It was Friday night and Chang-an East Road was pumping. Hordes of office workers and students descended on this neon-light and lantern-lit restaurant strip, with groups huddled semi-patiently outside the many ‘Stir-Fry 100’ eateries lining each side of the street. The mood was electric, as if the entire street had erupted into party mode. And indeed from the raucous laughter, clinking beer bottles and sight of hurried beer promotion girls in skimpy outfits weaving between tables, it did indeed feel as if we were in the midst of a giant celebration.
We arrived at our ‘Stir-Fry 100’ of choice on this particular night only to find that there was already a long list names of people ahead of us. We decided to hedge our bets, crossing the road to visit another ‘Stir-Fry 100’ that the taxi driver recommended. A few of us stayed there to wait, while Mr Taiwanxifu went on a reconnaissance to a third ‘Stir-Fry 100’ place. After around 20 minutes, we finally got lucky with the owner’s wife of ‘Seafood Market Taipei — Fresh 100’ giving us an impatient wave signalling we were in.
The previous occupants of the table had scarcely left as we waved to our tables. In fact, the owner’s wife was hurriedly throwing dirty dishes into a plastic tray while collecting money from the diners. But she was brisk, and in no time had cleaned down the tables, provided us with crockery and chopsticks and thrown us a clipboard with a long list of Chinese menu items (most priced NT$100 or less).
The first thing Mr Taiwanxifu did was take the clipboard to the fish tanks and ice-tray out the front and direct the owner’s wife about what to prepare (including some dishes not on the standard menu). This is not for those with sensibilities, as many of the happily swimming sea-animals would soon end up on our plate — one sure way to really make sure the produce was fresh. The second thing we did was to go to the large refrigerator and help ourselves to several bottles of beer (and guava juice for me).
We ordered way to many dishes. One thing about Stir-Fry 100 places is that although the food is generally very cheap, many of the dishes are small. Which is perfect for trying a selection of different dishes. But even so, we still managed to over-order.
First up was fresh-cooked prawns. We knew they were fresh, because they had been fished straight from the tank. They were tiny compared with many of the king prawns you see at banquets, but they were so sweet and tasty. Although they were accompanied by soy sauce and wasabi for dipping, they were perfect plain. The restaurant provided us with a giant bucket under the table for throwing the prawn heads and shells away — this is not the type of establishment where you need to worry too much about etiquette.
Continuing on the fresh seafood theme, we ordered a plate of scallops steamed on a bed of fried egg tofu. The scallops were cooked with a tangy broth; a bit challenging to remove from the bain marie they were displayed on, but presentationally there was a definite wow factor. The tofu underneath not only cushioned the scallops, but soaked up the scallop/seafood broth.
Hoping they would pair well with beer, we ordered a plate of fried oysters (NT$130). The oysters were sweet and fresh, but I found these overly oily and not very crisp. Actually, I was quite disappointed with this dish, which is surprising given it is usually a reliable Stir-Fry 100 staple.
Much better was the spicy, although quite oily, gongbai chicken (宮保雞丁 — gōngbǎo jī dīng, NT$100). This was no-nonsense fare, sufficiently spicy and salty to pair well with the beer and mix well with the help-yourself-to-all-you-can-eat rice.
Also good was the spring onion beef (蔥爆牛肉, cōng bào niúròu, NT$100). The beef was shaved shabu-shabu style, and served with lashings of shallots and onions. Actually, there was rather a lot of shallots and onions and I found myself fishing within it for more beef.
Not all of us ate red meat — or seafood — so we ordered some vegetarian options. The sizzling tofu plate (鐵板豆腐, tiě bǎn dòufu, NT$100) was a popular choice.
More ordinary was the fried noodles (炒麵, chǎomiàn, NT$70). Made with thin egg noodles, they were useful for providing a carbohydrate balance to the alcohol but were otherwise not especially notable. We ordered two dishes, which was lucky as the servings were small.
But still there were more dishes to come, including a serving of the peasant-style pickled turnip omelette (菜脯煎蛋, cài pú jiān dàn, NT$100). Having recently had turnip omelette at Shin Yeh, I found this rated a distant second. But it was an honest attempt, in keeping with the Stir-Fry 100 quick-style of cooking.
Following the Taiwanese homestyle theme was the serving of Hakka small-fry (客家小炒, kèjiā xiǎochǎo, NT100). Made with squid, celery, tofu and chilli this oily/salty dish was designed to feed field-workers after a long day in the fields. This version was not too bad, but not the best I have tried, either.
This dish of pan-fried small beef steak (香煎牛小排, xiāngjiān niú xiǎo pái, NT$100) was not a winner for me. It was heavily seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked Taiwanese style — which means over-cooked according to the preferences of most Westerners. Still the accompanying beans were nice.
Towards the end of the meal, our signature seafood dish arrived: whole steamed cod with smashed tree seeds. The reason for the delay is that the fish takes a while to steam. And it was well worth the wait. Although the flesh had split open (we had not yet started to eat when this photo was taken), it was the taste and not the aesthetics that mattered. Although we had already eaten a lot by the time it arrived, this fish had us turning over the carcass hunting for more.
The final dish of our many dishes was a type of sea snail. We were all disappointed with this; the shellfish were tough and gritty and we joked that we may as well be eating rubber bands. Nor was this due to cultural squeamishness as even the ethnic Chinese in our group were not won over by this dish.
There were some hits and misses in our meal; in general, the seafood was good quality but many of the dishes were too oily and salty. And rushed: the fast pace of Stir-Fry 100 joints means quick cooking, especially on busy weekend nights. This is a good place to go with group of friends where you are seeking a local ‘熱鬧 –rènào’ (lively) experience; not a place for intimate, candlelight conversations. Most dishes are cheap but servings are small, and with beer the prices can add up faster than you might expect.
中央市場 Seafood Market Taipei — Fresh 100 is at No 52 Chang-an East Road (台北市長安東路一段52號). Phone is 2523 2017, but they do not usually take reservations on Friday and Saturday nights.