Taipei on the cheap
We're going to be living in Taipei for the next two months, and would love any recommendations for really good, inexpensive food. That is, we can't really afford to eat six-course dinners anywhere fancy (well, maybe once) but don't want to subsist entirely on street food (though any tips in that category would be appreciated too). Thanks!
I visited most of the night markets in Taipei, (they're usually the largest concentration of street food that you can find.) Typically, the residents have their own local street food and farmer's market style produce vendors that congregate at corners in the early morning and for dinner. But if you're out late at night, nothing beats a night market.
My favorite was Shihlin Night Market, which is close to Chientan Station (I think that's a bus stop). Though the main drag from south to north sells clothes and other small items, turn left down any small alley and it breaks into a huge tent with a ton of food. I'd recommend getting Taiwanese specialties like the clam omelets, the cuttlefish vermicelli in soup, and bah wan, which is a rice glutinous round thingy filled with a mushroom/pork mixture that is divine! They'll usually put it in a plastic bag for you and squirt a sweet pink sauce inside. If you're brave enough, I recommend the stinky fried tofu (it smells foul, but tastes incredible). If its colder, they often have shaved ice topped with your choice of sweet red beans, almond tofu, grass jelly. Plus there'll be a ton of other random drinks.
Actually, in Tian Mu (a more affluent district in north Taipei), there was a local small street food/ produce vendor region (you may need to ask around)that had the BEST bah wan shop and BEST vegetarian noodles by a Buddhist street vendor that I've ever had. They were less than 20 ft apart which is the greatest concentration of chowhoundish sites I've had! I dream of it still....
For restaurant recs, I didn't really go to any since I was staying with family, but you could always go to Din Tai Fung. They do have the huge teapot that can pour tea from 15 ft away. But the main reason to go is the shiao long bao and other small northern chinese delicacies that they're famous for.
If you like Northern Chinese breakfast (I do, but its definitely something that I grew up with) then everyone knows Yung Ho Dou Jiang. But, its in the suburbs of Taipei, not Taipei proper.
Another fun thing to do is visit one of Taipei's MickeyDs, 'cause they often have unusual things on the menu that are there to appeal to the Chinese palate. :)
Now there is a city I can talk about. Lived there for 10+ years and LOVE Chinese food. Agree with the recommendations of Steph P. totally. Also you must not miss guo tie ( griddle fried dumplings) and tsong yo ben (fried onion cake). Also in Tien Mou at the corner of Tien Mou East Road and Tien Mou N. Road is a sublime place for both of the above and niu ro mien ( beef noodle soup). I can't remember the name even though I ate there weekly for at least 5 years. You can't miss it as it has a kitchen which is open to the street. You can eat and order inside, or stand outside and order takeaway. It is awesome Taiwanese food. And very cheap. Be prepared to share a table with others and fetch your own tea.
Taiwan is a great city for Chinese food because they have Taiwanese food which is yummy, but not very spicy, and because so many mainlanders fled to Taiwan in 1949 many brought their regional specialties with them. I have travelled all over Asia including China and find Taiwan to have the best variety of Chinese food, and the tastiest.
As for the cheap bit - as long as you eat local it is very cheap. Stay away from overpriced western food and the really high end Chinese restaurants ( which don't have the best food anyway, just expensive and glitzy atmosphere).
Now I'm getting home sick for the wonderful food there! Have fun and if you want to keep the weight off drink Taiwan beer since it causes strange things to happen in your digestive system! Not advisable to drink much of the stuff.
The main problem you will encounter in Taiwan is linguistic. Without the basics of the Chinese language, it is exceedingly difficult to eat well at the more modest places, where no English menu exists and no employee speaks English. You should do all you can to master a range of phrases and some of the characters used for food. If you like, I can write down some important phrases for you in Chinese characters, along with their English equivalent. Just send a note to the e-mail address above and I'll mail or fax you something.
If you use the search engine on the Chowhound home page, you will find some recommendations I and others have made for dining in Taipei. I'll briefly reiterate a few of them here. (Note that the romanization system used in Taiwan is quite idiosyncratic and will not match the pinyin I'll use below. But pinyin will allow you some consistency and a very rough idea of the pronunciation; more important, you can look up characters in a simple Chinese dictionary by pinyin. The number after each Chinese word is its tone.)
-Wu2 chao3 shou3. Several locations. A very good place to get Sichuan style noodles and dumplings.
-Yong3 kang1 gong1 yuan2 niu2 rou4 mian4. Already mentioned by another poster. This has long been the best place in Taipei for beef noodles. Please try the beef tendon (niu2 jin1).
-Ding3 tai4 feng1. Also already mentioned. A short walk from the previous restaurant. Now an international chain, but the original restaurant on Xin4 yi4 road (Hsinyi, Taiwan style) is a fantastic experience.
-Wistaria Tea House. I've had mixed reports in recent years and fear that this old-fashioned and very romantic tea house may have disappeared, but if you ask in the neighborhood between Hoping East Road and National Taiwan University for a "Ri4 ben3 shi4 cha2 guan3," or Japanese-style tea house, you may find it. I believe that the location was on Hsinsheng Road, and it was certainly on the west side, one hundred yards south of Hoping. If still extant, you could have a marvelous afternoon there, drinking very strong Taiwanese tea in a beautiful setting.
-Taiwanese restaurants with such names as Xin1 ye4, Xiang1 ye4, Qing1 ye4. This sort of restaurant almost never appears outside of Taiwan--I remember seeing one in Hong Kong, but that's it. These are handsome bourgeois establishments that specialize in gourmet renditions of indigenous dishes. Lots of seafood. Be sure to have the small bowl of noodles with garlic and a slice of pork (roughly "che ham yi" in Taiwanese) and the glutinous rice with powdered peanut for dessert.
-There are many excellent vegetarian restaurants run by Buddhist temples in Taiwan. Please try these.
Be sure to get out of Taipei. I love the city, but your appreciation of Taiwan will increase immeasurably if you visit some of the mountains, the less touristed beaches, the bamboo forests. The town of Dan4 shui3 (Tamshui, Taiwan style) can be reached easily from Taipei and is a pleasant place to cycle, try local fishball soup and plum tea (suan1 mei2 cha2 or suan1 mei2 zhi1). I also found Ken3 ding1 (Kenting), on the island's southern tip, lovely. And two towns very much worth a visit are Tainan and Lugang.
Enjoy your two months!
re: Steph P
Another reason to go to McDonald's (if you're a coffee addict): They give free refills on coffee, and it's about a buck. For some reason, coffee anywhere else in town is VERY expensive, doesn't taste that good, and they give NO refills! Whenever I'm there, my morning routine always starts at McDonald's (just for coffee).
A few more suggestions:
1) Hotpot restaurants- this is like Chinese fondue except it's not cheese in the pot, but pork/chicken broth and you cook vegetables, tofu, and meats in the broth. They have different kinds of dipping sauces. Some of these places are all you can eat, usually less than 10 bucks a person. My favorite was called "299" which is 299 Taiwan dollars per person. (about $8)I really like these places.
2) Beef noodle soup- You can get this all over the city. It's a rich, beef broth with pieces of beef and sometimes tendon, over a bowl of hopefully freshmade noodles. There's some places that specialize in this dish, especially Yung Kang Beef Noodle, just east of ChiangKaiShek memorial. just ask anyone in this general area, and they'll give you directions. about $5
3) Food Courts in Major Dept. Stores- My favorite is the Sogo Dept. Store on ChungShiao Road. It's in the basement and there's tons of places to eat CHEAP. about $5
4) Night Markets - Shihlin was mentioned, but my favorite is in Keelung, about an hour north of Taipei. Keelung is a major harbor and the seafood you can get at this night market is unbeatable. May be expensive though, so ask before you bite. $1 to $100! by the way, it wouldn't hurt to get a Hep A vaccination JUST in case; you are eating off the street here.
Have fun, Taiwanese live to eat. Don't be afraid to use English either, esp. with younger people. Taiwanese are very gracious, gentle, and helpful, even though they may be shy at first. Everyone there is a chowhound. If you get lucky, you may get invited to a "street wedding banquet", but these are getting rarer nowadays. They basically block off a whole street and turn it into an eating orgy!