肥前屋 Unadon Speciality Shop, Taipei
The Taiwanese know their Japanese food really well. Yes you heard me right. Apart from Tokyo or Osaka, most if not all of my best Japanese meals were in Taipei. The Taiwanese are such “nipponophiles” (if there is ever such a word) that they have achieved a certain of specialisation, be it the traditional art of mochi, sushi or oden making, to replicating the concept of Japanese bakeries and boulangeries in their entirety.
But the Taiwanese are far from being mere copycats. The island nation being subjected to Japanese colonial rule for the longest time outside Japan itself, allowed an almost complete inheritance of not merely the superficial but in-depth transposition of cultural practices. Needless to say, this bore an ingrained effect on their culinary and dietary profile as well. During our last trip to Taipei, we’d visited 肥前屋 Unadon Speciality Shop. It is a small restaurant, complete with wooden sliding doors for that authentic rustic feel, most known for their unadon, also known as unagi don, which is short for “unagi kabayaki donburi”. The best unadons we’d seen were probably in Kyoto. But the rendition served up in this little deli in the heart of Taipei is pretty wicked as well, but only for a fraction of the price.
We left our hotel rather late as the hotel shuttle service we’d chartered could only avail themselves at that time. So when we got the restaurant around 11.30 am, the first round of lunch-time diners were already in it. A cloudy day in Taipei as it started to drizzle lightly when we reached and yet, there was still a short queue outside the shop. Yes short as we later got to know that the queues over the weekends or on a fair-weathered day would sometimes twine further down the alley. Nonetheless the wait allowed us a better look at the menu and more importantly the surroundings. Despite its official address in the Zhongshan district, this place is better known to the locals as 七條通 nana-jo dori. Like a chessboard of small little streets with the size of alleys no wider to allow a Toyota to go through, this place is dotted with other Japanese-styled eateries and izakayas, not unlike those we have seen in Kabukicho in Shinjuku or Karasumaoike in Kyoto.
The A4 sized laminated menu in Chinese and Japanese, offering us a peekaboo at the “no-frills” style adopted here. Not sure if they have an English menu available but the waiting staff understands simple English and of course Japanese culinary terms like “unagi don” and “tamago yaki” or “miso jiru“, so ordering a meal here should not be a problem. We read that prices have gone up quite a bit over the last two years and indeed, there is a sign outside the shop that informs diners of the reality of increasing ingredient costs etc. Still, it remains rather affordable and is hardly a deterrence for Japanese “foodnatics”, regular clients or simply those who wish to enjoy a hearty meal.
The interior in warm amber lighting transpiring a totally different ambience compared to outside. Warm and cosy (we were located next to a heater), better in here than outside! One point to note is that apart from the usual food ordering and laying of disposable cutlery, customer service is kept to a bare minimum. Hot tea is available from a dispenser near the food counter but it is self-service. So don’t be too shocked or take it personally if you are told to get it yourself when you ask for an extra set of chopsticks or napkin. Stay focused on the food and do not be too bothered by the quality of customer service, or rather the lack of it and you will be fine.
A large portion of 鰻重, unaju, which means to have unagi served over a bed of piping hot rice (NT480), which comes with two generous slabs of unagi grilled to perfection. The kabayaki sauce used was slightly on the sweet side but that is fine for us. What we really love is the smokey flavours imparted from the use of a charcoal stove. And we came at the right season as the eels were fatty and laden with collagen making the unagi really succulent!
For variety, I had the 秋刀魚定食sanma teishoku, at a ridiculously cheap price of NT110, which like the unadon set came with miso jiru, a bowl of white rice and daikon tsukemono (pickled radish), as well as blanched seasonal vegetables (we had spinach that day) over a simple sesame dressing. If this is not value for money, I don’t know what is. The sanma was really fresh and the skin lightly browned and crisp from the gentle charcoal flames. It was perfect, just the way I like it done, shioyaki style, i.e very lightly seasoned with just salt, which only act to accentuate the slightly natural flavours of the sea carried by the fish. Sanma is one of my favorite Japanese fish but I only eat it in the autumn-winter season as they are really fatty during this time of the year and many of them, like the one I’d enjoyed are laden with roe for that extra oomph of umami!
Side dish of spinach very lightly blanched for a bare few seconds before being plunged into icy cold water to truncate the cooking process for the greens to retain their crunch. Seasoned very lightly as well with a sesame and shoyu dressing.
卵焼き tamagoyaki, a side dish we ordered as we saw this on perpetually every table. At only NT60, it seemed like a cardinal sin not to try. Unlike the versions we had in Japan, the rendition at 肥前屋 was really fluffy and light, as the sheets of egg batter were progressively rolled over each other in quick successions, but without the procedure of pressing down the final product with a a wooden board made from cypress which would help to craft the egg roll into the characteristic compact outlook which we are accustomed to seeing. But I think we enjoyed this better 🙂
Another side dish which was added later on was grilled squid, a seasonal item not on the main menu. Chunky rings of ika which were just undercooked from its brief encounter over the charcoal fire, allowing it to remain reasonably soft and juicy. Same as the sanma, this was done shioyaki style, very simply done without the complexity of condiments to mar, allowing the true flavours of squid, as well as unmistakable aroma of grilled seafood to come through. Recommended to order if it is available.
I think we were lucky as all that we’d ordered worked well for us. We steered clear of all the “agemono” fried foodstuff on the menu and kept the lunch spread rather simple. Thankfully it turned out to be quite enjoyable.
After almost an hour or so, we’re done eating and as we were leaving, I can’t help notice that the queue had gotten longer than before despite the rain getting heavier. Some in the queue had large boisterous looking suitcases with them and looked quite worn out under the cold and grey weather conditions, and probably quite a bit of travelling prior. So one thing we can be sure is this little unagi restaurant really draws crowd from all over, both locally and abroad. So like many famous food joints around, be prepared to queue quite a bit if you want to enjoy a good meal here. For us, it was pretty much worth the wait, though thankfully we didn’t have to for very long.
No. 13/2 Lane 121 Section 1, Zhongshan North Rd, Zhongshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 104 (within walking distance from “Zhongshan MRT Station”）
11.00 am – 2.30 pm (lunch), 5.00 pm – 9.00 pm (dinner)
Closed on Mondays