The blogosphere is a wonderful thing. Especially when it leads you to little gems like Hsinchu.
Hsinchu is about an hour south of Taipei by train. It rates the merest mention in most guidebooks; we wouldn't have even thought to include it in our Taiwan west coast itinerary, had it not been for the urgings of this blogger, who was lucky enough to spend two months there last summer.
So we stopped in for a night. And ended up staying three.
Home to a Science and Technology Park, Hsinchu is ground zero for Taiwan's high-tech industry. Think Silicon Valley and all that it's meant for the San Francisco Bay Area and you'll get an idea of Hsinchu's attractions. The city boasts an energetic vibe probably attributable to its youngish, well-educated (more PhDs per capita in Hsinchu than anywhere else on Taiwan), fairly well-off population. There's an arts scene, and a fair bit of live music - both touched with characteristic Taiwanese wackiness. The city's downtown is exceedingly walkable, a wonderful mix of old (Japanese colonial buildings, old temples, even a moat) and new (cheeky bars, restaurants, coffee houses and boutiques, many hidden away down narrow lanes).
First, the old - and delicious.
Sketched on one of Aiguo Wu Xiao Chi's ('Patriots' House Little Eats') two windows is a cartoonish drawing of a pigs's head. Serious Pork Served Here.
The thirty-year-old restaurant, squeezed into a rear corner of Hsinchu's central Dongmen Market, is run by fifty-something Zheng Fu Wen and his wife (he does most of the cooking). What you see in the photos above and below is pretty much what you get: four tables (two inside, two out), a tiny prep area and,outside and in front of the shop's other window, a case displaying the day's dishes.
Some are already cooked, to be eaten room temperature or gently reheated in one of Mr. Zheng's well-worn hand-hammered sauciers. Others are an assemblage of raw ingredients waiting to be boiled, steamed, sauteed, or fried.
Our introductory meal here, an assemblage of dishes including stuffed and simmered squid;
silky soy sauce-brushed milkfish (which has nudged aside tuna to assume top position in our ranking of tasty piscene specimens) with housemade chili-bean sauce; vibrantly green-tasting local spinach;
a version of fanquie jidan (tomatoes and eggs) that elevates this basic Chinese classic to new gustatory heights (this dish just knocked our socks off - seriously, it did);
and a bowl of rice topped with Serious Pork -- an over-the-top stew of fatty cuts (opening photo) -- and liberally sprinkled with black pepper, left us frankly awed.
It was an utterly unpretentious, homely meal prepared from wonderful ingredients utilizing techniques that highlighted their flavors. And it cost thirty Taiwan dollars (about 95 US cents) a dish.
Was there any doubt we'd return the next day?
This time we scored an inside table,
and feasted on more of that Serious Pork, this time splodged over thick, chewy noodles;
batons of tofu skin simmered in soy sauce with red and green peppers - a bit of gluten-ish chew, a bit of crunch; and okra, eggplant, and white bitter melon lightly blanched, drizzled with oyster sauce and sesame oil and sprinkled with chopped scallions and garlic.
We would have gone back the next day for more, had Aiguo Wu not been closed.
Before we rolled out the door after our second lunch the chatty Mr. Zheng, who's puffed with pride in his kitchen skills (and justifiably so), hauled out a jar of rufu (fermented bean curd) that he put up himself and offered us each a spoonful. It was smooth as mochi skin, a little sweet, quite rice-winey, barely salty. Fantastic, in a word. I could see spreading on toast.
Patriots' House - just one reason to return to Hsinchu, as soon as we get the chance.
(Thanks Xander. We really owe you one!)
Aiguo Wu Xiaochi, 1001 Dongmen Market. Early morning to 7pm-ish. Days off not fixed. (03) 5249612, (0911) 569-019.