This is culinary Disneyland for a vegetarian: all-you-can-eat hot pot, dessert, stir-fry, dim sum, soups, and Haagen-Dazs for a low price of $760 NTD, or about $20 USD. Pretty sweet deal, vegetarian or not. Sometimes buffets can offer a smorgasbord of food, but with all of them sub-par in taste and quality. This is not a problem at 蓮香齋[lian xiang zai]. I’ve been coming here since 2007, and the quality of the food–which is very good–is unwavering. Always delicious, always fresh.
They’re so popular now that you can’t get seats without reservations. It hasn’t always been this hot of a dining place, but since it moved to a new location on 南京東路 [nanjing dong lu, or Nanjing East Rd] about 3 years ago, business has exploded more than ever. They used to let you take photos of the place, but they’re so big now that I have to sneak quick snapshots in.
Now whenever we go, we feel like we’re competing in the Hunger Games with the rest of the diners to get the first rounds served (which usually have the tastiest dishes). My mom and I have developed a system where I take the entire right side of the restaurant, and she tackles all the stir-fry dishes on the left. A sampling of everything, so that we’ve at least had the chance to taste it before it’s all gone. A good number of the stir-fry dishes are only served at the beginning. The fried spring rolls, or 春卷 [chun juan]–which are absolutely divine and are the best I’ve found, ever–, and turnip cake, or 蘿蔔糕 [luo buo gao], go within the first 5 minutes they’re served up.
Other things, like the 麻辣臭豆腐 [ma la chou dou fu, or spicy stinky tofu], go really fast once they’ve reach their peak of deliciousness. I would suggest waiting a little more than 1 hour after restaurant opening to get the 麻辣臭豆腐, so that it’s had more time to stew and soak in the flavorful, numbingly hot broth that it’s cooked in. But don’t wait any more than that. It’ll be gone by about 12:30pm.
My mom’s favorite dish, 酥皮濃湯 [su pi long tang], creamed corn soup with a slab of puff pastry baked to crisp on top. That’s only served on weekends. I’ve seen diners hoard 3-4 of them in one go, and only about 15-20 are served at a time. So worth fighting for though! Buttery, flaky layers of puff pastry to poke through and dip into a rich broth. Mmm.
Two other dishes I really like are the 香椿炒飯 [xiang chun chao fan], or Chinese toon fried rice, and 油飯 [you fan], or Taiwanese “oily” rice. Chinese toon is an herb that tastes like a cross between yellow onion, scallions, and maybe shallots? Quite tasty, in any case. The tender leaves are simply chopped up and sauteed before adding in other ingredients. I really like my Chinese toon fried rice with some spicy peppers for a kick. 油飯 is long-grain sticky rice steamed, and then quickly stir-fried with sauteed mushrooms, veggie ham (or shrimp/real ham if you’re not vegetarian), and rice wine, sugar, soy sauce, and shallots. The one at Jen Dow is served sometimes in 荷葉 [he ye], or lotus leaf, for an extra boost of flowery fragrance.
Other things we like getting: fresh baby corn, hand rolled sushi [手卷寿司 shou juan sou shi], the wonton soup with 粉條 [feng tiao, or wide rice noodle], 龍鬚菜 [long xu cai, translating to “dragon whisker vegetable” due to the long strands of veggie], and fresh bamboo shoot [春筍 chun shun]. I don’t know how many of you have seen fresh baby corn with its husk still on, but I’ve only ever seen it in Taiwan. It’s steamed in a bamboo steamer and is crunchy, sweet, and dericious. Baby corn haters can hate. 龍鬚菜is seasonal, so if you catch it, you’re very lucky. We used to grow a lot in my childhood home. Crunchy and tender when it’s young. Old 龍鬚菜 can be a bit too fibrous and chewy. The one seasonal vegetable that goes faster than free food at a college event is the fresh bamboo shoot. Crisp like gala apple, and sweet like morning dew. I’ve never tasted morning dew, but good 春筍 tastes like it’d just been dug right out of the ground in some cloud forest high in the mountains.
Jen Dow used to offer cold slow-drip coffee that was brewed over the course of 24 hours; however, the yield was so low that they stopped doing it. My mom and I used to make sure to snag a cup for each of us, the moment we set our foot in the door. I’m not a huge coffee drinker, but damn, that was some fantastic coffee. There also used to be a rather extensive loose-leaf tea bar for you to mix-and-match teas.
There’s also a noodle station where you can ask the chef to basically make whatever noodle soup you want. Several varieties of noodles and toppings to your taste. Moreover, there are other stations for made-to-order vegetables, sushi hand rolls, clay pot and hot pot,…there’s probably more that I can’t remember. A smorgasbord of cocktails (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and drinks in general. I particularly love the fruit or herb vinegar drinks: e.g. apple, passionfruit, guava, basil…etc. The dessert section has grown almost every year I’ve gone too.
And of course, I can’t fail to mention the chocolate fountain! There’s a 3-tier chocolate fountain with fruit kebabs. Pretty sweet. The second time I went to Jen Dow, we managed to catch a wedding banquet and thus there were two chocolate fountains: one milk and one white. Haven’t been that lucky since. They also have two Haagen Dazs sections for endless ice cream, if that’s your thing. My favorite ice cream is actually the lactose-free ice cream, next to the dessert soups ( red bean soup, almond milk…etc.). I’m not lactose intolerant, but I find the lactose-free flavors to be more refreshing than the too-sweet and rich Haagen Dazs. If you’re willing to try it, definitely get the sesame soy milk, bilberry, mango, and peanut flavors. Mmm.
Whether you’re carnivorous or omnivorous, you’d probably enjoy eating here as much as we vegetarians do. My mom and I have brought non-vegetarian friends and family here and no one has had less than an incredibly positive experience.
Interested? Find them at:
Taipei City, Songshan District, Nanjing E. Rd, Section 5, No. 188
First level underground.