When I received an email early one morning with a subject line of “Can you go to Taiwan tonight?” I was definitely a little excited to go (although the trip itself actually happened a week later, which saved me more than a little grief for sure). I looked into flight availability, but because I had to speak at the SmartPhone Summit in Vegas in the middle of the afternoon AND arrive in Taipei in the morning two days later, I was limited to a single flight operated by China Airlines. While I didn’t get a picture of the check-in process, I was the only guy in economy who didn’t have at least one box wrapped in twine.
13.5 hours later, and after a day full of meetings, my hosts asked where I’d like to eat, and without a moment’s hesitation said Din Tai Fong. Multiple friends of mine had told me to go, and off I went. Best dumplings, ever. Xiao Lim Bao (a dumpling filled with meat and ‘soup’) is a so-so dish in even the best of the Bay Area Dim Sum houses, and was a delight to the senses at Din Tai Fong. The rest of the meal was also superb, then I retired to the hotel just before face-planting in a bowl of hot and sour soup.
The next night, I was on my own, and went exploring near my hotel (the Taipei Sherwood, quite a nice establishment), which was situated in an area full of restaurants targeting both local workers as well as tourists. I figured, “normally I ask a concierge or a co-worker where to dine, but why not wander the area and just randomly pick a place full of locals?” I ended up on a block full of Shabu Shabu restaurants. I remember Shabu Shabu well from my trips to Tokyo, and since there’s typically but a single option on the menu, what could go wrong? In a word: everything. The menu had no pictures, and despite me pointing blatantly at the table next to mine and sticking up a finger indicating a quantity of “1”, it still took 10 minutes to get the order in. In addition to the beef for the meal, a few side dishes came out. I believe the sides were raw beef liver, minced pork dumplings, and something else. I ate about a half-plate of the Shabu Shabu (which was missing the extremely important dipping sauces) and left, with a smile and a gesture of being full (which is, of course, extremely similar to the gesture of being disgusted with the meal).
Next, with the concierge’s advice (as well as many users of travel.yahoo.com), I took a cab off to the Shi Lin night market. I’m not exactly sure of the history, but apparently Taipei really comes alive at night, with markets opening up around town. Shi Lin is the largest of them all. The streets are filled with little stores (sometimes just booths or huts) selling a variety of wares, all of which are, wait for it… Made In Taiwan! You can buy anything from shirts to shoes, CDs to CD players, and the expected random carts full of meat on a stick. Nothing really caught my eye, but it was fun to roam around a large number of teenagers buying knock-off Reeboks.
I got up Saturday morning, ready to spend the day doing some sight-seeing. First stop: Taipei 101. At 1670′, it is the world’s tallest building. It also has the world’s fastest elevator, the world’s largest visible wind damper, and I think even has the world’s crappy souvenir stand (although I can’t confirm the last one). Nice view, cool spot, tall… blah blah blah… It’s TALL, get it?
After leaving Taipei 101 (you know, the tall one) I wandered around an area full of Western-oriented shopping. It took me a little while to figure out what was going on with the 100s of kids playing with YuGiOh or some type of robot/marble combination device (talk about convergence), but they were definitely having a blast. One other thing I noticed was how interesting the skyscrapers and other large buildings in Taipei were. Very cool, in fact, I’m surprised there aren’t more movies filmed over there. It was during such musing that I saw the little green men. No idea what was going on, I think it was some kind of advertisement, but it was certainly a little on the freaky side.
That night I again chose to consult the wise hotel concierge, who gave me a little area map with quite a few food options. I went to a nearby Shanghai (Chinese) restaurant where I ordered a great meal of Beef with Green Onions and Shrimp in Garlic. Both were excellent, but I definitely noticed a growing trend in my food ordering in Taipei. It seems to me that the local waitstaff is unaware of the fact that I, despite being 6’3″, cannot eat the equivalent of three people. At lunch earlier that day I had a great Thai meal, but the waiter actually encouraged me to get three full dishes, easily enough for two very hungry people. When I ordered a beer with dinner, the waiter informed me there were two sizes and suggested I get the larger one. I think it was about a pint and a half, but it may be much more. I’d like to inject a short public service announcement: Taiwanese waiters, please note that tall Western men are simply not capable of eating twice their own body weight at any given meal. Thank you./p>
On Sunday, my last day, I decided to try to get a bit of a local flair. First, I went wandering an area (no idea of the name) that had a lot of local markets. Most of the markets carried the same array of offerings:
While it was interesting, it really didn’t seem too different from San Francisco’s Chinatown, but I guess I’m spoiled for living there.
Next I was sent to the Taipei equivalent of Tokyo’s Shibuya (really Harajuku, but I doubt my readers really care for that level of detail) district. Lots of teenagers, lots of hair salons, lots of stores selling pink things, and lots of meat on a stick. In this area I also saw a local mega-movie complex featuring a few dozen screens. Outside the complex was a huge Mission Impossible 3 display. Apparently the Cruisester hasn’t fully jumped the couch here in Taipei. Another point of note – I love me some meat on a stick, and enjoy it at every outdoor festival in San Francisco in the Summer. This was, unfortunately, the least edible looking stick-based meat offering I’ve ever seen.
At last, it was time to depart. Check-in was smooth and easy. Decided I’d get a quick bite before the flight. My options were Starbucks, Subway, and a little Chinese restaurant, which I might have tried, had it not been for their pronounced specialty: Gruel and Dishes. I got a meal from the local sandwich artist, then proceeded to my gate.