In the past three years of traveling I’ve had at least two tour guides for whom I’ve abused the superlative of “the worst tour guide ever.” One got me locked out of my car on an overnight train in Thailand, and the other had me looking for a hat store all over Munich until I realized the “cap stand” in question was actually a taxi queue, or “cab stand” if you will. On the other hand, having a local to give inside advice on what to see and what to avoid, has proven to be immeasurably helpful more times than its proven to be a complete fustercluck. That being said, I figured I’d drop Eat The Chicken Feet (ETCF), a guy I had met once at a bar on New Year’s Eve, an email before heading to his newfound home in the city of Taipei. Because semi-strangers with a shared love for travel should always be imposed upon.
Coming off a seventeen hour direct flight from New York to Taipei, Handsome and I arrived in Taoyuan airport, bright and early at 5:15 in the morning. Quickly clearing customs and retrieving our bags, we followed ETCF’s instructions to look for a bus going from the airport to Taipei Main Station. Unfortunately, despite being a slant eyed Chinawoman myself, my Chinese skills are akin to Helen Kellers language skills, so… couldn’t read shit or speak to anyone. Fortunately, the Taiwanese if not perfect at English, are among the more helpful people I’ve encountered, and we were able to obtain tickets on the wrong, slow AF local bus into Taipei.
By 7am we were at the bus station, and quickly racking up points for the best tour guide, and nicest human ever, ETCF was waiting, and ready to help us find our hostel and take us to breakfast. We headed to a hole in the wall with a line about two dozen deep. Two things foreigners need to know about eating in Asian countries:
- Hole in the wall food, is the best kind of food
- Unlike America where a line outside a restaurant means the chef attempted a trendy version of mac and cheese with truffle oil on a TV show at some point, a line at a restaurant in an Asian country means brand loyalty and some fucking good food.
ETCF asked us what we would like to eat, so we had to break the bad news. Handsome is a strict gluten-free vegan, paleo, hates garlic, and tries to keep his oil intake to a minimum. Just kidding, we wouldn’t be dating if any of that were true.
We told ETCF to order whatever he recommended and ended up with this array of greasy, delicious goodness.
Full and satisfied, we decided the best way to work it off would be a trip up to Jiufen, an old gold mining town in the mountains, and the rumored inspiration for Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Located about an hour outside of the city, our bus climbed through smaller villages, and gave us a beautiful perspective on the transition from the urban atmosphere into a mountainous greenery as the grid like streets came to an abrupt end.
Pulling around a curve, ETCF announced that we had reached our destination. We emerged into the grey, cloudy weather in front of a beautiful orange and green roofed temple with intricate carvings adorning the roof. Looking down from our vantage point in the misty distance we could see the port town of Keelong against the mountainous backdrop.
Walking into the town, we quickly observed what comprised the narrow stone streets of Jiufen : restaurants, souvenir shops, Asian snacks shops of dried meat, dried fruits, dried squid and dried fish, and loud, obnoxious Chinese tour groups. Plus the lingering smell of stinky tofu was in the air, which can be likened to what I imagine a decaying corpse, peed on by a wet dog that rolled in vomit and laid down to cuddle smells like.
As we passed one of the first restaurants, ETCF told us he had tried something here the last time that he really enjoyed. In perfect Chinese (says the girl who doesn’t speak it…), ETCF ordered something I had never seen before. It was a triangle of tofu, sliced parallel to the hypotenuse (math analogies obviously necessary in Asian countries), stuffed with seasoned ground pork and soaked in a broth. It was then dipped in something that I swore had the taste and texture of a mild mozzarella cheese – which can’t be true since Chinese people are bad at cheese. According to my Chinese ex-roommate, “explosive diarrhea” bad at cheese. Despite this shortcoming, the dish was delicious. And didn’t result in anal explosions.
Our next stop was shocker…more food. ETCF told us that this place was known for its noodles so we stepped in to try our seventh, eighth and ninth new dishes in the last two hours. You can take the Americans out of America, but you can’t take the fat out of Americans. We each ordered a small bowl of thin noodles topped with a sweet pork sauce, topped with pork fat back and scallions. Delicious BUT…the highlight was in the sides. Garlic marinated thick cut seaweed tied into bows sounds like some kind of weird vegetarian bullshit, but having eaten variations of this since childhood, this was one of the best versions I have ever had.
Next stop. Ice cream burritos topped with shaved peanut brittle.
By the time we finished the ice cream we were begging ETCF for mercy. Conceding that maybe a break from food would be good, we walked further down the streets in search of a tea shop -because our stomachs need constant attention.
Towards the end of the Old Street we came to a beautiful wooden storefront dotted with trees, advertising itself as Jioufen Teahouse, Art Gallery and Workshop. Inside was what I would imagine a teahouse would look like, with small fish ponds and dark lacquered wood separating the space into small booths for traditional tea sharing. Despite the light rain, we decided to take a table outside in the covered terrace over looking the beautiful mountainside of Jiufen.
I have yet to mention that in addition to ETCF being best tour guide ever, was also doing a phenomenal job of doing all our translation work. While I am a bit prone to making fun of white guys who go to Asia (aka guys with severe yellow fever taking on the culture just to annoy Asian girls back in the states, because thanks dude but I’m American and I don’t speak Chinese so stop struggling through an overly annunciated tonal “nǐ hǎo ma” and expecting me to be impressed god damnit!! </ rant>), ETCF was genuinely doing an amazing job learning the language and was able to communicate in every place we went to, much to the joy of the Taiwanese people who smiled appreciatively at his flawless sounding Chinese (to my untrained ear). As per our routine in every restaurant thus far, we sat down the hostess came and started speaking to me in Chinese and explaining the process for serving tea. Nope.
After the full five minute demonstration with ETCF trying to simultaneously listen and explain, we finally got to enjoy our Oolong Tea. Sipping the hot tea in the gray rainy weather was comforting and calming, and the tea was delicious. The stunning view didn’t hurt either.
Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, and ETCF had to depart for work, leaving Handsome and I on our own. Still enjoying the tea and the view, we sat for a bit and then Handsome got up to ask for the check. Sitting back down, he said the waitress was going to bring it over. A minute later she appears at the table and starts speaking to me in Chinese, to which all I can respond is, “Sorry…”. I make the signature motion which I thought was universal for check. No dice. Then I made a rectangle with my fingers which I’ve noticed is Asian universal for check and I could see the lightbulb go off in her head. She picked up a marker with our table number, and our ceramic container of tea and motioned to the register. Following her, she bagged up the rest of our dried tea leaves and presented us with the bill.
From there, Handsome and I walked around for a bit checking out the views, doing some light shopping then decided to follow ETCF’s very detailed instructions on how to get to Keelong night market, which included English, Chinese characters, Chinese pronunciation, detailed transfer points and numbered steps. Best.Tour.Guide.Ever.
We made it there without any problems thanks to ETCF and started strolling the streets, with our jetlag slowly creeping up on us. Not motivated to walk the whole market, we did what we do best and just perused the food stalls. The first row we encountered advertised about a billion types of soup: noodle soup, pork soup, beef soup, fish soup, thick soup, one soup, two soup, red soup, blue soup. The next aisle had skewered meats, and seafood stands with mounds of crabs, shrimp, fish, clams and pretty much any seafood you can imagine in abundance.
Wandering like jetlagged zombies not sure what to eat, I made a decision when I saw a thick crab soup which is one of my favorite soups anywhere. Loaded with cornstarch, it has the consistency of melted jello and is bursting with seafood flavor, pieces of bamboo, water lily, a black stringy seaweed and of course pieces of crab. We ordered one to share which quickly became a battle for the bowl. After that we opted for some seafood which was slightly disappointing, but less so since we didn’t get food poisoning from eating unrefrigerated seafood from a stall in the middle of the street.
Exhausted and ready for bed, we called it a night and headed back to the Taipei Main Station which was where ETCF had taken us earlier from our hotel. His instructions home had been verbal stating “it’s basically a straight line from the station.” Yet for some reason, Handsome refused to put his foot down and let me pretend I have any sense of direction, and we got lost for 45 minutes on a quarter mile walk from the station. Oops.