So we were in a cab and the driver waits to hear Where to? News Years street, we say. Why? the driver asks. To So and So’s famous place for crispy pig jerky. (It’s “So and So’s” because with my limited knowledge of Chinese, this is all I could catch.) That did it. A conversation was started about who had the best pig jerky and why. The driver insists that Hole in the Wall, just a short deviation from our intended place is better. Others argue that this is an obvious falsity because So and So’s is renowned. Guide books list it! The driver won’t budge. Hole in the Wall is heralded by cab drivers everywhere and is not to be missed.
Next thing we know, we’re parked in front of Hole in the Wall. The driver insists all get out and that he’ll try to convince Hsiao-jie (Miss) to give us a free sample, since according to him he is such a regular and beloved customer. Meanwhile, the driver has 20 New Taiwanese dollars in his hand (two coins). He takes a 100 dollar note from my hand and gives me the NT20 (the fare was NT80), all the while backing away towards his cab, telling Hsiao-jie to treat us right, but whispering in an aside that she’ll never give us a free sample because even he never had one. He then jumps in the cab and peels off, abandoning us to have this jerky or none. It’s all over before anyone realizes what has happened.
We ask Hsiao-jie if the cabbie is a relative. No, but she does recognize him as a regular. We naturally buy some jerky, two different kinds actually. One is thick and sweet, almost the consistency of tofu-kan gone a bit dry, and nearly the same flavor. The other is light and shredded with a slight spicy quality. They are good, particularly the second, but they are not the crispy jerky we set out for. Further, we are out 140 dollars (just under three USA dollars).
But it is only a short walk to New Year’s street, where we locate So and So’s. The crispy pig jerky is terrific. Paper thin—each sheet weighs so little that it’s difficult to know you’re holding one. It’s exceedingly crispy, the color of raw pork with a sunburn, with visible white lines of dried almonds and shaved pepper corns. It is not as salty as an American palate would expect, sweet even. But a stalwart companion to beer.
Another time, another trek for beef noodle soup. The cabbie was thrilled! Beef Noodle Soup! This was his lasting and sole passion. He took a thick wad of folded papers from under the sun visor which listed every place in Taipei where one could find this beloved national dish. He had extensive tasting notes, complete with his own system of categorization. These aides to memory were hardly necessary since his knowledge was encyclopedic. He rattled off place after place, each time saying, “Take notes! Take notes!” He even provided a pen and scrap of paper for the purpose.
What kind of noodles did we prefer? Thick or thin? Did we want tomatoes or not? Spicy? Which cut of beef were we thinking about? This wasn’t the best week to go, though. This week was Beef Noodle Contest week, and most of the better restaurants had sent off their top chefs to compete. Place A was favored, but anybody could see that B or C was better and that they only obstacle that stood in the way for one of these superior establishments from taking the crown was politics. Always politics!
Before we could figure where to go, the cabbie decided for us. He would take us to his favorite place, run by a woman who refused to join the contest. She was already certain her beef noodle soup was the pinnacle of all possible past and future soups. Why enter a contest merely to learn the obvious?
There was a line—there always is at the better places: always stand in these lines; they are not infallible guides, but close—but we waited and were amply rewarded. The soup base was beefiness defined, the pieces of meat were just on the right side of chewiness: bad soup overcooks the beef to paste. No tomatoes. The noodles didn’t look different than spaghetti, perhaps whiter in color, but the taste was of salty beef. I laid on a supply of pickled vegetable from a crock pot in the center of the table and went to town. Best I ever had.
The lesson is that you can’t always trust a cabbie in Taipei, but you will never go far wrong.