Taipei Morning: Coffee, Bubble Tea, and a Walk in the Park

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Hungry and eager in the morning, we took off in search of coffee.  Despite the prevalence of tea, there is a surprisingly well-developed coffee culture in Taipei.  The only issue is that many of the coffee shops don’t seem to open until after 10 or 11 am.  There were still a few cafés that served coffee in the morning, but they weren’t nearly as numerous or sophisticated as the ones that opened much later in the day.  You can always get your fix at a 7-11 which serves some decent coffee despite what you might expect as well as espresso drinks, and there’s a chance you might be near a Mr. Brown coffee chain which seems to have broader hours and the optional addition of whiskey as a flavor enhancer, but I’ll get into that later.

We settled on Ikari Coffee, a Japanese café around the corner with a small variety of coffee, tea, and light food options.  There was a nice foolproof menu with pictures and translations outside for their breakfast offerings such as:

New Orleans is quite famous for their chicken wings with meat sauce spaghetti according to Ikari.  I sure didn’t know that!

I selected pumpkin porridge with chicken (NT$100) that I paired with some oolong.   Surprisingly the real food looked meticulous in presentation and very similar to the photo outside.  This dish was mild and creamy with the slightest hint of pumpkin.  At its worst it was primarily bland, but it worked as a subtle savory breakfast and I enjoyed it when the little bits of salt from the skin of the chicken mixed in and added some flavor.  While this was a much nicer quick breakfast for a little over US$3 than I feel like I could get most places back home, there would be much better food to come.

My companion selected a Hawaiian crepe (NT$80) which was almost more of a cold tortilla than a crepe and filled with mayo, pineapple, corn, sprouts, and peanuts.  Most ingredients were slightly sweet to be sure, and very Japanese in its variety of fillings.  It tasted about like it sounds…a little odd with a variety of texture.

Ikari Coffee was interesting enough for a visit and certainly quick, very reasonable, and convenient, but there was so much to explore that I knew that wouldn’t go out of my way to return.

We continued meandering around the neighborhood and found some dueling bubble tea places across the street from each other.  I’m not sure how it slipped my mind that Taiwan is the birthplace of bubble tea, but it wasn’t until I saw a bubble tea shop on most blocks in Taipei that it really sunk in.    It was probably the bold orange graphic design of Orange Tea Mania (possibly translated as Orange Tea Factory) and their huge, vibrant pictures that drew me in to try that shop over the CoCo Coffee across the street which seemed to focus more on chocolate and coffee flavors instead of fruit juice blends.

What really sold me on Orange Tea Mania was that I could clearly see the passion fruit seeds floating around in the picture and was totally excited that some of the offerings were probably loaded with one of my favorite elusive fruits.  I was introduced to passion fruit years ago when someone had a few sent back from a tree at a relative’s house, and the sloshy wrinkled fruit smelled so floral and fragrant that she shared it with me after I expressed such an interest in it.  I lapped the tart juice from the rind like a kitten and chewed the crunchy seeds to bits.  It was a fabulous food memory that I found much difficulty recreating.  Outside of Puerto Rico, and even then the fruit was often sweetened and from concentrate, I had only found awful overpriced facsimiles in the grocery stores in the US.  The passion fruit pulp and seeds in this were indeed the real deal and served my happy memory well.

While I generally enjoyed the heavier style of smoothies and slushies with boba that I most frequently experienced in Vietnamese places near New Orleans, I was really delighted with what I got.  It was fresh passion fruit pulp with the crunch of the seeds, a bit of coconut jelly that was slightly sweet with a nice bit of soft toothiness to the chew, and small perfectly caramelized chewy boba bits.  Taipei seems keen on customization and this was no exception.  There is the opportunity to select hot or iced and the desired amount of sweetener.  I chose half sweet which was just fine, but I later got one with a third of the sweetener and it was perfect for me.   The best part was these are in the range of NT$30-$60, so they are quite a bargain especially with most of them including this one at NT$35, which was less than US$1.25.

Out of curiosity, I peered into the McDonald’s nearby to see if they had anything strange, but I didn’t see any menu items from my vantage point that looked the least bit interesting.  The only thing I had seen a commercial for out of the ordinary was fried taro pies.  I have heard a few times from a few different sources that the food at these foreign chains tastes quite better than the ones in the states, but I never took the chance to experience it.  It’s just wasn’t worth it to waste a meal there when there are so many incredible looking things on every block especially when around that time, the street vendors began to open.  They were serving all varieties of noodles, fluffy fried breads, and skewers of sizzling meat.  They didn’t appear to start serving until around 10 am, so we had sadly missed them for breakfast.

After a short rest that mostly involved my trying to obtain every last jelly and seed from my bubble tea with the oversized straw, we took a meandering walk and went to Daan Forest Park, one of the many large nearby parks nestled in the cluster of the busy city streets.  There was an impressive variety of birds roosting in trees or swooping into the pond as well as photographers with equally impressive lenses and tripods clustered tightly together trying to take photographs of them.  Surprisingly, I also saw at least 5 different species of butterflies in a short time span.  I never really paired the thought of butterflies with Taiwan, but it is the home to over 400 different varieties and known as the butterfly kingdom, so it’s certainly an amazing place for butterfly watching.

I fell in love with the types of trees and the way they twisted and gnarled in interesting shapes.  There were areas so dense with these trees that they took on an eerie feel since their canopies hung with twists of vines and blocked most of the light.  I’m sure this creates quite a bit of a refuge in the summer and helps with the heat.

It was also apparent that there was a level of care that allowed the trees to be quite spectacular in shape.  Occasionally you would see them braced with poles and stakes and bits of string to help them support themselves and encourage interesting shapes while they grew.

The park was also abuzz with activity most notably people practicing graceful tai chi  moves slowly and deliberately while using a tree branch in front of them as a coat hanger.

Not to mention the park was also home to some unnerving topiary bunnies menacingly flanking a play area.

On our way back, we passed the iconic National Taipei University of Technology which became quite a landmark for us on our trip.  It was a fantastic display of Taipei’s newer sleek modern architectural aesthetic entwined with the softness of the nature.  This felt to be a theme in the newer architecture of Taipei in merging new aesthetic with nods to their culture.  This theme is also present in the even more dramatic icon of the trip that helped keep us oriented–the often visible 101 stories of Taipei 101 which was inspired by a stalk of bamboo.

This was just the beginning of the day as there was even better coffee and food yet to come by way of civet and a Michelin star…

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