Believe it or not, there are restaurants in Taipei that specialize in California-style food, though what that means not always what you'd expect.
A brief intro: Taipei is the capital and metropolitan center of Taiwan, an island off the coast of mainland China. Because it has retained political and economic autonomy from the People's Republic of China, the island, like Hong Kong, has a much stronger international food and culture scene than the mainland. And in recent decades, a good number of foreign-born Taiwanese folks have moved back to their ancestral home to settle down and start businesses.
A good chunk of these expats are, of course, Californian. After all. according to the most recent U.S. Census, 49 percent of people who consider themselves Taiwanese live in California.
Now California cuisine in Taiwan is as diverse as Taiwanese food is in Los Angeles. Food ranges from tacky to startlingly spot-on, though admittedly, the definition of what authentic California food is is up for grabs. We checked out three self-proclaimed California-style joints in Taipei, Taiwan. Here's what we found:
A three-course affair:
At Skylark Californian Cuisine in Taipei, the restaurant skews on the tacky side. To their credit, they were one of the first ones to attempt California cuisine in Taiwan. The chain store was established in 1996 by a restaurant group that specializes in international cuisine. The tagline? Pasta, rice and steak. Patrons get their pick of three basic options: an appetizer, soup and a main course. There are different price levels, named after glitzy neighborhoods like Malibu and Beverly Hills, which determine the quality of your options. While the marketing is set on being as Californian as possible, that's about where it ends. The food is a weird conglomerate of Asian and Western flavors. The vegetarian mushroom broth, for one, was heavy on sesame and the mushroom of choice was shiitake. Yes the menu is full of pasta, rice, and steak, but there's nothing distinctively California about any of the selections.
Baja-style tacos plus "California" fries and burritos:
Two of the owners at Macho Tacos are from California. One of them was raised in Los Angeles and has parents who own a Mexican restaurant here. The other spent a good chunk of time in the Bay Area. Together, the expats decided to open a taqueria because they "missed the food [back home] so much and there wasn't anything around [in a] fast casual style." The specialty here is fish tacos — which frames deep-fried white fish on top of large, handmade corn tortillas. It's seasoned with cabbage and a healthy dose of salsa. And the self-proclaimed "California" fries and burritos? The fries are doused in a flood of cheese plus chunks of meat, jalapeños and sour cream. The burritos are stuffed with rice, meat, salsa and a staggering amount of cheese. If the term "Californian" means being loaded with a ton of cheese...we'll take it.
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Brookhurst CaliPHOnia was started by a group of California expats who were looking for a remedy to cure their homesickness. The result? A sleek pho shop dedicated to Brookhurst Street in Orange County, where there's a good chunk of top-of-the-line Vietnamese eateries. The crowd at Brookhurst is reminiscent of the what is commonly spotted inside the trendy restaurants on Sawtelle: Asian, English-speaking and irrefutably food-obsessed. As for the food, the beef pho comes with a marvelous slice of pink, medium-rare beef simmered with rice noodles and a clean, but substantial broth. And in true California spirit, the restaurant is proudly MSG and preservative-free.
A special thank you to Joan from the blog Hungry inTaipei for recommending the latter two restaurants.