Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Nostalgic Taiwanese Lunch

We didn’t make specific plan for our first lunch in Taipei, but decided just to try a luck to get a table at a place recommended by one of our friends. From outside, Mao Yuan looks just like any other casual, old-school Chinese restaurant with simple (dated) décor and well-lit interior, but we were told the place serves some of the best Taiwanese family-style cuisine in town.

The restaurant – with its original store and annex branch – took up almost half a block on a busy street in Zhongshan District. The place was packed when we arrived in the middle of the usual lunch hour, but luckily they had a table available for us on the ground floor near the back of the restaurant. As we settled down, we were shown the “food station” near to the open kitchen at the back where the fresh ingredients were displayed in the refrigerated cabinet, and this is where they would take our order from, by us picking and choosing the ingredients directly (and told them how you want them be cooked). There’s also a blackboard on the side listing some of their daily specials or signature dishes. (well, later we realized they do have a standard menu but who would want to pick dishes from a book when we can pick from the real ingredients?)

There’s always the problem of not being able to order a lot of dishes in a Chinese restaurant when there’s just the two of us. But at least here they did adjust the portion somewhat so we were not stuck with dishes too big for us to finish, and at the end we did order quite a bit for a sumptuous lunch. We started with a few appetizers. The pork liver (粉肝) arrived almost as soon as we sat down after we finished with ordering. The thick slices of liver, marinated with soy and wine and herbs, steamed in low temperature, chilled and sliced just before serving, was amazing. It has a soft and smooth texture and mellow flavor. Our second dish was summer bamboo shoot (涼筍) cooked in the simplest way – boiled then chilled and cut into chunks, and served on a bed of pumpkin puree and mayo on the side. It was crunchy and refreshing with a hint of sweetness from this seasonal ingredient – probably a bit past its prime time but still enjoyable.

I was tempted with one of the fish on display in the refrigerator, but knowing we probably couldn’t finish the whole one with all the other dishes we ordered, instead we settled with the clams. They were in pretty good size, plump with a bite, and sautéed with Taiwanese basil in generous portion (九層塔炒蛤蜊) The squid meatball and deep-fried seafood roll platter (花枝丸拼海鮮卷) was one of the dishes listed on the blackboard and they were excellent – served straight from the deep-frying pan still piping hot when they were presented. Spiced salt was served on the side but I felt they were tasty even without any additional seasoning. I liked the bouncy texture of the squid balls but the seafood roll with some vegetables filled inside was interesting too.

We finished with a few simple, family-style dishes – the pork rib soup with cured cabbage (老菜脯排骨湯), stir-fried vegetables (stem lettuce, known locally as “A-cai” A菜), and sautéed rice vermicelli with cabbage and dried shrimps. There’s nothing glamorous about them – most people grew up eating them at home regularly – but they were comforting. I guess that also summed up what I felt about the restaurant – a perfect venue if you are looking for that comforting, nostalgic flavor (and pretty good value). We will be back - but next time, we will definitely wanna come in a bigger group to try more of their dishes.

When? August 6 2018
Where? Mao Yuan Restaurant, Section 2. 185 Chang An East Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei, Taiwan
茂園台菜餐廳 台北市中山區長安東路二段185號
Menu Highlights? Squid balls and Deep-fried seafood rolls 花枝丸拼海鮮卷

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