鼎泰豐, Din Tai Fung, Taipei

Din Tai Fungdintaifung has been around since 1958; they used to sell cooking oil until the industry crashed in 1972, and the owners decided to start making 小籠包 [xiaolongbao]. My mom tells me that my grandpa always loved the 赤豆鬆糕 [ci dou song gao], or red bean sponge cake, made there. Since Din Tai Fung is–and always has been–expensive, he couldn’t afford to eat it most of the time. So my mom would save up her money from an after-school job in high school to surprise him with 赤豆鬆糕 for special occasions. Grandpa had good taste: even now, 42 years since they first started, their red bean sponge cake is still one of their most popular dishes. It’s one of my favorites.

dintaifung1When Din Tai Fung first opened their doors in my Californian neighborhood–the only Din Tai Fung in the US at the time–no one in my family ate there was absolutely no vegetarian food served! The restaurant was already famous in the Chinese (mostly Taiwanese) community by then, but we just never went. That all changed after 2007 when one of my mom’s friends in Taiwan treated her to a meal there and she discovered a remixed menu that included a few veggie options. And they were delicious. So during the summer of 2008, she took me there for my first time. It was then that a lifelong adoration for Din Tai Fung began.

They’ve expanded their menu a lot more since then, as the vegetarian population in Taiwan continues to grow each year. And even though I haven’t been able to experience the divine and otherworldly xialongbao (yet), I’m okay with that. Almost never have I been to a restaurant where every. single. dish. tastes amazing. And for the 6 years that I’ve been a Din Tai Fung aficionado, the quality of their service and food has never for a second wavered.

dintaifung2If you could eat only at one restaurant in all of Taiwan, make it Din Tai Fung. The flagship store on XinYi/Yongkang Rd. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, the wait time is 1-2 hours long. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, you still should go. The quality control there is so refined that you will not find a single dumpling that does not have exactly 18 folds. I’ve counted. The skin is toothsome, cooked al dente, and thin enough that it’s nearly translucent. I’ve never seen a dumpling fall apart; when you sink your teeth into the skin, you feel that chewy “pull” as it gives way and the filing comes tumbling out.

So what does a vegetarian eat at Din Tai Fung? Start with their appetizers, 菜[kai wei cai]. Top notch. We love to get the 烤麩 [kao fu], which is braised wheat gluten with fresh bamboo, black woodear, shiitake mushrooms, day lilies, and edamame. 瓜[la wei huang gua], or pickled cucumbers in chili oil, are also delicious.

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If there’s one appetizer to order, it’s the 菜[xiao cai], which consists of mung bean noodles, shredded seaweed and bean curd, bean sprouts, and thin slices of hot red peppers. It’s perfectly savory, with a slight kick of tang and heat.dintaifung4 But an equally good substitute is the fresh bamboo salad with mayonnaise [竹筍沙拉 zhu sun sha la]. It’s a seasonal dish, which I’ve always had in summer. You pay a hefty USD$10 for a small serving, but good god it’s glorious. The bamboo shoots are so crispy and juicy; it’s almost like eating a gala apple. The creamy mayo gels so well with it, too. 

Their famous egg fried rice [蛋炒飯 dan cao fan], for one thing. Every grain glistens under the light, delightfully QQ. Tender scrambled eggs and bright green scallions tossed in. Simple and simply unbeatable.

Then there’s their dandan noodles [擔擔麵 dan dan mian]: sesame and peanut sauce massaged into fine and delicate flour noodles.

You could also get delicious vegetable dishes anywhere else for less, but the stir-fried water spinach [空心菜 kong xin cai, which literally means “empty heart vegetable” because of its hollow steams] at Din Tai Fung is flawless. The verdant veggies glisten like they’ve been gently airbrushed with oil–not greasy in the least–, and crunch like fresh, fall leaves when you bite into them.dintaifung5

Lastly, you have the desserts, all of which are ridiculously tasty. 八寶飯 [ba bao fan] is typically a Chinese New Year’s dish, meaning “eight treasures”. It’s sweet sticky rice with dates, lotus seeds, red bean paste…etc. The ingredients differ per recipe. I happen to love the one at Din Tai Fung.

The dessert I never fail to order (other than the 赤豆鬆糕) are the 豆沙小籠包 [dou sha, or red bean, xialongbao] and 芋泥小籠包 [yu ni, or taro, xialongbao]. SO GOOD. Get it. You can ask for 半籠 [ban long, or "half-basket"] with 5 of each. Zero regrets, even if you don’t like taro.

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My mom’s been to various Din Tai Fung around the world, and we both agree that the flagship store is, without a hair of doubt, the best Din Tai Fung. She’s been to the Michelin-awarded Hong Kong one, but there’s something about the history of the flagship that somehow makes it more alluring. You can find Din Tai Fung at:

台北市信義路二段194号 (永康街路口/捷運東門站5號出口)
No.194 Second Section, Xinyi Road, Taipei City (Yongkang St & MRT Dongmen Station Exit 5)
TEL: 02-2321-8928 FAX: 02-2321-5958

東區粉圓, Eastern Ice Store

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Caught the magical 15% where we can actually find seating.

東區粉圓 [dong qu fen yuan] is a shaved ice shop in the Daan District of Taipei. My mom first brought me in 2008 and we’ve always made it a point to return for every trip since then. The first time I went, the shop only had one section with at most 5 small tables with a couple pairs of stools. Regardless, the line went straight out of the shop and down into the street.

東區粉圓 has expanded since then, opening up a seating area adjacent to the original area, complete with TVs and A/C! Yet somehow even with this expansion, it has not made finding a seat any easier than it was back in 2008. There’s almost always a line: my mom and I have gone in the morning, late morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening, and late evening. About 85% of the time there’s a truckload of people huddled outside of the store, either waiting to order or waiting for a seat. It’s really hit or miss.

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left: yam balls with lotus seeds, grass jelly, and 豆花 [dou hua, or tofu pudding]; right: taro balls with peanuts and red bean. 2008.

In any case, this is a must-try 小吃 [xiao chi, or "snack"] place in Taipei! I’m sure there are hundreds of other 刨冰 [bao bing, or shaved ice] places in Taiwan, let alone Taipei, but this is the one I stick to because it is so so good. 東區粉圓 is famous for their taro and yam balls. Taro balls [芋圓, pronounced "yu yuan" in Mandarin and "o-yin" in Taiwanese] and yam [地瓜圓, di gua yuan] balls are made by mixing the mashed taro or yam with water and sweet potato or potato flour. The latter makes the balls springier or softer, respectively.

Taiwanese tend to like the springy and chewy a lot, which we say is “QQ”. At 東區粉圓 they are indeed incredibly QQ (albeit 九份 [jiu fen]  is the city in Taiwan that these originated from and reportedly has the best 芋圓 and 地瓜圓, but that’s another story).

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ooey gooey taro awesomesauceness with mung bean and aiyu jelly. 2013.

The selection of items you can put in your shaved ice is overwhelming. I’ve never counted how many choices there are, but I do always feel a ton of pressure trying to figure out what exactly it is I want. My mom and I definitely get the 頭 [da yu tou] because they slow-cook giant chunks of taro until it’s very 綿[mian], or cottony, and then let it sit in something like honey or sugar syrup for hours. But it’s never saccharine, just sweet enough to bring out the natural sweetness of the taro. The taro itself falls apart when you poke at it with a fork–like expertly-done pulled pork–and maintains a QQ texture. Simply delightful.

Source: My Kitchen Snippets

We also tend to add 愛玉 [ai yu],  a jelly made from the seeds of a variety of fig. Really floral elements and refreshing in the summer with some lemon juice and sugar. It’s not grown anywhere outside of Taiwan and Singapore, but you can find it in cans at Chinese supermarkets in the US. Red beans [红豆 hong dou],  mung beans [綠豆 lu dou], lotus seeds [蓮子 lian zi], and grass jelly [燒仙草 sao xian cao] are the things we always tend to add. And stewed peanuts [花生 hua sheng], which are slow-cooked in the same way the taro is.

The shaved ice from 東區粉圓 has not changed in taste or quality for the past 6 going on 7 years and however many trips my mom and I have made to Taiwan. Delicious without fail, every. single. time.

Now go. You can find it at:

忠孝東路四段216巷38號, 大安區, 台北市
No. 38, Lane 216, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Rd, Daan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106

If you’re taking the MRT [捷運 jie yun, or subway], get off at the Zhongxiao Dunhua stop on the Bannan line, 3rd exit at the station [板南線忠孝敦化站3號出口].

If you’re getting there by bus [公車 gong che]:

  • 232‧204‧235‧662‧299‧663‧212‧278 (阿波羅大廈站下車) [ah po luo da qin stop]
  • 275‧33‧292‧52‧605‧285‧630‧262‧905‧906‧909(捷運忠孝敦化站下車) [MRT Zhongxiao Dunhua stop]

Let me know if there are other shaved ice places in Taiwan that you love going to!

日月潭, Sun Moon Lake 2008

fenisiaWe stayed at the Fleur de Chine Hotel (formerly called Fenisia) in Nantou [南投], which sits right on the banks of Sun Moon Lake and has almost a panoramic view of the lake from the hotel. While it’s definitely on the pricier side, maybe even more so now that it’s been 5 years since I last went, I think it’s worth the splurge. The main window in our room framed the pretty lake picture perfectly. Our room was tatami-styled with a Japanese tea set, and complete with yukatas for bathing in the hot springs. There was even an adorable plate of handmade cookies for Taiwanese Father’s day: merengues, truffles, and sugar and butter cookies, as well as a fruit bowl with Naju pears, plums, and mango. AND a touch screen, old-school, handheld phone, which was the coolest thing I saw in 2008. (Keep in mind this was when people still used Blackberries and iPods, and iPhones were still luxury items).

wenwuOnce we had settled in and put our luggage down, we took our family friends to Wen Wu Temple [文武廟 wen wu miao]. The first of three halls is a shrine devoted to the God of Literature, the central hall to the “god” of war, Guan Gong [關公 guan gong], and the warrior god Yue Fei [岳飛]. A rear hall is dedicated to Confucius. Both Guan Gong and Yue Fei were both military heroes idolized for their loyalty and have since been deified for their moral qualities. It was a rather gloomy Sunday and the temple wasn’t open to visitors, so we just spent about a half hour roaming the grounds outside.

fenisia2fenisia3When we returned to our hotel room, we found some humongous hot spring tomatoes in our room. My mom and I immediately sliced one open to find it sweet, tender, and overflowing with juice. Mmm. After a little while, we met with our friends for a late (3pm) lunch, which was tasty, but not quite memorable other than the pictures I took.

The next day was spent walking around the lake and taking a short cruise to one of the small islands in the center, since it was a blue skies and sunny kind of day. Sun Moon Lake gets its name from the fact that the east side of the lake resembles a sun while the west side resembles a moon. It’s the largest body of water in Taiwan. I can’t remember the islands being all that interesting, but I do remember some tasty tea eggs and really fat roosters and pheasants. I wanted to release them :’(.sunmoon2

Other than that, a relaxing 2-day trip! Highly-recommended escape from the busy streets of Taipei. Have any of you been to Sun Moon Lake recently? :) I’d love to hear what it’s like now!sunmoon

礁溪 Jiao Xi, Taiwan

jiaoxiJiaoxi is the hottest hot spring [温泉 wen chuan] destination in Taiwan. It is located in Yilan [宜蘭], about an hour drive from Taipei. While it’s doable as a day trip, I highly recommend staying overnight at Jiaoxi for at least a night to fully enjoy bathing in all the wonderful hot springs! My mom loves staying at the Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi [礁溪老爺酒店]. I don’t blame her. The facilities, the service, the meal plans, the environment…everything is just what the doctor ordered for a relaxing getaway. The hotel is mostly an open-space environment, with tall glass walls to let in ample sunshine.

jiaoxi3If you’re lucky enough, you may snag one of the ocean view rooms; both times my mom took me to Jiaoxi, we could only manage to get a mountain view room. Still a beautiful view: palm trees, lush rainforest, birds flying overhead.

The rooms themselves are a work of art. Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi is modeled after traditional Japanese hot spring hotels, complete with tatami beds, a tea room, and little  [cha dian], or dim sum treats. When I went in 2008, they even brought in fresh fruits to your room, daily! You’re also provided with a set of yukata [浴衣 yu yi in Chinese], and sandals to wear around the hotel and to the hot springs. They used to let you bring the sandals–which are really comfy–home, but not anymore.

jiaoxi2The central baths are wonderful too. There are outdoor [露天風呂 lu tian feng lu] and indoor baths, ranging from boiling hot water to near-freezing temperatures. My favorite thing to do is to jump from the hottest pool into the absolute coldest. It’s absolutely cathartic when you feel the heat dissipating from your body–like being bandaged in Icy Hot all over (except you’re hot first then cold). Showering facilities are meticulously clean, with wonderful-smelling shampoos, creams, and body washes. The ones by the pool come with small wooden buckets to pour over yourself.

jiaoxi4If japanese hot springs aren’t your thing (as you have to bathe in the nude), the swimming facilities are amazing. Giant infinity pool and hot tubs and whirpools galore! Essentially an outside water-based playground. They even have pools of the doctor fish, which are these tiny goldfish that nibble away at your callouses. I don’t know if my feet were more beautiful after wading in the doctor fish pool, but it was a ton of fun to see how long I could keep my feet underwater; the nibbles tickle a lot!

jiaoxi5Beyond that, there’s a games room with pool and ping pong tables, as well as a computer lab if you want to spend your hot spring vacation surfing the internet (…why?). When I first went in 2008, the hotel offered a lot of outdoor excursions: the most memorable being crab catching at night. It cost about $25 per person–a small price to pay for a priceless experience. You’re put on a shuttle bus to this serene and isolated beach somewhere in Jiaoxi (neither my mom nor I remember), given lanterns, a net, and a bucket to put the crabs in. There’s a contest to see who can catch the most crabs; I forget the prize.

And no, the crabs were not for eating. We all set them back into the ocean once we tallied who had the most crabs. It was a blast! There was such diversity in the crabs we caught; tiny ones the size of my thumb to bigger ones that could cause a painful pinch. Red ones, blue ones, brown ones, gray ones. I’d never seen so many! Once we all set the crabs free, our guide ordered us to all shut off our flashlights. We were surrounded in complete darkness; no streetlights or any illumination for miles. With no buildings or mountains to obstruct our view, the sky encircled us in a snowglobe of twinkling celestial bodies. I have never seen anything as stunning or divine since that night.

wufengqiwufengqi2There’s plenty to do outside of the hotel too; I love climbing the Wufengqi Waterfall [五峰旗瀑布] and exploring downtown Jiaoxi for a lot of good snack [ xiao chi] booths. Wufengqi is about a 90-minute to 2-hour hike, and totally worth it even on the muggiest day. The falls are split into 3 tiers, with the final fall being the largest and the harder one to get to.

The trail is well-maintained, albeit wet from all the spray. After a rock slide in 2009, the last section to the upper falls was closed and is yet to be reopened. When my mom and I went this past summer (2014), we jumped the railing and found that the trail was perfectly in-tact and walkable. Still, I’d recommend using common sense if it’s a rainy or stormy day out.

jiaoxi6Downtown Jiaoxi is incredibly small, but cute and full of tasty treats. Jiaoxi is famous for high-quality preserved duck eggs [蛋 xian dan], scallions/green onions [蔥 cong], hot-spring tomatoes [番茄 fan qie], hot-spring mochi [麻糬 mua ji], and dried kumquats [金棗 jin zao]. Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi, however, already has an astounding selection of good eats for its lunch and breakfast buffet, as well as a beautiful kaiseki meal for dinner. All of this is already incorporated into your stay when you pay for the hotel, too!

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Mushroom soup with morels and truffles, taro balls, fresh bamboo shoots, sauteed asparagus, rose and ginger vinegar, 10-grain fried rice, and sushi rolls for dinner.

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So much delicousness in one breakfast!

National Palace Museum & Tamsui, Taiwan, 2008

grandregentSince two of our close family friends were visiting Taiwan for the first time, my mom had an exciting itinerary laid out for all of us; most were sights that I had not even had the chance to see yet! We began our trip with two luxurious nights at the Grand Formosa Regent, 台北晶華酒店 ['tai bei jing hua jiu dian'], one of the high-end hotels in the center of Taipei. (Traveler tip: 酒店 means ‘hotel’). The rooms were so big! Two queen-sized beds for my mom and I each. :)

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Not entirely related, but look at the size of those Kyoho grapes! They’re almost comparable to the size of tea eggs

While the hotel had many comforts to enjoy, it was too beautiful of a day to stay inside. So, we group of four decided to spend most of the day at the National Palace Museum, 台北故宮 ['tai bei gu gong']. gugong(故宮 means ‘ancient palace’). The National Palace Museum is one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks: spanning 10,000 years of Chinese history! Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day after sleeping in and the museum was closed. Still, the grounds were as grand as you would imagine a place with the title “National Palace Museum” would be.

This was not too much of a setback for us; we took a taxi into the city and then the MRT subway out all the way to Tamsui (淡水 read as ‘dan shui’). Nothing but a short, 45-minute ride. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Tamsui is the 漁人碼頭 ['yu ren ma tou'], translating quite literally as “Fisherman’s Wharf”. Lots of great food vendors, shops, and beautiful sunsets to be had here.

danshui

I could not have been more excited about the grilled stinky tofu! I do admit it’s an acquired taste, but when you love it, you looove it. There is no more magical pairing than deep fried, grilled tofu, still tender on the inside, and paired with cold, pickled and crunchy Taiwanese cabbage.

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Our evening was spent feasting with our eyes, noses, and ears on all the deliciousness Taiwan has to offer. And although my mom and I could not taste the famous seafood our family friends ordered for dinner, it was equally satisfying seeing their faces in ecstasy from sucking on freshly-steamed mussels.

Shin Yeh, Taipei 101

Mom, ever so wonderful, booked a restaurant located on the 85th floor of Taipei 101. Restaurant on a high floor in a super tall building = $$$$. But hey, we flew almost 7,000 miles to get to Taiwan, so might as well make it worth it! I don’t know why it is that fancy restaurants are always dimly lit, but they are. To be romantic or something silly like that, I guess. Makes it hard to feel your way around the restaurant though.

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The views from 欣葉 Shin Yeh are as stellar as you would expect being about 1200 feet high to be. It was a rainy day in Taipei, so we couldn’t see as far. Nevertheless, it was beautiful being among the clouds and watching the rain fall below. Shin Yeh’s decor is quite modern, with lighted walking paths, soft, red mood-lighting,  and black, lacy curtains. Friendly and attentive service too.

shinyehMy mom first discovered Shin Yeh when she was invited to dinner there by one of her college friends. She loved it. Finding vegetarian food is usually hard enough, but finding good vegetarian food in a swanky restaurant is even harder. Yet, she found it in Shin Yeh! Shin Yeh serves very typical Taiwanese cuisine in the highest culinary fashion.

When my mom and I eat in Taiwan, our motto is “go big or go home”. If there’s anywhere we shouldn’t care about gaining weight, it’s when we’re out traveling. So we decided that 9 dishes for 2 people was entirely acceptable.

Starters were some pickled vegetables paired with a passionfruit iced tea. Then came a bowl of warm rice porridge sweetened with chunks of kabocha (japanese pumpkin). I could write a love song about kabocha, if I had the talent. The meat is always so sweet and fine; not stringy like American pumpkins. My mom also ordered a dish that I was not very familiar with at the time, called 菜脯煎蛋 [cai bu jian dan]. In Taiwanese, it’s pronounced as “cai bo neng”. Cai Bo Neng is a thick omelette scrambled with preserved turnip, so that you have this golden, crispy egg with tiny shots of salt and crunch from the turnip. So tasty.

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A four-course tasting dish was then served: honey-roasted cashews; mashed kabocha topped with sliced oyster mushrooms, a dollop of mayonnaise, and a kuromame (japanese sweet black bean); steamed okra with some delicate plum sauce; and braised shiitake with stewed daikon.

Fifth dish was a bird’s nest with deep fried tasty things–I can’t remember what it was anymore. Deep fried foods are inarguably delicious though.

hsinye2For a boost of fiber, we had a plate of stir-fried asparagus, 百合 [bai he] or lily bulbs, gingko nuts, and watermelon (?!). Pretty interesting combination. There was also broccoli with incredibly convincing sea cucumber imitation. Having been vegetarian all my life and having never touched meat, it looked real enough that I couldn’t really stomach it.

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At this point, we were appropriately stuffed. Yet there was still more! A delicious plate of vegetable fried rice with crispy string beans, vegetarian ham, and red and yellow bell peppers. You know you have good fried rice in your bowl when each grain glistens with a bit of oil and each slightly springy when you chew. Taiwanese are all about that QQ texture. I think the closest English translation is “toothsome”?

We topped off this feast with almond milk tea, peanut mochi, and a plate of fresh fruit. Just perfect. Would go again.

 

Info if you’re interested:

欣葉國際餐飲集團
Shin Yeh Taipei 101
85F-1, No. 7, Sec. 5, Xinyi Rd., Xinyi Dist., Taipei City (Taipei 101)

Let me know how Shin Yeh works out for you! :)

Ice Monster 冰館

icemonsterFor the past 7 years in a row I’ve been traveling to Taiwan, one of my must-stop eateries is Ice Monster. It wasn’t until about 3 years ago (??) that Ice Monster moved from the crowded 永康街 Yongkang Street–best known for being the flagship location of infamous dumpling house 鼎泰豐 Ding Tai Fung–to a larger and more spacious location on 忠孝東路四段 Zhongxiao East Road, 4th Section.

The move was due in large part to the divorce of the couple who started the shop together. Both of them now own competing mango shaved ice stores: one still in the old location on Yongkang Street and the other in the new location on Zhongxiao East Road.

icemonster1I hate to say it, but the division has resulted in a dip in quality of the mango shaved ice. The popularity of Ice Monster has continued to skyrocket over the years, resulting in 1-2 hour waits just to get a seat in the Zhongxiao location. CNN has even done a piece on it (they’re #5 on the slide)!

Ice Monster used to be this tiny booth on the corner of the street with no more than 2 counters, and at most 15 stools. People flocked to it then, but my mom and I never had to wait more than 20 minutes for some space to open up. It was this old Ice Monster that we both had the most amazing mango shaved ice of our lives.

The key to amazing mango shaved ice is really the quality of the mangoes. Taiwan’s most popular type of mango is the 愛文芒果 [ai wen man guo], or Aiwen mango. They have beautiful skin painted like the sunset and this delicate, tender, honey-colored flesh that bursts with sweet mango juice when you bite into it.

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The old Ice Monster shaved ice that jump-started my addiction to mangoes.

Ice Monster uses high-quality 愛文, chops them up, pours the chunks over a light bed of snow, drizzles about a teaspoon of sweetened condensed milk, and serves you this delectable concoction with a scoop of creamy mango gelato on top of it all. Like 75% mango, 25% ice/condensed milk/gelato. It’s glorious.

Recently, Ice Monster has tweaked the recipe. Now the ice is shaved into thin, sheet-like layers and there is significantly fewer mango chunks. There is now also the addition of this strange almond tofu thing, which is simply not the same mango shaved ice I’ve always looked forward to eating.

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The new Ice Monster with fancy new seating.

Moreover, the service is a lot slower now. The last two times I went to Ice Monster, I felt like our server had completely forgotten about us. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the major increase in price though. A serving of mango shaved ice at the old Ice Monster on Yongkang Street used to be about 100-120 NTD (~$3-4), and now it is more than double that price.

Overall, still pretty solid mango shaved ice, but a little too expensive for my tastes and too long of a wait to get a table. But if it’s a humid 95-degrees out and you’re a walking waterfall of sweat, it’s worth checking out. :) To find Ice Monster, this address will come in handy:

Ice Monster
Taipei City, Daan District, Zhongxiao Rd. Section 4, Number 297
台北市大安區忠孝東路四段297號