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The search for Taiwanese noms

Good Taiwanese food hasn’t been easy to find in my adopted city of Melbourne. Granted, it’s not exactly something every Aucklander would know where to look for in their own city, either, but since I’m Taiwanese-born and Auckland-raised, I kind of had to make it my business to know.

Although I had favourite haunts in Auckland, I’m not convinced that anything ever compares to the traditional Taiwanese street food sold on the streets of Taiwan. I’m sure every Asian foodie says that about the street food of their home country, but let me tell you, I’ve been to all of your countries, and the street food is bloody good but I can find at least one or two places here in Melbourne that can do it as well or almost as well. Not so in my case.

And it has nothing to do with authenticity.

So what is it, then?
1) Outside of Taiwan, true Taiwanese eateries are few and far between, compared to everything else there is (Vietnamese, Malaysian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Indian etc etc)
2) Following on from point 1, the lack of competition doesn’t exactly inspire going above and beyond in your cooking. More competitors means everyone has to raise their game! No competitors means your average home cook could run a restaurant.
3) Also because of point 1, most Melbourne Taiwanese eateries feel that they can’t specialise. They normally have a large menu that tries to give you a taste of many traditional Taiwanese dishes. Everything in one place sounds good, right? but…
4) This means they just can’t possibly get as skilled at making each of the dishes as those market street vendors in Taiwan that just churn out serving after serving of exactly the same thing for 8 hours a day to a never-ending queue of local patrons, who, by the way, are also bound to be pickier about quality.

The pertinent problem in Melbourne is that when almost anyone thinks about Taiwanese food, they think about this fairly awful place called Taiwan Cafe on Swanston Street. They serve a huge variety of my favourite Taiwanese street foods, all of them every traditional “authentic” dishes and snacks… and they do them all very badly.

Perfectly understandable that they’re well known and always packed, because the eatery is on one of the busiest streets in the CBD on a very prominent corner, and has great signage – but that only proves that location and marketing work. I’ve been to Taiwan Cafe about five times now, each time hoping that it would get better or that I remembered wrongly about how tasteless the food is, but each time being disappointed. I won’t ever return again.

You’d think that avoidance would solve the “problem” for me, but the real issue is that I’m a huge advocate for Taiwanese food and it’s hard to be convincing when such a crappy restaurant is the primary example that comes to mind for everyone when the cuisine is mentioned, purely because it’s well located and blah, blah, blah, and it’s even worse that they service supposedly authentic food.

Taiwan Cafe on Urbanspoon

The truth is, in inner Melbourne, there don’t seem to be any very good eateries serving traditional Taiwanese. There’s one that’s ok in the CBD – certainly a few notches above Taiwan Cafe – Taiwan Canteen on Exhibition Street. It’s not amazing by any means, but the food is decent, and doesn’t taste like cardboard; so if you’re the middle of the city and you want to try some Taiwanese food, please walk past that busy Swanston Street corner and just go up a few blocks. It’ll be worth it.

Taiwan Canteen on Urbanspoon

So, what about wider metropolitan Melbourne – where else can you go for actually good Taiwanese food? Well, I haven’t quite finished discovering that myself. We’ve talked about Peko Peko, but there is one more spot in Northcote that I have tried, loved and can recommend. Again, it’s not as strictly traditional as other (far inferior) eateries you’ll see around… but more on that later!

Disclaimer: This rant may or may not just have been an excuse to show you photos of Taiwanese street food from my visit back in 2011.

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