Ah, spring is finally in the air in Taipei. We took advantage of a short break in the gloomy weather last weekend to head up for a family outing on the Maokong gondola. It was so lovely to be in the fresh air, to admire the spring flowers, and importantly to enjoy some good food with friends.
The Maokong gondola is a recent-ish project championed by Taipei Mayor Hau Long-bin. It enables people to take a cable-car up into the hills; the highest point of the gondola is 295m. It is surprisingly long, taking around 20 to 30 minutes from the entry point near the Taipei Zoo to the final stop at Maokong. And very good value at only NT$50 each direction, and convenient if you use an Easy-card transport swipe card. The only drawback is that it gets busy, especially on weekends in nice spring weather. But you can partially avoid the crowds by going up early, enjoying a late-morning meal and then descending just as people are starting to wake up.
Once up at Maokong the key things to do are hiking, eating and drinking tea. Maokong remains a tea producing area, although now there are probably more boutique tea houses then tea plantations. So there is no shortage of choice for places to sit and eat, and you can take your pick of Western style cafes, traditional Taiwanese style tea-houses, road-side stands and fast food take-away.
On this particular trip, we turned left at the gondola station and walked along the road admiring the view and the flowers until we found somewhere we wanted to stop. We opted for a Taiwanese style restaurant that translates as ‘The Big Tea Pot Tea House, Level Two(大茶壺茶樓二 樓). There is another restaurant on the ground floor owned by a relative, but upstairs and downstairs run as different entities.
Many of the tea houses on Maokong are quaint buildings, either in faux-European style or in the style of Asian zen. In contrast the Big Tea Pot Tea House is architecturally insignificant; the top floor is basically a big open shed. Its advantage, though, is the view which looks across a small valley to the gondola station and beyond. The promotional picture out the front boasts that it has the best panorama in Maokong, and suggests that at night you can see the lights of Taipei far down below. And on a warm day, it would be a great place to while away an afternoon sipping tea and chatting with friends.
Perhaps because of its scenic location, The Big Tea Pot Tea House was doing a roaring trade when we visited. Luckily, we arrived early so we were able to secure a table with a view. But by the time we left at midday there was hardly a seat left.
The food choices were predominately Taiwanese-style; simple dishes at reasonable-ish prices (NT$1700 for four adults and two toddlers with leftovers). Given that we were eating with children, we chose to stick with soft comfort style foods rather than anything too adventurous (too us, at least — most of our choices were local). Still, we ended up with a good selection of dishes.
The first to arrive was a chicken soup with bitter gourd, pineapple and anchovies. This is a very Taiwanese combination, yet the bitter/sweet combination somehow worked. The waitress brought this out first and placed it on a gas burner, so we could sample it slowly throughout the meal.
Our order of fried rice was too peppery to be palatable to the younger members, but the bowl of thin noodles (麵線) was a much more popular choice.
Although it was a bit rich, I liked the three cup tofu (sanbei toufu – 三杯豆腐). In addition to chunks of deep-fried tofu, it also contained whole garlic heads and large slices of mushrooms.
Our favourite dish, though, was the fried fish slices. The waitress promised there would be no bones in the dish and she did not lie. Taiwanxifu Toddler loved the fish dish, as did the rest of us.
Also good was the whole steamed chicken, served cold in slices. This was fresh and simple; no attempt to dress it up with rice wine or fancy sauces. I am not always a fan of bony chicken meat pieces (especially where you can still see the blood), but this was quite good.
We finished the meal with a serve of local mountain vegetables dressed with small anchovy-type fish. The green leaves were spinach-like yet more succulent. I am not sure of the name of the vegetable but I assume it was local becuase but it was not something I had seen before in Taipei.
The Big Teapot is situated on the second floor of No 37, Lane 38, Zhinan Road Section Three in Wenshan district (台北市文山區指南路38巷37號之1). To get there by gondola, exit the end station at Maokong and turn left along the main road. Continue past the main stretch of tea houses; in total the walk should take a leisurely twenty minutes or so.