In front of me is a mountain of mango shaved milk snow drizzled with condensed milk, and buttressed by mounds of jiggly almond pudding and a clear, subtly sweet jelly. This is one of the desserts you can get at Champion Gourmet, a cozy, must-be-in-the-know spot in Plano, which opened last year, serving as our proxy for the Taiwanese night-market fare of Taipei’s best late-night haunts.
Notice that the toppings for shaved ices and milk-snows are things like taro, peanut, barley, jellies like lychee or puddings of almond, not Oreo cookies and Heath bar crunch. Next to the imposing frozen mountain is a bowl of grass jelly, which I ordered hot, summoning a dark black-ish liquid, with taro and barley sunk in the bottom. “It’s like licorice,” my friend’s husband said of the distinctive herbal flavor. It’s because of this duo that I’m here, sipping boba pearls in a lemonade laced with aiyu, a jelly made from the seeds of a creeping fig vine. The milk teas are—as you’d expect from a tea-obsessed island nation—built on truly excellent oolongs (Taiwan’s specialty), jasmine greens, and darjeelings, not just something to throw tapioca and sugar into. The fresh tapioca is soft and chewy, some of the best in town.
My colleague and her husband, both Taiwanese, know Taipei’s night markets, where each stall has its own specialty: the stall that sells aiyu-jelly-lemonade, for example. In this cute, cozy place for street snacks of the style you’d find there, they’re trying to convince me that it’s standard practice to pound a piece of chicken until it’s thin, flat, and the size of your head—“Bigger Than Face Chicken Steak,” it’s called. Here, they deep fry it, sprinkle it with the same seasoning blend that goes on the deep-fried popcorn chicken (another favorite, with basil leaves thrown in for aromatic measure), and take your picture holding it to your face. A wall by the cash register documents the happy insanity.
It’s not easy to find the oddly named hole-in-the-wall, unless you’re on a visit to 99 Ranch or the new outpost of the Taiwanese 85°C Bakery on W. Spring Creek Parkway. But it’s worth seeking out its cheerful counter, with lucky cats waving and a pretty chrysanthemum-patterned curtain. Stay awhile, and before you go, browse the shelves that hold a range of imported products: packages of the super-thin noodles laced with sorghum flour and cured with salt, which come from a specific coastal region of the island. They flavor a soup in a specific way, my friend explains, the saline quality lending a subtle dimension no matter how simple the stock. There are also dried fish jerky snacks. And extraordinary salted egg yolk cookies. These are worth a trip in itself, in my book. I loved salted egg yolk, and here it takes the form of a biscuit: flaky cookies covered with a fine layer of pulverized salty-sweet-savory powder. Think salted caramel.
Before you leave, also check out the wall of portraits of those who attempted the bigger-than-your-face chicken challenge. One woman is a winner: her face is bigger. As I exit, I’m already dreaming of visiting the night markets of Taipei. I’m rolling around words like Shilin, Tonghua, and Ningxia.