In America, the term ‘food court’ is synonymous with shitty fast food, Orange Julius, and middle schoolers. How far from the truth this is when it comes to Taipei. We quickly found out that food courts in Taipei are nothing like what we think of back home. They’re filled with a dizzying array of every Asian cuisine imaginable, and all of it very high quality. To the uninitiated, it may be hard to believe, but the food courts of Taipei are not to be missed.
We spent our first few days in Taipei sampling various dumpling and noodle spots we’d picked out from an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover, but it wasn’t long before we’d exhausted his list and found ourselves wandering the streets, looking for a quick food fix. Since we were only a few days into our trip, our guard was still up when it came to food and we were probably a bit overly cautions when it came to sampling the various street foods or anything that didn’t come from a TV show or TripAdvisor. Since then, that fear has fallen by the wayside, but, at the time, our reluctance actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, leading us straight to the glorious Taiwanese food court.
The first time we entered one of these food courts was out of sheer desperation – we were starving, sweaty, and tired. We saw a mall, noticed a sign for a food court, and our bellies collectively said ‘fuck it, lets go’. Our jaws dropped when found row after row of shops hawking ramen, dumplings, pho, sushi, tempura, bibimbap, hotpot – you name it, it was all there.
For our first Taiwanese food court experience, we did a few laps around the halls and decided on a shop selling bibimbap. Bibimbap is a Korean rice dish served in a large, piping hot, iron bowl with various toppings mixed in like egg, kimchi, fermented veggies and meats. Typically, you get to pick out a few side dishes to accompany the bowl such as pickled seaweeds, fish cakes or more kimchi. At the time, this was my first experience with bibimbap and I had nothing to compare it to. But as someone with a deep love for food, I knew this place killed it. It was fantastic. Were all food courts in Taipei this good? We needed to find out. And we certainly tried to over the course of the next few weeks.
We found a food court in the base of Taipei 101 – once that tallest building in the world – that made the first food court look like child’s play. This one was three times as large with even more variety of food. Every Asian cuisine was represented, many times over in some cases. They had bakeries serving frosting topped waffles, stands serving exotic teas and sushi conveyer belts. We had another sampling of Korean food here. This time a Korean kimchi soup. Fantastic, once again.
During our final week in Taipei, we found what we would come to realize as the mother of all food courts: The Breeze Food Court at the Taipei Main Station. Now this place quite possibly the greatest food court in the entire world and that’s no exaggeration. This food court takes up the entire top floor of the main train station in Taipei. Each section of this food court is divided up based on cuisine. There’s an entire section devoted to beef noodle, a section for Indian food, a Chinese food section with Sichuan, Cantonese, or Hunan shops, a ramen isle, a hotpot row – the options go on and on. The hallways between the pods of regionally centric shops are filled with sit-down restaurants – everything from German food to coffee shops to hibachi. Incredibly, many of these sit-down restaurants have lines, out the door, of locals waiting to eat. The size of this place and the number of options is truly overwhelming. Deciding on a place to eat here is a time consuming task in it of itself.
We ate there twice over our last week in Taipei, having a Thai noodle soup one time and an Indian curry the next. The Indian curry, served with some sort of milk soup and miscellaneous fried chicken parts, was nothing special. With that many options there’s bound to be a few disappointments. On the other hand, the Thai soup that I’ve since come to recognize as Khao Soi was phenomenal. Khao Soi is a coconut curry-like broth with a mixture of soft egg noodles, some sort of protein (often times pork) and a garnish of fried, crispy egg noodles. The flavors are vibrant with strong hints of chili oil, lime and pepper. This particular soup substituted the fried egg noodle garnish for fried Japanese Enoki mushrooms. I ordered mine with fried pork while Shelby had the one with a chicken drumstick. Seeing Shelby make quick work of a drumstick with only a spoon and chopsticks made me realize how far our chopstick skills had come over the past few weeks.
The quality and variety of food we found in these mass collectives of fast-casual styled, culinary talent is truly remarkable from the perspective of an American. The only General Tao’s chicken we saw being served here was at a fine-dining, sit-down restaurant with white linen table cloths – an establishment that I once would have thought to be entirely out of place in a food court, serving a dish that seemed to be as equally out of place in it’s current environment. No McDonalds. No Panda Express. No Orange Julius.
If you had asked me for my thoughts on food courts before Taiwan, I wouldn’t have had much to say that was positive. But we’ve now seen the light. What once evoked images of adolescence, greasy fried food and scenes from Fast Times At Ridgemont High now holds a special place in our hearts and bellies. If you ever find yourself in Taiwan, do yourself a favor and find the Breeze Food Court.