I've noted before that a good meal can put a shine on an otherwise unattractive city. And so it was in Taichung.
First strike against Taichung: we arrived from Tainan, a fantastically friendly xiao chi ('small eats') lover's paradise (more on this later). Tainan is a hard act to follow.
Strike number two: Taichung is ugly. Or, at least, the part of town we landed in is. Our guidebook praised the 'charming' Japanese-era architecture in the city's older section. The train station is lovely and there are a few gems within walking distance. But the area is dominated by grimed-up, hulking blue glass and tile-clad monstrosities, the likes of which we haven't seen much of since our days on the mainland.
More discouraging: in this area, anyway, a curious lack of eateries, street food vendors, even the tiny tea stalls we'd come to take for granted in Tainan and Taipei. Walking or cabbing in the latter two cities is like going on an Easter egg hunt. Every city block holds treasures; train your eyes to sift through the clutter and you'll find the most wonderful things. Not so in Taichung; we walked a good twenty minutes before even landing an iced tea.
The final blow - and granted, this has nothing at all to do with the city itself - came when the skies opened up. At about 5 in the evening it started to rain and it didn't stop until we left town16 hours later. That night we ate mediocre rice noodles and roast goose at a stall close to our dump of a hotel. It was heaving with customers; we never did figure out why. We left half-full bowls and plates on our table (a first - and last - on this Taiwan trip). Then we picked up a bottle of Tunnel 88 (Premium) and headed back to our room to plan our escape.
We awoke to gray skies, monsoonal rains, and second thoughts. 'Maybe we should try again,' we said to each other. And so we headed to the nearest 7-11 for umbrellas and then to the market where we found, at 8:30am, all but two of the stalls in an otherwise promising-looking (in size, at least) food court shuttered.
'It's raining,' shrugged an orange juice vendor, when I asked why the place was deserted.
We pulled up stools at a stall selling fried radish and rice cakes. The seller was sullen. I tried to engage her in a little chit-chat about her specialty but she wasn't having any. We were finding Taichung-ites to be another of Taichung's drawbacks.
Then, ready to throw in the towel, we stumbled across what may just be Taichung's 'historic' quarter's single redeeming factor: Fuzhou Yimin Lao Dian (Old Fuzhou Yi Noodles Shop).
'Third-generation' the shop's sign says, but it's a little out of date. This man is the fourth generation - fourth generation!! - to run the business started by his great-grandfather, who immigrated from Fuzhou to Taiwan during the Japanese occupation.
He's not resting on the shop's laurels. Everything is still made by hand (his father helps out now and again). And the food is superb.
We started with a noodles - dry, balls in broth on the side. The wheat flour pasta was flat, silky, supple, with a pleasing toothsomeness, embellished with blanched bean sprouts, truly porky minced pork, and slivered green onions; broth on the side also tasted strongly of the pig. Here black pepper is applied with a heavy hand (as at our favorite Fuzhou meat biscuits stall in Taipei).
There are three kinds of fish balls (see opening photo): shrimp, studded with nubs of water chestnut, sweet and bursting with the briny flavor of the shellfish; ocean fish, really tasting of their main ingredient (fish balls are so often disappointingly devoid of true fish flavor); and a fish-and-meat combo ball, consisting of a thick 'shell' of similarly fishy fish paste enclosing a large marble of chopped pork mixed with minced Chinese celery, more black pepper, and sesame oil.
When Dave took a bite of the latter it spurted meaty juices; my t-shirt has the grease stains to prove it.
Each ball boasted a distinct texture. The shrimp balls, rustically nubby, were only slightly resistant to the teeth, while the fish balls were decidedly 'Q' (that bouncy elasticity that Taiwanese prize). The combo balls were Q outside, all crumbly tenderness within.
We were so thrilled we went back for more, dipping into the justifiably famous handmade wonton (slippery wrappers, sublimely porcine filling) and ordering another round of balls.
By the time we downed our last shrimp balls and slurped our last drops of soup Taichung was definately looking up. We vowed to give the city another chance on our next swing through Taiwan.
Or at least, stop in long enough for fish balls.
Old Fuzhou Yimin Shop. No. 1-7 in the No. 2 Market (Sanmin Road, Section 2), Taichung. 04-2220-4335.