Taipei, Taiwan is an extremely hospitable city. It is a great city to be a tourist in even if you can’t speak a lick of Mandarin. The people are friendly, public transport is omnipresent and there’s plenty of Starbucks to sort out any cultural or lingual doubts. However it is not an easy place to be a vegetarian in, Starbucks included. In spite of a sizeable Buddhist population, the city does not lend itself well to vegetarians. Thanks to some very good local hosts though, I managed to find four uniquely vegetarian friendly restaurants that I savored and highly recommend the next time you are in Taipei.
Here are those four –
a) Pizzeria Oggi Pizzeria Oggi is a must-visit whether you are a vegetarian or not. The restaurant is casual, inviting and smells like Italy. It is located in the busy Shihlin district (9 Dexing W. Rd. Shihlin District, Taipei, Taiwan).
A massive kiln and an open kitchen occupy center-stage as patrons get to smell the fresh dough, the basil leaves and the tomato sauce. There are plenty of vegetarian options on the menu and the food is also packed immaculately for those tourists wanting to take the pizza back to their hotel room as an accoutrement to their pay-per-view entertainment.
I tried the Margherita with Cherry tomatoes and my host had himself a Pepperoni. The restaurant also has a few beers on tap which I somehow did not try during my visit. My Margherita pizza was outstanding. The chefs took a good 30 minutes to prepare it but it was as authentic and tasty as I’d expect a Margherita pizza to be. Vegetarians can also try pizzas with peppers, potatoes, spinach and most conventional vegetable toppings. There is also garlic bread and pastas for those who will visit it four times in five days like I wish I had done. Most large pizzas are priced at about USD 9. In my fictional rating scale where I am the vegetarian Anthony Bourdain, I give Oggi FIVE STARS out of FIVE.
b) Jen Dow vegetarian buffet The best vegetarian meal in Taiwan can be had at the Jen Dow. It is a pricey buffet but a culinary experience unlike any I have been a part of. It is an all-vegetarian buffet that caters primarily to Buddhist monks. The restaurants serves a lunch and dinner buffet and the menu changes every day. I highly recommend skipping a third meal on the day that you decide to try this.
The buffet costs USD 27 and has over a 100 different dishes. The entire restaurant is spread across five different rooms with seating in all but one of them. The service staff will be zipping around constantly cleaning out used plates and cups and the music in the background is strangely funereal. But once you accept those two elements the rest of the experience is a true feast.
There are about seven or eight soups and about 20 appetizers to get you started. The names of the soups do not translate well to English for e.g. “Winter bamboo river soup”. My recommendation would be to pass on the soups unless you were suffering from a sore throat. The soups are decent but fill you up way too much ahead of some much tastier and more unique dishes. The appetizers are rich in vegetables and here below are pictures of some of them.
Only some of these dishes had name cards that I could read and only one of the waitresses spoke English, so I am at a loss in describing any of these but I can tell you they were all delicious and spanned every range in the taste spectrum
After you are done with the soups, appetizers the dumplings stations await you. If you are a fan of pot stickers and dumplings there are eight-ten options that are made continuously by the chef at the station. The dumplings were tasty but not as unique as the appetizers I mentioned earlier. Pass on these unless you have a real craving.
After the dumplings station you will reach the salad bar. Fresh and cold veggies and fruits including refreshing watermelons and cucumbers dominate the side space of room #3. Putting on my Nate Silver hat I am usually very opposed to wasting time on salads in buffets for the low marginal value of it all. But the freshness exuded by the vegetables and fruits here would make the calmest and most analytical amongst us cave to the crispy raw veggies and fruits.
If you still have any appetite at this point you will reach the entrees area which begins with a ‘Make your own Hot Pot’ station. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of a Hot Pot until this trip. I learnt that hot pots were staples of Chinese cuisine consisting of vegetables, noodles and meat in boiling hot stock usually chicken. This is a vegetarian restaurant of course and they offer you three varieties of stock and a plethora of veggies and fake meat for protein. I chose the plain stock the one time I tried this and lost my Indian card for the day for choosing it ahead of the curry stock or the spicy stock.
The hot pot is outstanding and takes 45 minutes to fully do justice to. Since the restaurant is only open four hours at a time, do not be afraid to be a rebel and start off with the hot pot.
Other entrees include varieties of rice, curry and pasta. Odds are you will not be able to try any of these as they will expose you to room #5 and the dessert and drinks stations. Well at least that’s what happened to me.
There are about 15 desserts on display per meal with everything from this Indian-like traditional milk sweet to a chocolate fountain that was likely smuggled from Las Vegas. Here’s what they looked like before I was in a coma.
With a plethora of very distinctive tastes, fresh and local produce and fake meat for protein the buffet at the Jen dow restaurant is a must for any foodie let alone a vegetarian. My inner Anthony Bourdain gives it SEVEN stars out five.
c) Mayur Indian kitchen While craving Indian food on my third night out I accidentally ran into Mayur Indian Kitchen five minutes from Taipei 101. Mayur did not show up for my online searches and I am not sure why. I had a few meals here and highly recommend them for fresh, simple Indian food. They have a very limited menu with a very limited vegetarian section but do a great job of churning those dishes out quickly and of very high quality.
I tried their Roti and Dal, Aloo Gobi and Channa masala on three different visits. The portions were perfectly sized and the food was very affordable. A bread + curry cost me about USD 7. This was also the only Indian restaurant that served Idlis and Sambar. They run out of these very quickly so you may not be lucky enough to taste Idlis in taipei.
The service is quick, the place is small and clean and there is a TV churning out Bollywood hits. This is the only place for Indian craving. My very fake Anthony Bourdain gives it 4 stars out of 5. To get five stars they just have to serve dosas and maybe Gobi Manchurian.
d) Woo bar The last vegetarian friendly place I will recommend in the city of Taipei is the Woo bar on the eighth floor of the posh W hotel in the heart of downtown Taipei. The Woo bar is really a lounge plus bar plus pool bar plus restaurant serving appetizers, all-in-one. It is what you want it to be. If you like me are hungry at 10 PM with a lone male engineer for company you dress up to make the dress code cut and use it as the place for your last meal of the day. For many others it is the happening spot for the night as the skinniest of the skinniest women make their way around carrying 30 calorie drinks.
I enjoyed the Samosas, nachos and minty mojitos. The menu also has veggie pizzas, fries, pot stickers, onion rings, burritos and salads. The ambience and music are spectacular and the food and drink options compare favorably to most lounges and restaurants you would encounter. For a five-star hotel, the prices are still very reasonable and you could get 2 dishes, a drink and bottled water for about USD 25.
Metaphorical Anthony Bourdain gives this place three stars out of five ‘cos for how good it was and how vegetarian-friendly it was, I still didn’t ever feel like going back unlike all of the other places above.
Taipei is a beautiful, modern city. Enjoy it and do visit these four establishments any time you crave the good food….