFFET (XinYang St, Near Main Station)

An excellent selection of food: fish, chicken, beef, but sadly a lot of it is cold to lukewarm. Thus you have two options. Get accustomed to cold food or grab the trusty bento box for a take out and heat at home. The buffet can come in two guises. A central island of foods in silver trays from which you select what you want and then take it to the counter, or a conveyor belt tray system where you select from the food in front of you (this can be difficult as there are no prices and few staff speak good English, so unless you speak very good Mandarin you can’t tell what you’re paying until you reach the end). Most combinations of plain white rice and some chicken and veg should clock in at around $80-90 but fish greatly changes this and I’ve ended up paying almost twice that in similar buffets. Some offer differing kinds of rice or noodles.

LAYA BURGER (Breakfast and Brunch bar – Various locations)

Oriental version of a burger bar which also offer pasta dishes. Again these can come in a variety of ways eg with black tea and melon bread – a sweet but dry bun. My only gripe is, the food isn’t that filling and it shuts at 2pm. It is however hot enough to burn holes in your hands and sculpt a new palate for your mouth! If only the buffets were like that, give or take a few degrees lower to save injury.

UESHIMA JAPANESE PLACE (Various locations)

Taipei lies at the epicentre of a geographical tug of war between Chinese and Japanese influences. This place has two locations that I know of; one is on Dunhua N Road near the junction with Zhongxiao E Road Section 4 (both are wide boulevards, the closest MTR is Zhongxiao Dunhua on the blue line). The café is opposite Evans burger – see below. The second location is not too far away, on section 3 of Bade Road. Both feature dark interiors. In keeping with Asian obscurities, the coffee lounge from Kobe does a mean Croque Monsieur!

GU GU WAFFLE (Kai Feng St Sec 1, Near Main Station)

The Gu Gu is a small stall on the corner of Kai Feng Street offering both sweet and savoury versions. I recommend the Strawberry.

EVANS BURGERS (Dunhua N Road and Ln 86 Shida Rd, Taipower Bldg MRT)

American style burger joint. $100 Cheese burger on a Wednesday 11.00 til 14.00. I don’t normally nominate an eatery that utilises a service charge but this is a good burger. The bar seating is not my cup of tea though. It is like a glorified high chair.

MOULIN ORANGE (Zhongan St, Yongan Market MRT)

For some reason the western flank of the 823 Memorial park is home to many Chi-talian or Italia-nese pasta houses. This one is one of the cheaper versions but there are others about, just a quick stroll up and down will give an indication. I opted for the creamy sauce with chicken, it needed a dash of salt but was otherwise fine. The restaurant comes with jars of Parmesan cheese and black pepper to sprinkle over but no sign of any salt. Expect to see pictures of the Greek Islands on the wall.

BAFANG YUNJI translates as Octagon Gathered (Various locations – no store name in English)

Good value local food found all over town and island wide. The shop is identifiable by the open shop kitchen where they boil the noodles and fry their wares so expect to see steam! The clean looking menu in Chinese and English hangs from the ceiling, above the staff (who wear orange). Some branches have laminated menus in English you can hold but smaller cities in Taiwan may not. The seating area is bright and reasonably clean compared to the more rustic street eateries with the kitchen area visible through glass. In addition you can watch the staff prepare the food (notably the dumplings) directly from huge silver bowls. This to some may be off-putting, seeing the raw material of gunk being shoved into their pastry shells. Best deals for me are the Sesame ‘Satay’ noodles and the so called curry pot – actually a small type of spring roll which is a common snack food. Dip them in a mix of soy sauce and vinegar on offer. Also good, if a little on the small side, is the sour plum juice – bargain at $15.

GRAZDE (Jiangua Nan Lu – off Daan Park and other locations)

Another Chi-talian pasta joint not far from the eastern fringes of Daan Park (now accessible on the red line of Taipei’s expanding metro system). The tube station is on the north side so you need to walk around 10 minutes. Just aim for halfway down and cross under the flyover. Then head straight and you should have it, it’s about a quarter of the way down Jiangua South Road. Portions not quite as fulfilling as the other places mentioned but if you’re in this part of town and fancy a meal this is a nice location. Not right on the park which would have been better but pleasant anyway.

CURRY RESTAURANT (Lane 12 Xinsheng S Rd – no store name in English)

Great name huh! Don’t expect any English titling or menu thus making this place extremely difficult to mention. It is however one of the best value places I’ve found. A filling curry of rice and chicken will cost a mere $85. Free black tea as standard in such eateries. The shop is identifiable by a swirly white logo on a deep red background (see, I said it was difficult to talk about). It is one of many eateries on the lane behind Zhongxiao Xinsheng MRT Exit 1. That lane is attached to another short one which connects to Bade Road and its many electronic stores, so it’s a technophiles food haven.

LAN DE PASTA (Lane 12 Xinsheng S Rd)

A few doors down (although the few doors in between are all restaurants too) from Curry land is this, yet another plying their trade in the food of Italy. Marco Polo really must have made an impact. Although I’m not sure if he ever made it across the straight to be honest, I’ve long held the thought there was a common thread between the Chinese and the Italians; for starters both are family orientated and drive like maniacs! Despite their best efforts, the Orientals cannot match the Europeans for pizza or pasta. They do at least have a go which is good news for budget nomads. Like the Moulin Orange above, this one is fairly classy if a little tricky to manoeuvre as it’s packed into a smaller space and this time features French imagery on the wall and I don’t mean tacky run of the mill shots of the Eiffel Tower. No, these are tasteful paintings of flowers in vases from the Maison des Fleurs and the Rue de St Germaine. Behind the counter are shelves dotted by small ornaments. If only their English menu was not on a scrap piece of paper! That said they seem new and this in time may change. Anyway, the food itself is reasonable and again will cost around $100. Bacon, Chicken or seafood standards in butter, creamy tomato or pesto sauces – all with a distinct eastern flavour. Note, staff don’t speak English so take a friend or guidebook if your Chinese isn’t up to par.

CASA DELLA PASTA (Bai’an Rd, Dazhi)
MITA PASTA & MITA FANCY (Bakery on Dazhi Rd)

The Dazhi area is a treasure and thanks to the nearby Shih Chien university, can offer some inexpensive eating experiences. The Casa is set down a small lane off Dazhi Road and has a little courtyard attached with – all too often – a lengthy queue filling it. To my surprise when I finally call by to eat, the sea of people which normally make the place instantly recognizable were absent. Could my eyes be deceiving me? It was lunch time, wasn’t it? A quick glance at my watch confirmed it. Even more incredible, the food was hot to the point it singed my palate! The pasta is cooked al dente which is not normally how I choose it, but other than that is ok. The menus suffer a bit of miscommunication in that the items mentioned on the courtyard board are nowhere to be seen in those handed out inside. On adjacent corners of Dazhi Road is MITA; one part pasta restaurant and the other a bakery which despite the quality of its fare is fairly expensive to mention here.

BAKERIES

LA FUSION (Near Main Station)

Affiliated to the Taipei Garden Hotel (rather confusingly not the one adjoining it) this bakery does fabulous fresh French favourite Pain au Chocolate – rechristened here as Danish (I think purely for the few almonds sprinkled on top). The bakery is small and with its proximity to the main station can become easily congested at rush hour.

YAMAZAKI (Various locations)

Japanese supremo, does western style sandwiches and really good tuna/potato bread. The Strawberry pies are good too, like a cream doughnut with real strawberries.

SUNMERRY (Various locations) The best Apple Turnovers I’ve come across yet. No cream but a good substitute far away from home. The branch in Dongmen (on the red and yellow lines) gets very busy.

DOBOS (Linsen S Road and other locations)

‘It is our pleasure to offer you these delicious breads and cakes’ so says their slogan and mostly they’re a pleasure to eat to. The bread with cubes of cheddar cheese is a good buy considering the Asian preference for the processed version. Dobos do make a pretty good attempt at the ham and cheese croissant too. Many other breads on offer plus small pots of jam (three for $79 at the time of writing).

Bon voyage and bon appetite!

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