food

Taiwan Day 12: Beitou Thermal Valley and the Best Braised Pork Rice Ever


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“Hell’s Valley”

On this day, I was handed over to my other cousin, Billy, for a weekends’ worth of excitement. The motive of me being “handed over” was so that I could reunite with every single Taiwanese cousin while they took me on memorable road trips to their favorite destinations that embodies what they love about their country.

Billy drove from Bali (in Taiwan, not Indonesia) to pick me up from Kevin’s urban apartment, and when his aging, maroon Honda pulled up I enthusiastically greeted him and dumped my luggage in the trunk. Unlike Kevin, he didn’t ask me where I wanted to go- he knew immediately where to take me, and soon we were on our way to Beitou Hot Springs. The Beitou area consists of natural hot springs that continually emits steam, and some are open to people while others reach temperatures of 100 °C and are off-limits. We first visited the Hot Springs Museum which was an original bathhouse built long ago by the Japanese in European style so the inside had Victorian columns and baths but tatami rooms as well. Because the Japanese are extremely orderly and clean, we had to remove our shoes in the museum and put on slippers to keep the interior spotless.

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Hot Springs Museum

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A tatami in the museum

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We then headed out towards the Geothermal Valley, also dubbed “Hell’s Valley”, a bright emerald-colored body of water that is 90 °C, so very little life sustains in the water. The weather was already hot enough, but once near the edge of the Valley, the sweltering heat reached my skin and I began to sweat all over, especially on my neck where my long hair dangled freely. I felt audacious standing so near, knowing that a slight mishap could result in my death, but the uncanny Valley was quite mystical as subtle clouds of opaque steam arose and idled marginally above the still, emerald water. We wandered past other hot springs in the human-tolerable range, but all were rather empty because who would be in their right mind to step in a hot springs in tropical, Taiwanese, Summer weather?

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An eerie Geothermal Valley

It was around noon when Billy told me of a fantastic “restaurant” that specializes in  braised pork rice (lu rou fan) and I was so down because braised pork rice is the perfect combination of carbs, fat, and salt, and I never turn down a braised pork rice offer. There was one minor issue with which he wasn’t exactly sure where and what the place was called, so we scoured around the Beitou area, driving through random roads as he tried to recall of the place in his head. We then arrived at a random, dingy and dilapidated building with a variety of food stands, clothing stores, and medicine shops on the inside. The interior had little electricity (and certainly no A/C), and was mostly lit up by windows on the walls and ceilings for sunlight to enter. Peculiarly, the place was congested with people mostly eating lunch or buying fresh fruits, meats, or seafood from the tiny vendors scattered across each floor. On a side note, the scene was chaotic, unsanitary, and dismal, but a scene like this is very typical of Taiwan so it didn’t bother me for I was accustomed to it. Billy and I sauntered around each floor, past multiple butchers, scanning from corner to corner to find The “restaurant”, but his frustrated complexion indicated that it was nowhere nearby. Eventually, he gave up and we sat down at another braised pork rice restaurant which he described as “not as good”. He wandered off to see what people were eating, when he ran back exuberantly and yelled “I found it!!” I stood up so abruptly that I experienced a minor whiplash, but proceeded on to follow Billy, who was now very much ahead of me.

The restaurant (a food stand really), called 矮仔財滷肉飯  was in a relatively depressing corner, however the food stand was not depressing at all. The chefs frantically sauteed and washed dishes as a line of forty something people waiting to order watched and an additional forty something people sat eating. I headed to the back of the line, which spiraled down a staircase where the food stand unfortunately was no longer in sight. Thirty five minutes had passed until we got to the front of the line, where Billy ordered several dishes but sadly had to switch a few orders since many of their dishes were sold out. But no worries because whatever we ordered turned out to be SOME OF THE BEST FOOD I HAVE EVER PUT IN MY MOUTH. I seriously don’t even know how to explain how scrumptious the food was, like does a 1000/10 tell you how tasty the food was? or the term “better than sex?” (whatttt) Yes, it was THAT amazing.

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Braised pork rice

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Very traditional Taiwanese meal

We ordered two bowls of braised pork rice which on top of the meat, the chef had additionally included ample amounts of gelatinous skin and fat, and I think that was the wow factor of the dish. I’ve had hundreds of braised pork rice bowls in my life and I’ve never tasted a memorable one until this one. We also got 2.) a tofu chunk braised in the pork juices, so if the tofu is tasting like the braised pork, it’s got to be great, 3.) kongxincai (water spinach), sauteed and drenched in the pork marinade with meat chunks (Oh my lord so good), 4.) pork and winter melon soup (perhaps the best soup I’ve ever had. It was meaty but not oily at all- how do you do that?), and 5.) fatty pork slices with red sauce. The rice, tofu, and water spinach dishes all had the braised pork sauce, but they all had their own distinct flavors, which stumps me. And the soup, oh my, do not even get me started on the soup; it tasted nothing like the braised pork sauce, it had a special flavor that I cannot fathom either. As a food fanatic, I believe that a restaurant’s food is good when you can’t decipher what the ingredients are because you can’t imitate it at home. Thus, you’ll keep coming back to the restaurant to eat it. I now know that in the future anytime I visit Taiwan, I will ask to come back here to eat. I encourage you all to put this restaurant “矮仔財滷肉飯” on your bucket list!!

-Jamie

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Categories: food, travel

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