Food and Travel[email]Jay Friedman, gastronaut, is one of the most intriguing and innovative food writers in Seattle. You may know him from Seattle Weekly’s "Sexy Feast" column (Jay is a unique combination of food writer and professional sex educator) or City Arts’ “Dish-Off," in which he challenged chefs to create meals based on songs. (Jay is also a former disc jockey!) He is also a regular contributor to the national Serious Eats blog, and is the co-editor/author of the Fearless Critic Seattle restaurant guide. Jay travels extensively and shares his hedonistic adventures in occasional “Passport to Pleasure” pieces. When not eating out or writing about it, he is most likely in the kitchen making kimchi, xiao long bao, or anything with offal. You can find most of Jay’s writing at his personal blog, Gastrolust.
Back from my Asian travel and food immersion, an all-American hamburger was high on my wish-list. So I appreciated an invitation from Giddy Up Burgers & Greens to try out some of their creations. I’d driven by the location in “Frelard” many times, and was excited to finally give it a try.
The restaurant has a casual vibe, with counter ordering and table delivery. There’s a lengthy bar befitting a lengthy beer menu (I enjoyed one of the weekly rotators: a refreshing Illusive Traveler Grapefruit Ale from Traveler Beer in Burlington, Vermont), and a bar of a different type, not seen so much these days: a salad bar. (Hence the “Greens” part of the restaurant name.) Note that it’s not the “all you can eat” variety, but instead salad by the pound.
My main focus, though, was the burgers. My meal came just before David Chang published his Lucky Peachmanifesto about the ideal burger. I agree with much of his argument, particularly about the simplicity of the best burger. Just give me a squishy bun (hold the brioche), meat cooked medium-rare, American cheese, and no crazy toppings.
With that in mind, I started as always with a search for the basic burger. On Giddy Up’s menu, you have to skip all the specialty burgers to find the basic Buckaroo burger. This is one you customize, coming for with a quarter-pound patty, lettuce, pickle, and Giddy Up sauce. I added tomato and onion at no charge, plus American cheese for a dollar. For $6, I was more than satisfied with this burger. The sesame (on both halves!) bun was nice and squishy, and there was a good balance of ingredients. Minor quibble: the meat—hand-formed, I’m told, was packed a little too tight for my taste.
Next was the namesake Giddy Up burger ($9.60), which ups the meat to one-third of a pound, and includes bacon, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickled jalapeños, and fire sauce. Bacon lovers will like this one, as will heat-seekers. The specialty burgers, though, come on a house bun that the chef described as a cross between brioche and a Kaiser roll. It works, though I prefer something squishier.
From the specials board, I tried an Acropolis Burger. They say they’ve moved from 50/50 to 75% lamb and 25% beef, but I think it could stand to be even more lamby. Anyway, this burger had a good balance of flavors from the feta to the pickled red onions to the generous portion of arugula.
Finally, per on-site recommendation, I sampled the Kickin Fried Chicken. This felt a little forced in getting fried chicken on a hamburger bun. Good flavors, again, from the buffalo sauce and pickled jalapeños, but it pales in comparison to something like Skillet’s Fried Chicken Sammy. Better to stick with beef. (Or maybe try the Sloppy Joe? And choose the hand-cut fries over the haystack onions, in my opinion.)
There are 10 specialty burgers on the regular menu, plus specials, as well as endless ways to customize your own. All-in-all, Giddy Up Burgers & Greens is a good addition to the local burger scene. In fact, I was happy to endorse it as part of Eater Seattle’s best burger list, published just yesterday.
I believe it was a sidebar in Maui Revealed (a very detailed and opinionated guidebook, with a helpful app also available) where I read the warning. A local said to be careful about trying to do too much sightseeing, as it’s easy to spend too much time in a car driving around the island instead of actually relaxing and enjoying the island. Instead, he advised, strive to discover the slow joy of “island time.”
As a compulsive food writer who wants to try it all (and as a non-beachgoer), I found my schedule filling fast for my first visit to Maui. Luckily, with help from the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, I found compelling nature, activities, hotels and spas to provide rejuvenation and relaxation. And eventually even a dip in the ocean.
But would I find good food?
Day 1: “Racing” Down Haleakala, Eventually to Relaxation
With a 9:15pm arrival at Kahului Airport and then car rental pick-up, drive, and hotel check-in, it would be about midnight before my wife and I could catch a nap at our room at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa. “Nap” is the key word, as the alarm would wake us only two hours later for the drive back past the airport to Paia, where we’d go to Maui Sunriders for their Sunrise Tour. Given the 3am check-in, the tour operators were smooth and successful in loading vans (people inside, bikes on top) and getting going to the summit of Haleakala at 10,023 feet.
Our guide gave us interesting historical and cultural information (and riding tips) en route to keep us awake at the start of the trip, and then time for some to nod off before reaching the summit. At the summit, we’d have the unique opportunity to witness the sun rise above the cloud-line. It’s a rather stunning experience, albeit a cold one even during warmer months, as it’s dark and temperatures drop low at that elevation. (Some might suggest sneaking out a hotel blanket to keep warm, especially if you’ve only brought warm weather clothes. Definitely layer up.)
As soon as the sun fully broke the clouds, it was back into the vans to reach the staging area for the bicycle departure, getting ahead of the other tour operators. Maui Sunriders offers an unguided tour, allowing riders to go at their own pace, but with desire to stay ahead of the guided tours with accompanying vans that can bottle up the road. The mountain-to-sea ride is an easy one, even if you haven’t been on a bike in years (or decades?). Just don’t call it exercise, as it’s downhill virtually all the way, and therefore more of an exercise in judiciously hitting the brakes while navigating the turns (and traffic) and admiring the views.
As our guide explained, the early tour means passing by some “sites” not yet open (a post-sunrise tour might be better for those wanting frequent visits), but not too early for the first food stop: T Komoda Store and Bakery. It’s a rather sparse store, but visitors should check out the old articles and artifacts inside for the history lesson. In some ways, T Komoda set the tone for my experience of the Maui food scene: somewhat charming and somewhat sweet. With two lunch stops planned, we didn’t want to overindulge, but we had a couple of sweets on the to-do list.
It’s far from a race down the mountain, but with relatively few stops, we made it back to the bike shop fairly quickly, turning in equipment with giving thanks for the exhilarating ride. A quick walk through Paia (including a stop at the local beach to get a first glimpse of the ocean at eye level) enabled us to get land-legs back. We stopped at Mana Foods, a fantastic store that is larger than it seems from the outside, and full of interesting prepared foods and groceries. When asking about seasonal fruit, the friendly folks offered to cut us samples of anything we wanted to try, and we eventually bought some delicious apple bananas and more as snacks the first couple of days.
Then it was on to Kahului for lunch. Part one would be at Da Kitchen Cafe, bustling on a Saturday. We were lucky enough to get the last table upon opening, avoiding a long wait. For me, the restaurant felt a bit too polished, but I enjoyed a first taste of loco moco and, even better, their special deep-fried Spam musubi.
From Da Kitchen, we headed to the harbor with hope of finding the Geste Shrimp Truck—but felt devastated when it wasn’t there. It would be our only chance to try the truck, so after waiting past the expected arrival time, we drove to the nearby flea market to poke around and do reconnaissance. Here we were reminded about island time and encouraged to go back. And there it was—with a line. We gladly waited, and the shrimp would turn out to be one of the best bites of the trip.
After the two-part lunch, we drove back to the Hyatt, getting our first daylight look at the views along the way. The view from the hotel room tempted us to linger, but rest would be just down the road, as we had a spa appointment at Spa Montage at the Montage Kapalua Bay. This resort is less than 20 minutes up the road from the Hyatt, and we got there so quickly that we had time to see the nearby Dragon’s Teeth rock formation at Makalua-puna Point. It’s a gorgeous sight, and a nice place to enjoy the breeze and admire the power of the water.
At the spa, staff greeted us warmly for our Outdoor Couples Massage treatment. Following intake and selection of desired massage oil, we headed to our separate locker rooms, though each “room” was actually a paradise that included a eucalyptus steam room, cedar wood sauna, cascading whirlpool, and bamboo rainfall shower. After enjoying these amenities, my wife and I met up for refreshing beverages before being escorted to the outdoor treatment room, where we enjoyed side-by-side massages as a cooling breeze passed through the area.
Following the treatment, it was just a short stroll to the resort’s Cane & Canoe restaurant. With Kapalua Bay as the backdrop, I relaxed and realized the appeal of outdoor dining in the warm climate. The restaurant architecture is reminiscent of a traditional Hawaiian canoe house, with a guitarist playing mellow versions of classics with Hawaiian interpretations. Cane & Canoe provides higher-end preparations of local ingredients, and while we enjoyed our appetizers and entrees, it would be a side dish of corn that proved most memorable.
Day 2: “Racing” the Road to Hana in Time to Enjoy the Hyatt
The Road to Hana comes with many choices. Drive full-circle or turn back at Hana? What time to start, given factors of traffic, opening times, and light for photography? Exactly where to stop?
We decided to start early, make just a few stops on the way to Hana, and then turn back and make any desired additional stops. The early start enabled us to avoid traffic and not feel rushed (as we had evening plans back at the hotel), and turning back gave us flexibility to hit things we missed on the first half of the drive.
Before hitting the Road to Hana, we stopped at the Port Town Chevron in Kahului. I’d heard that this place has good food (for breakfast and road snacks), but upon arrival we found out that options are limited on Sundays. No bento, but still a variety of musubi (tuna, fried rice and spam, lunchmeat and egg, teri-beef and spicy chicken), some uniquely wrapped entirely in nori.
It’s hard to do justice to the Road to Hana in writing. I can tell you that there are waterfalls and lush greenery and gorgeous flowers and cliffs that plunge to the sea and much more. The trip is really what you make of it, and your itinerary should reflect your interests. Our drive started a bit rainy (the only rain we’d see during our time in Maui), but the skies eventually cleared. Our first stop was in Haiku at Aunty Sandy’s for banana bread (somewhat charming and somewhat sweet) and a look around KeAnae Point.
Our major stop would be at Wai’anapanapa State Park, just before reaching Hana. We spent a considerable amount of time here checking out Black Sand Beach, the blowholes, the sea arches, and the hiking trails. Later we’d reach Hana and scramble along the shore for a glimpse of Red Sand Beach on Kaihalulu Bay. With few lunch options, signs for Huli Huli chicken lured us just past Hana to Koki Beach for a meal with musical accompaniment.
We knew we were missing some of the more spectacular sights past Hana, but satisfied, we enjoyed the return ride with views from the opposite direction. And we were happy to have some of the afternoon to relax and explore the grounds at the Hyatt. The 750,000-gallon pool has a 150-food lava tube water slide. There are six tennis courts and two 18-hold championship golf courses. And you can even take a wildlife tour to learn about the many exotic birds on the grounds, including South African penguins, macaws, flamingos, and African crowned cranes.
Our exploration necessitated a stop at the convenient Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice stand by the pool. Shave ice in the heat of the Hawaiian sun is a good thing.
After taking in the captivating sunset, it was time for dinner at Japengo, right on the grounds of the hotel. I was admittedly a bit leery of the mini-chain, but pleasantly surprised with the meal. The indoor/outdoor patio sports gorgeous views (this has already become a recurring dinner theme!), and there’s a sushi bar for those who prefer that type of seating. On that note, we ate a requisite crazy roll; everything, while sometimes on the sweet side, was well-executed, and I especially enjoyed the chow fun.
One of the unique activities to do at the Hyatt is the “Tour of the Stars.” You’re headed to the roof (be forewarned: some may say otherwise, but you’ll likely want a light sweater or jacket) to take advantage of dark skies and a variety of telescopes, including one that’s computerized and quite high-powered. An astronomical expert is on hand to set the scopes to stars, planets, and galaxies, providing a science lesson that’s actually fun. There’s even a couples-only Romance Tour that includes champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s an enlightening way to end an evening.
Day 3: Ka’anapali to Wailea (Noodles, Poke, and a Tasting Menu)
Finally, an unrushed morning, though time to pack as it was moving day from West Maui to South Maui. And with that, a realization that with all the rushing around, we’d yet to see Lahaina.
The day started at Aloha Mixed Plate, with a friendly vibe and a patio meant for lounging over a slow breakfast. Mixed results on the order: much better loco moco than at Da Kitchen, but disappointment with the saimin. To be fair, as a ramen lover, I’m guessing this has to do more with the dish than the specific preparation at this restaurant. My sense is that saimin generally lacks the richness of ramen that I truly love.
From there, we enjoyed a stroll through Lahaina. We found some food gifts at one of the supermarkets, and more at one of the tourist-oriented souvenir stores. Our primary destination, though, was the famed banyan tree, a marvel at over 60 feet high and over 150 years old.
This noodle lover really looked forward to lunch at Star Noodle, made famous by chef Sheldon Simeon, who was one of the contestants in the Seattle season of Bravo’s Top Chef. The restaurant’s food really reflects my style, with interesting ingredient combinations and bold flavors. This lunch was probably the best meal of my time in Maui, from the pohole salad to the poke and crudo to the two interesting noodle dishes.
As long as you’re at Star Noodle, you should stop in at the local Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors, just a stone’s throw away. You won’t be alone if, like me, you’re not there for the alcohol, but instead for the poke. Tamura’s has a surprisingly large selection of poke, and the workers are generous in providing samples of anything you’d like to taste.
After a 45-minute drive, we arrived at the Fairmont Kea Lani and were immediately in awe of the resort. The lobby, the service, the suite, and the immense balcony were all breathtaking. We couldn’t wait to have time to take it all in.
But, first, a highly anticipated visit to the Grand Wailea Resort for a spa treatment and dinner. “Grande” is an appropriate word for the Spa Grande, the largest spa in Hawaii with 40 treatment rooms in a 50,000 square foot space. It’s most known for its Terme Hydrotherapy Circuit, “a unique haven of water therapies featuring a Roman tub, saunas, cascading waterfalls, Swiss jet showers, a Japanese furo and five specialty baths.” Note that there’s one such circuit on each side of the spa (!), as they’re single-gender only.
It’s actually a little overwhelming at first, but one of the attendants will walk you through the process with bathing circuit suggestions. That person will also summon you for your full-body loofah scrub, and then let you know when it’s time to head for your actual treatment. You have an hour in water paradise before your treatment, so it’s important to budget your time accordingly. Most captivating to me were the colorful salt baths; while you soak, an information sheet lets you learn more about the benefits of each type of salt.
As at Spa Montage, I rendezvoused with my wife in a common area, and then our massage therapists led us to a treatment room for our lomi lomi massages. This traditional Hawaiian-style massage uses a lot of forearm and elbow movement to deploy medium pressure. Soothing and relaxing!
After the relaxing treatment, we navigated our way through the enormous property for dinner at Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Much to our surprise and delight, the restaurant treated us to a semi-secluded huge table on a deck jutting out on the water. The atmosphere was extremely romantic, and the chef sent out a tasting menu of dishes. We were there to simply relax, eat, and relish. As eating is done with all the senses, I wish I could have seen the food as part of the experience (only by touching up the photos do I get an idea of how it all looked), but we enjoyed the seafood-heavy meal regardless. Stuffed, I was tempted to snooze in the chair, but we took the short walk along the water back to our hotel.
Day 4: Early Morning Coffee (Farm), a Mango, and a Final Day at the Fairmont
The fourth and final day, I woke up early to go to Upcountry Maui to visit O’o Farm. This farm has a mission of sustainability and biodynamic cultivation, providing product for its local restaurants. There’s a general farm tour, but I was excited to be part of the coffee tour. Hawaii is the only state in the United States with the ability to grow coffee beans (it’s got the right elevation, temperatures, etc.), and O’o Farm is quite special in offering a bean to cup (or, rather, a “seed to cup”) experience.
The thermometer reading in my car plummeted as I drove from sea level up to the farm, with the cool air quite refreshing. At O’o, farm manager Richard Clark greeting the assembled group and walked us through the coffee trees, explaining the growing and harvesting process, and fielding questions from general to geeky. (The tour also provides some insight into the overall workings of the farm.) Soon it would be time for breakfast, which the on-site chef prepared in the outdoor kitchen using as many farm products as possible, yielding scones, salad, quiche, and of course coffee (French press).
After breakfast, the tour continued and reached its conclusion at the coffee “shop” where we learned more about the beans and the roasting process. Clark then played barista in providing samples of pour-over coffee and then pulled shots of espresso, with steamed milk available for those (how dare they!) who preferred lattes. While I’m not a big fan of Hawaiian coffees, the tour was truly a unique and informative experience, and I really appreciate the farm’s mission.
While Upcountry, food lovers will find opportunities to visit a lavender farm, goat farm (with goat cheese samplings), a winery (pineapple wine, anyone?), and more. While I made a stop at Kula Country Farms to buy some strawberries (u-pick is also available), I was anxious to get back to the hotel to enjoy the Fairmont for the final half-day of my Maui stay. En route, though, I had to make two stops in Kihei.
One would be at Eskimo Candy for some poke to go. Business was bustling at this popular eatery. We would soon enjoy the poke on that enormous balcony of our room at the Fairmont.
The other stop, highly anticipated, was Yee’s Orchard & Fruit Stand. Friends in Seattle raved about the mangos, so this was the must-try. (I got great bananas here as well.) Everyone talks about the Goldenglows being the best, but the vendor encouraged me to try the Alimomis, which I actually liked better. Oh, the Goldenglows were truly sweet, but there was something extra special about the Alimomis—perhaps the depth of flavor.
In the afterglow of the Goldenglows and Alimomis (that’s so fun to say aloud), I was quite content to sit on the balcony and enjoy the view, but my wife said, “You brought your swimsuit, so you really must get into the water.” As she had earlier that morning seen one of the “Seinfeld Four” (this after enjoying complimentary use of snorkel gear and seeing the amazing underwater world), this tempted me to mill about the people. And, yes, to finally enjoy the beach chairs and, indeed, the ocean. Part of the paradise at the Fairmont Kea Lani.
Late afternoon, we did leave the hotel for happy hour at Migrant, which is where Sheldon Simeon is now in the kitchen. With dinner to follow, we sampled four dishes, finding some familiar and favorite flavors. All were delicious, with the hanger steak most memorable. If I had to spend extensive time in Maui, I’m sure that Star Noodle and Migrant would be my most frequented restaurants.
Following happy hour, we slowly strolled the Wailea Coastal Walk back to the Fairmont, eventually settling in for dinner at Ko restaurant, which offers “cuisine inspired by the sugarcane plantation era.” This would be another open-air affair with a (very) friendly server, who helped us navigate an entrée menu that includes sections called “Makai Catch,” “Plantation Traditions,” and “Ko Specialties.” We enjoyed our starters before starting to succumb to full stomachs as the entrees arrived—with the zarzuela better than the Makai Catch. As I ate the dessert sampler, I thought that as with previous meals, the experience was charming and sweet.
Thinking back on the Ko meal and my difficult decision-making about which Makai Catch preparation to try, I realize I probably should have trusted my instincts in getting the “Ginger Steamed” option with its relative simplicity, plus all of its Asian flavors. Instead, I tried to go “local” in selecting the “Macadamia Nut Crust.” Unfortunately, this hid the flavor of the fish, and the accompanying mashed Molokai sweet potatoes made the whole dish a little too sweet (albeit prettily purple!).
My time in Maui reminded of my time in Ireland many years ago. There’s a bounty of excellent product, especially seafood in the surrounding waters and agricultural products from the areas of fertile land. It’s simply about preparation. Ireland was changing when I was there, going beyond fried fish to some finer dining preparations. Maui’s a sweet place to visit, but I’d like the food to be less sweet. Or, I should say, naturally sweet, like that memorable Kula corn at Cane & Canoe, or the mangos from Yee’s Orchard. There’s wonderful potential for food in this fantastic place to visit.
For some, the sight of a pig head on a street corner causes trepidation. For me, it creates salivation.
To be fair, the pig head I saw at 2nd and Bell didn’t surprise me, as the restaurant on that very street corner had invited me in to try their weekly pig roast dinner platter. Each Sunday evening, Bell + Whete fires up the above ground Caja China (a coal-operated metal roasting box) around lunchtime to have a Heritage Meats pig ready for dinner service. They leave the pig head out on the box for giggles and gigs. (Bell + Whete can cater your home or office party in similar fashion.)
For $24 each, diners get a plate of mixed pulled pork meat, cracklings, citrus chili garlic drippings, a seasonal vegetable, a starch or grain side dish, and housemade bannock bread—which some use to make simulated tacos. On this particular day, the sides were a farro and lentil pilaf, Moroccan-spiced summer squash salad with yogurt, and a smear of harissa.
Personally, I’d prefer a sampling of different pig parts, but I understand that would create quite a logistical issue. The mixed pork was incredibly moist, such that the drippings weren’t necessary—but liquid pig only made dinner more decadent. The cracklings were terrific (especially if you break them into small pieces if you’re making the aforementioned “tacos”), and the Middle Eastern-influenced sides had nice flavors. Harissa’s always a winner for me.
Bell + Whete boasts a menu of 60 beers. I paired my pig with Backwoods’ Copperline Amber, though what I enjoyed even more was the Lagunitas CitruSinensis with its distinct blood orange flavor. I savored this while nibbling on an order of “Chilled Ocean Snacks.” At $28, the seafood comes in at a higher price than the pig platter, but with a pretty presentation, and the Kusshi oysters the king of this particular plate.
To qualify for a visa waiver for my trip to Xi’an, I’d need to fly in from one foreign city and out to another without ever touching down elsewhere in China. Using frequent flyer miles, I’d knew I’d fly home to Seattle via Seoul. Since I’d be in Tokyo prior to Xi’an, my only option using miles meant transferring planes in Taipei, which China fortunately doesn’t claim as its own—at least in this respect.
Well, if I have to fly through Taipei, why not stay in Taipei? It’s a fun food city, and having been before, I know people there, so I figured a two-night stay would be enjoyable. When the W Taipei (see some photos of this gorgeous property and its gorgeous food later in this post) agreed to host me at their hotel, I was excited about this Anthony Bourdain-like layover.
But what to eat, and where? My last visit was in 2008, and since then my love of niu rou mian (beef noodle soup) has grown exponentially, so I wanted to compare what’s popular in Taipei to the version I make at home. And as a fan of xiao long bao (soup dumplings, though some call them buns) and other dumplings, these would be a must as well. Noodles, dumplings, and other doughy items would be my priority for my brief two-day stay.
It was a joy to fly from Haneda (instead of the distant Narita) to Songshan (instead of Taoyuan), as Songshan is so centrally located. (More on my flight at the end of this post.) Within minutes, I was out the front door of the airport and headed down to the tracks of the MRT station. Three stops, transfer, three more stops, and then after walking through the cosmetics department of the Hankyu Department Store, I was in the W Taipei.
No time to unpack, though, as with only 48 hours on the ground, I was backtracking three stops to the Zhongxiao Fuxing stop to meet a former Serious Eats colleague at Dian Shui Lou for the first half of lunch. If I’d not taken time to drop my bags at the hotel, I could have been eating good quality xiao long bao mere minutes after landing! We ordered a few baskets of Shanghainese treats (the pork with basil xiao long bao were especially interesting to try), and then we took a short walk for part two of lunch.
Lin Dong Fang’s beef noodle soup (about $7) falls somewhere between qingdun (featuring a clear broth) and my preferred hong shao that’s a spicier red braised version. Two things make it stand out. First, you can get a small bowl if you can’t commit to the full portion. (I couldn’t resist eating a big bowl.) Second, each table has a container of “beef butter” (a concoction that seems to contain chili oil and beef marrow/fat) so you can further spice up the bowl. The soup is a little clearer than I like, but high quality, and I enjoyed alternating between bites of shank and tendon—which was rich and filling. (Oh, a third point: Lin Dong Fang is open as late as 5am.)
Back to the hotel for a refreshing 5BEER (W Taipei’s own beer, which is double fermented) at the Woobar, followed by a short rest, and then it was back to the streets for more eating. I met friends for a soup dumpling comparison at Shengyuan and Hang Zhou, both located near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (which I didn’t see this time, just as I didn’t do anything touristy in Taipei other than walk through some streets). Shengyuan’s xiao long bao were good but not amazing; better was the pancake with jujube which would be a teaser for one of my favorite things to eat in all of Taipei (tomorrow). Around the corner, Hang Zhou’s xiao long bao were a notch better with thinner wrappers and more flavorful filling, and the version with luffa squash were also worth a try (but not nearly as satisfying as the simple pork type).
From this pair of dumpling restaurants, feeling full, we took a taxi to the Gongguan area, known for its small night market (and National Taiwan University). But we were here for other reasons: the across-the-street-from-each-other Lan Family Bun and Chen San Ding. We jumped at the chance to jump in the tiny line at Chen San Ding, which is usually far more crowded. The name translates to “frog hits milk” because the tapioca balls resemble frog eggs and there’s actually no tea in this “bubble tea’’—just fresh milk. The tapioca balls steep in brown sugar (there’s almost a caramelized sweetness), making this a sweet treat.
From “frog hits milk” it was time for gua bao or hu yao zhu, which translates to “tiger bites pig.” The Chinese hamburger known as gua bao is made with mantou, a steamed bun which when sliced and stuffed with pork belly looks like the mouth of a tiger biting a pig. At Lan Family Bun, you get a choice of desired pork fattiness, with oily content countered by the addition of preserved mustard greens. Watching the fast assembly is almost as much fun as eating the delicious gua bao:
After a day of “glutton eats food,” it was back to the hotel for “man hits pillow.”
The next morning, I entertained thoughts of a traditional Taiwanese breakfast, but slept a little late and decided to save stomach space for my lunch at the hotel. The W Taipei’s YEN would provide tremendous contrast to the casual eating experiences of the rest of my time in the city. YEN is classy (the private dining rooms are especially stunning, and I can see them being popular for casual to formal affairs) with interesting artwork and attentive service, and the food is quite refined with both traditional and modern interpretations of popular Chinese dishes.
I came expecting only to nibble, but was so impressed with the food that I ate quite voraciously. From the standard-bearer har gow to the east-meets-west turnip shreds with cheese to the whimsical “mushroom” dessert, lunch was a delightful experience. A meal is certainly more expensive than street eats, but a worthy indulgence. As part of lunch, I simply had to sample the hotel’s version of beef noodle soup (about $15). It’s a refined version made with high quality ingredients, reflected in the meat, broth, and noodles. Some would say it lacks just a little of the “soul” you find in the beef noodle soup on the street, but it was truly delicious.
A fine example of that soul would be in the bowl I’d later eat at the “nameless” Taoyuan Street Beef Noodles restaurant. Here I’d have my preferred style of beef noodle soup: red-braised beef with a hearty, spicy stock and soft, chewy noodles. Simple, cheap, and inspiring.
From this “snack,” I’d next meet a different set of friends at Jin Din Rou. I’d been looking forward to Jin Din Rou for two reasons. First, in the past, I proclaimed theirs to be my favorite xiao long bao in Taipei. (The dumpling skins were not quite as thin as at Din Tai Fung, but they were close, and the broth was better.) Second, Jin Din Rou was the home of my beloved jujube paste dumplings, with a flavor that reminds me of sour plum. They’re savory-like sweet and unique, as I have never found them anywhere else.
Maybe something strange happened amidst the chaos of meeting a group of nine people, but when the double basket of xiao long bao arrived, I did a double-take. They looked…wrong. And while soupy inside, they were far from what I remember them to be. (As with Din Tai Fung in Seattle, the tall shrimp shumai were better.) Interestingly, I’d been asking people in Taipei about Jin Din Rou, and almost nobody had heard of it, while those who had said it had declined in quality. Luckily, the jujube dumplings were as delicious as in previous years.
My final request for the trip was a visit to the Raohe Street Night Market. But my friends suggested we first make a stop at the Liaoning Night Market, en route, for some pork liver and kidney soup. No need to twist my arm to make that happen!
Finally we made our way to Raohe, where I expected a line for the famous black pepper buns, but got one without any wait. The bun itself was crispy and chewy, and inside were green onions and a glob of pork that’s truly peppery. A bit oily, but delicious. Here’s a look at the production:
After this, we walked the length of the market. Stuffed, I didn’t sample much, but was especially happy to try the ice cream crepe filled with peanut “brittle” shavings and cilantro before calling it a night.
The next morning, moments before checking out, I asked if there were any “old” parts of Taipei in the shadow of the hotel. When I explained that I wanted my final breakfast to be from a street vendor, the clerk pointed me to a couple of rows of older houses across the street. I rushed over, and as luck would have it, I found a woman making fan tuan (sticky rice rolls) with various fillings on a street corner.
Back at the hotel, rejecting a suggested taxi ride, I made my way to the City Hall Bus Station, anticipating my next flight. While I knew it wouldn’t be a Hello Kitty plane (continue on for some “cutesy” photos), I smiled with appreciation of my brief time in Taiwan as a “gateway” to the (tasty) chaos that would come in China.
Thanks to the nice folks at the W Taipei for hosting me for two nights at the hotel, and for inviting me to join them for a delicious dim sum meal. Here’s a look at the property (these photos are courtesy of W Taipei):
How much do I love biang-biang noodles? So much that beyond writing extensively about them here in the past, I found myself planning a trip to Tokyo and thinking, “I’ll be pretty close to Xi’an (home of the noodles), so I should go.” I learned that China now waives the visa requirement for stays up to 72 hours, which I figured would be the perfect amount of time to experience the food scene there. (Not surprisingly, turns out I would have appreciated more time.)
I’d have to maximize my brief time in Xi’an, so I ambitiously scheduled a 6:00pm food tour to follow my scheduled landing at 4:30pm, with the airport an hour from the city. I was the first off the plane and to passport control, but as I anticipated from my research, the visa waiver scenario (it’s a bit complicated) took about 20 minutes to reconcile.
Now on to airport transportation: I’d heard nightmares about hiring a taxi, with drivers taking foreigners for a ride at ridiculously high prices and dumping them on the highway (unverified reports) for lack of funds. Out of concern for my sanity and well-being, my hotel arranged for a private car to pick me up. Thank you, Hilton Xi’an, for both that and the media discount for my stay! (Hotel photos at the end of this post.)
With no more than a “ni hao,” the driver took me on a 10-minute walk to his car. Tracking progress on Google Maps (which I was able to use—along with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—on my phone, but not my laptop) while fearing for my life upon suddenly remembering driving habits in China, I realized I’d get to the hotel just two minutes past the tour start time. I WeChat-ted my tour guide, got to the hotel, threw my bags in the room, and then greeted my guide as she got to the lobby.
Lost Plate Tours would provide a perfect introduction to a mysterious new city. I’m generally skeptical of food tours, but not knowing Xi’an and not knowing the language, this was a great way to spend the first night, getting slightly acclimated and getting fully stuffed with food I would not likely have found on my own. Lost Plate founders Ruixi Hu and Brian Bergey invited me as a guest on both the Evening Tour and the following day’s Morning Tour, and then generously spent a little extra time with me for a few extra bites.
Ruixi runs the tours, having moved recently from Chengdu to Xi’an. A true food lover, she ate her way around the city to pick out the best places to show off the regional cuisine. The tours are unique in that tuk-tuks are the transportation (they’ll pick you up at your hotel if within the city wall), racing through the back alleys to reach places where the locals eat. (The tuk-tuks are an exhilarating part of the experience, though perhaps not ideal for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic, as the space can be tight). I was impressed not only with how well-organized the tours are, but also the communication process leading up to and throughout the tours. Ruixi speaks English well, providing information about the food and food establishments, and answering other questions about Xi’an. And both she and Brian are incredibly friendly.
My Evening Tour made stops to visit a shao bing shop (one of my favorite bites of the night), a skewer-griller, a dumpling restaurant, a place for porridges, and an eatery serving bowls of spinach noodles—all before final festivities at a local brewery.
The next day’s Morning Tour was less formal than usual, as there was just one other guest—a colleague of Brian. We enjoyed a walk through the fascinating Xi Chang Market (also known as the Bird and Flower Market, held Thursdays and Sundays), where one can buy all kinds of food, along with birds, turtles, crickets and cricket “houses,” household products, possibly illegal teeth, “illegal” sexual products, and much more.
Breakfast-turned-lunch would be fried beef pancakes, spicy and numbing soup, sour soup dumplings and (finally) my beloved biang-biang noodles (though not the hot oil-seared version that I like best)—including a little “hands-on” lesson in making them. Ruixi, Brian, and I would then go on to try a couple of “hardcore” dishes (they have a nice write-up of these and others at the Lost Plate Tours website): goat blood with silk noodles, along with bang-bang meat.
Check out how they make the pancakes:
Absolutely stuffed, I’d have little time to recover before venturing out for the evening. On my own, I had to do what everyone does when visiting Xi’an: stroll the Muslim Quarter. It’s colorful and festive and full of amazing sights, smells, and sounds. Cooking fires flare, the scent of cumin pervades the air, cleavers meet meat on well-worn cutting boards, stuff on sticks make you ask “What is it?,” and young men (predominantly) perform acrobatic acts in stretching sugar and then pounding it into candy. And all that’s just your first minute into the market street.
Stomach full, I sampled judiciously, my favorite bite being some spicy fried potatoes. I negotiated a half-portion from the vendor while a young woman watched to see my reaction. “Tasty?” I smiled my answer, offering her a sample, and in exchange she gave me some of her spicy tofu. A reminder that food brings cultures and people together.
Here’s a short video clip showing how to make the potatoes:
I thought about the co-mingling of cultures in Xi’an—China’s former capital and the eastern end of the Silk Road—as I strolled the side streets and back alleys of the Muslim Quarter. This is where I found the true charm of the district and the city as a whole. Away from the hustle and bustle, people walked a little slower and smiled a bit more upon eye contact. Until, of course, a bunch of bicycles, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, cars, and buses suddenly screamed by.
I eventually made my way back to the shadow of the Drum Tower, and to a place I’d eyed at the start of the evening: the biang-biang noodle shop. Here, at last, I could have a bowl of hot oil-seared noodles. But not before voyeuristically watching preparation of bowl-after-bowl, taking notes on the noodle-stretching and thwacking, as well as the rest of the process. Finally, I placed an order and voraciously attacked my noodles. A delicious way to end the day!
Now you can be a voyeur and check out the short clip of the noodle-making:
My final day would start early with an expedition to see the Terracotta Army (aka Terracotta Warriors and Horses). It’s the obligatory thing to do when visiting Xi’an, but I eschewed the many organized trips, instead enjoying the adventure of being the only non-Chinese person on the #5 (306) bus. Many students take this cheap (about $1) bus to a university stop, but I took it to the end (about an hour) to the museum site.
The story about the discovery of the terracotta army (farmers were drilling a well) and the sight itself are both impressive, though as others have commented, in some ways magazine photos are more spectacular than the live view. As I anticipated, while I tried to appreciate the museum, my mind wandered to what bowl of noodles I would eat next. (And given the $25 entry fee, would it have instead been more satisfying to sample about 10 bowls of noodles?)
With a commitment back in town, I didn’t stay long, but still managed to sample a couple of bowls of noodles near the museum entrance. Perhaps defying some Chinese custom about hot and cold, I alternated between spicy slurps of goat blood with silk noodle soup and cooling bites of liangpi.
Then it was back to the hotel. As part of my stay, the Hilton offered a tasting of dishes at its China Club restaurant, as well as a hands-on lesson in making biang-biang noodles. I’m not normally a fan of hotel restaurants, but in eating a lot of street food, this would provide a contrasting (and, yes, a more comfortable) experience. Besides, China Club is not a typical hotel restaurant, as it has an extensive menu meant to appeal not only to hotel guests, but to locals who want to eat upscale versions of the local fare.
After quick introductions to the restaurant’s chefs (via translation), I was told to suit up for my biang-biang noodle lesson. Things moved quickly in the kitchen, and some details were lost in translation, but it seems like the dough recipe I’ve been using at home is spot-on, with the rest of the cooking process and preparation pretty much the same. What I’m not sure about is the flour for the dough. All I could learn is that they use a high-gluten flour (as do I), but their dough is far more stretchy than mine. It’s easier to work with, and creates silkier noodles.
Retiring to the dining room, I ate two different bowls of biang-biang noodles, as well as a sampling of other dishes (including more liangpi)—all fantastic. Again stuffed, they invited me back that evening to sample their version of Xi’an’s famous yang rou pao mo (crumbled flatbread in mutton stew). But not before a final evening walk through the city, including a stop at a department store to buy the one souvenir of my stay in Xi’an: a dowel-like rolling pin that I learned is a key to making better biang-biang noodles.
Here’s how the Hilton Xi’an makes biang-biang noodles:
Price: $12.50 (for a 7 ounce portion, with a 4.5 ounce portion available for $11.50)
In the bowl: Broth-less ramen in a soy sauce-based sauce, with chunks of chashu (braised pork belly), menma (fermented bamboo shoots), kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), and ribbons of green onions.
Noodling around: Ramen fans who don’t feel like slurping soup noodles in the summer will find joy in mazemen, Santouka’s seasonal offering. This is ramen without the soup, making it a “dry” dish that’s still full of the regular ramen components. No pork fatty “tonkotsu” broth, but the chunks of chashu will satisfy your porcine cravings. Menma and kikurage are mixed in, and the whole thing is sauced with notes of soy sauce and “negi abura” (green onion-infused oil) sneaking through. A generous portion of green onions top the noodles; the curly ribbons are fun but a little too large in terms of flavor balance.
If you want more: It’s nice to see takoyaki on the menu, but these “octopus balls” are frozen and deep-fried rather than made fresh. A better option is the small appetizer portion of tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet, $6.00) that comes with a lemon wedge, karashi (spicy Japanese mustard), arugula, and tonkatsu sauce. Besides, this opens the door to the potential playful order of tonkatsu/tonkotsu.
Be aware/beware: I continue to believe that the signature tonkotsu shio ramen is the best choice at Santouka (and likely the highest quality ramen available on a daily basis in the Seattle area), but it’s nice to see new choices on the menu. Another option: toroniku goma miso ramen, with the tonkotsu broth having a nice balance of sesame and miso flavors.