When I started working for “Good Food” last year, I began to eat and drink at as many restaurants, kitchens and food trucks as my stomach could handle. Chefs, food writers and bartenders in L.A. recommended a taco and soft tofu soup here, a French 75 and cortado there. They had ideas for cities I should visit specifically for the food, like Tokyo, Copenhagen, Mexico City and New York. Taipei didn’t make the initial list of food destinations. But on a recent trip to Taiwan, I discovered fantastic fare everywhere I cast my eye, at night markets, 24-hour stalls, coffee shops and bakeries. The food I ate was simply done, not too sweet, sometimes pickled and usually made on the spot. If you can’t hop a flight to Taipei — though I recommend you put it at the top of your list! — here are some of the restaurants in the Los Angeles area that are serving up my No. 1 Taiwanese snacks.
Fried stinky tofu (chòudòufu 臭豆腐)
Smelly feet, extra-moldy blue cheese, rotten meat. These are some of the unfortunate descriptors I’ve heard when it comes to stinky tofu. But don’t knock it till you try it. Though the odor is truly unique, stinky tofu is delicious. It is crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and umami to the max. Stinky tofu tastes of all the ingredients it is marinated in prior to being deep-fried: fermented soy milk, meat, vegetables, seafood and a medley of spices. (Every recipe is different so the possibilities are endless.) To eat, spear squares or triangles of stinky tofu and sweet-and-sour pickled cabbage with a wooden toothpick, then dip in chili sauce. Stinky tofu tastes best when eaten at the first lantern-lit night market you find shortly after disembarking from a long international flight.
Try chòudòufu at Tofu King in Rowland Heights.
Egg crepes (dàn bǐng 蛋餅)
I tried my first bite of dàn bǐng at Rui’an Soy Milk in Taipei’s Da’an district. The 24-hour corner restaurant is known for its salty soy milk with pickled mustard greens, sesame oil and youtiao (a cruller that looks like a fried dough stick). But you’ve gotta try the dàn bǐng. After your egg crepe comes off the blacktop grill super-thin, flecked with green onions and piping hot, eat it solo or filled with some of Taiwan’s finest sweet and salty foods: youtiao, dried pork floss rolled in rice, or fresh basil, ham and cheese. Be sure to dip it in the sweet, sticky paste of soy sauce and sugar that comes on the side. Egg sandwiches and breakfast burritos, you’ve got some stiff competition.
Try dàn bǐng at Yi Mei Deli in Rowland Heights.
Pork belly bun (guàbāo 刈包)
In Taipei, crazy combinations of customized food rule. Want taro milk with no sugar? No problem. Prefer small versus large tapioca pearls in your boba tea? There’s a vendor we can send you to for that. Want your hot pot one part fiery hot and one part mildly-spiced? Done and done. Taiwan’s “have it your way” approach to food also applies to the humble guàbāo, a fluffy steamed white bun of stewed pork belly, pickled mustard greens, ground peanuts and fresh cilantro. When you order, specify how rich you want your bāo: full-fat, lean pork belly, or half-and-half. The vendor will take your hot bun from a massive bamboo steamer and stuff it accordingly. Don’t be surprised if you return for another after the first bāo goes down the hatch: the mustard greens and cilantro cut the rich, sweet pork belly and peanuts perfectly.
Large fried chicken (大雞排)
We can’t talk Taiwanese snacks without mentioning Hot-Star’s large fried chicken. They’ve been pounding and breading birds in sweet potato flour and spices since 1992. After you order the large fried chicken breast and specify how spicy you want it, the crew fries up your chicken on the spot. Take this time to peruse the menu. Consider ordering the crispy or BBQ chicken to compare and contrast flavors, perhaps, or order a boba tea from the nearest vendor as I did. You’ll soon be handed your large fried so hot it practically burns your fingers through the paper bag. But this bird is worth the burn: it is juicy, spicy and jumbo, giving the Southern fried chicken I grew up eating a run for the money.
Try the large fried chicken at Hot-Star in Pasadena or Rosemead.
Soup dumplings (XIǍOLÓNGBĀO 小籠包)
Regardless of where you’re staying in Taipei, you’re never far from a bamboo basket of xiǎolóngbāo. Traditionally, these delicious soup dumplings come filled with pork, but nowadays you’ll find a rainbow of fillings. There are green soup dumplings made with ginseng, black bāo of truffle and garlic, and rust-colored XLBs that have a Sichuan peppercorn bite. (I am partial to the less showy but equally luxurious king crab meat bāo.) As they cook in their steamers, a crazy bit of chemistry is underway. The meat, seafood and vegetable fillings release a bit of hot soup within each little pleated pouch. When the steamer arrives at your table, pick up a dumpling and nip a small bite to let some of the soup onto your spoon. This act will cool the bāo down and keep you from scalding your mouth. Dip the XLB in vinegar and slivered ginger before devouring it in one glorious bite.
Photo of Shilin Night Market (top) in Taipei. All photos by Stan Lee, Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios and 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner. This post made possible with help from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.