I’ve been wanting to write this one for years now. I’ve even used the scene I’m about to describe anecdotally, allegorically, metaphorically and the other one that’s also like a metaphor and an analogy. I’ve used it in conversations about life, about opening a restaurant, about general culture in Taiwan, about a lot of things. I just haven’t gotten around to writing about it until now.
So there’s this thing here. It’s cultural in nature, to be sure. And while it exists in varying degrees everywhere, it’s quite pronounced and easy to notice here . For now, let’s just call it what it is; an unconscious and innocent flocking towards and gathering around what appears to be something popular, or famous. It could be a dilapidated tourist trap of a town, renowned for its tea eggs. Better yet, you may see hundreds of people and cars bottle-necking a sleek and random highway turn in the mountain, if just to visit a tourist center in the middle of nowhere…that features what exactly? To the untrained eye, in every seeming nowhere, it’s there. Everywhere, and the hot spots are changing all the time.
But not all of them flare and fade like midnight fireflies. Not these two restaurants shown above. They were there almost 20 years ago when I got here, and they’ve probably been there a lot longer than that. That’s a long time for any small restaurant. 10 tables max, but people generally get take out from both. They are pretty much identical. Nothing fancy inside or out, just good and fast food. My favorite kind of eatery here in Taiwan; humble and honest without all the auxiliary distractions. It’s the food and price that matters. And while I’m sure the particulars about the timeline of these two chicken joints could be debatable to a die-hard town archivist, here’s the deal; they both serve local style chicken legs with veg and rice.
The restaurant on the left is basically quiet and empty, a billion percent of the time. And the one on the right always has a line. They both serve lunch and dinner. I rode past there yesterday to see if the paradigm was the same over lunchtime as it is for dinner, and it was. And to be honest, I haven’t been by there for years, so I was unsure if either restaurant still existed. But there they were; alive and kicking. Restaurant left had its usual short queue of two or three people, and restaurant right had a line out the door. Same as it ever was. I was not entirely surprised, but part of me was still amazed at this little scene that seemed eternal and perpetual. Yet these were not old folks, like myself, lining up at restaurant right; these were young twentysomethings or something. What – had their elders told them about the fantastic chicken there, and to be sure NOT to hit up restaurant left?! It was as if an entirely new generation had just picked up where the old one had left off. Kind of like how The Phantom of the Opera has been running in major cities for a thousand years, swapping out the cast every so often. Weird.
It reminds me of an experiment in which there were some monkeys and a ladder that had some bananas on it. The veteran prisoner monkeys would beat on the newbies when they went for the bananas, until they were larned and stopped going for the bananas. Over time, the vets would be traded out for more newbies. And even after all the originally trained minkeys were gone, the pattern continued until finally there’s only new minkeys, yet they all seem to know the drill.
Now as I said, this kind of follow the crowd behavior is happening all over the shop, globe-wise. I’m not calling Taiwan out or anything. It’s just very prevalent in this neck of the woods. I’m just here witnessing it happening here, is all. And have been… for 20 years. So. The experiment with yon monkeys only serves to illustrate a global human point. We’re kinda dumb. And we are as much drawn to the flame as we are to the crowd. And where restaurants are concerned, this is usually, usually, a decent rule of thumb. Straying from the beaten path in search of food is a sketchy game to play, often leading to lame results.
Part moth and lemming, 1999, I totally went to restaurant right first. In a new place? Go where the locals go, rights? Can’t hurt. It’s gonna be cheap, and probably not a scam. It’s a point and shoot restaurant, no Chinese required. And it’s chicken. Chicken is good; the vodka of meats. You can’t go all western food because you’re gonna get ketchup on a noodle called spagett’. Or it’s shit on a shingle for pizza. It’s early days in Taiwan and international cuisines have barely even started to roll out here.
So, there I am. In line. Waiting. And waiting. Thirty hundred degrees, sweating under brash fluorescents, shifting from left foot to right for what seemed an inexplicably long time to get my cleaver chopped, delicious chicken leg, veggie and rice box. Tuh-wen-tee effing minutes… But you know what? It was so worth the wait. Succulent. Tender. A tightened chicken skin, marinated beautifully with the sole purpose of holding all that juiciness under its loving meat hood. Nothing wrong with anything. Yet after trying it, I knew I had to check out next door.
So a few years pass (yep), I finally went for it. As expected, the restaurant was empty. I still had to wriggle through the bendy line oozing out of the other place. It reminded me of the game Snake 2. I was actually kinda pissed off and sad, having to fight my way into what was obviously the loser of the two restaurants. I felt bad for the owners. I sat down. Guess I’ll have the chicken leg deal, huh. It was me at a giant round table all to myself, and an old lady who probably ran the joint, watching the news. My food came on an actual plate made of ceramic. And there it all was. It looked like someone had ripped off a take out order from next door and daintily arranged in on my eat-in plate. I tried it… guess what? It was the same. Exactly. The. Same.
Perhaps there exists out there a poultry wizard, whose olfactory senses and taste buds are keen to even the slightest subtleties of this chicken done this way and that chicken done the same way. And believe me, I’m no slouch where chicken is concerned. But… It was the same. Same dish. A teeny bit cheaper, at a grand and whopping $3.50. Same sides of cabbage and corn. A bowl of white rice. And a carbon copy of that wonderfully braised chicken leg – bone in – hacked into around 4-5 pieces. I was mystified.
At the time, I was getting a shade or two less green as a newbie, myself. I’d already stumbled into more than a few shit show restaurants because they were ‘packed’, only to be greatly vexed with their fare and service. Such was life as an expat in those days. But. These two restaurants were different though. They were and are two almost identical units side by side, begging for someone to ask the question. Why is restaurant right famous? Why does it appear as if they’re kicking restaurant left’s teeth in, still, after so many years? Why does restaurant left even exist to this day?! It’s the same food at both places, for cripes sake! Why haven’t people shifted over there to at least avoid the heavy line? Why why why. If you asked people on the street, they’d probably just say it’s famous. But doesn’t that point to the other restaurant as being UN-famous? One can’t really exist without the other, and besides maybe seeing a 7-11 next door to a Family Mart, to this day, I’ve never seen such a blatantly theatrical display of such an obvious manifestation of our strange human behavior. Maybe someone should write a musical. Or make a comic strip. Or something. I only know this; if I ever head down that way for chicken, I know which restaurant I’m going to. It’s the one on the left. Not to make any lame sort of statement about individuality or anything, but only because I can’t stand waiting in lines.