I think there are two kinds of dinner food establishment in my mind. There’s the kind that’s glossy, clean and modern. It comes right out of a design magazine. Its aesthetics meant to allure. Maybe quiet, probably smells nice. And there’s the kind of place that’s literally a hole in the wall dive that offers nothing more than honesty. They might not even have walls–just roll-down plastic sheeting that doubles as a kind of wall when the weather is bad. Brilliant, by the way. The older I get, this is the only kind of place I want to go to. And before I go knuckles under into this topic I’ve been thinking of, it’s really important for me to say this. One–I live in Taiwan, so most of my perspective is coming from here. And two, these are my opinions. I’m not trying to be judgy, racist, or rude. I hope my thoughts don’t come off as being as of those, on top of being half-baked or unstudied. But alas, I don’t have all day, and I thought I’d like to share my mind on this topic. So.
The west is different. It’s harder to open a restaurant for one. There are way more rules, codes and laws to follow. This often pushes the little guy out of the way, and allows all the gentrified, ultra-modern glass lofts to take over the streets. Authenticity, and even a little sketchiness has been relegated to areas famous for just that. If there happens to be a dilapidated restaurant smooshed in between a Starbucks and an Urban Outfitters it’s because the owners have probably fought tooth and nail to remain open, and their food is most certainly amazing–and has been for decades. For the rest, you have to go to Chinatown, Little Italy or Little India, to name a few–places where the cultures are less snobby about appearance. Okay, well maybe all-day breakfast is an exception. But that too is a kind of kitschy cultural experience. Either way, they care less about aesthetic and more about food. For example, one of my favorite places to eat in Toronto was always Ali’s West Indian Roti. Located in a once sketchy now hipster neighborhood, I was always a little intimidated going in there as a young honky. The servers weren’t especially nice, me and my friends were usually the only whiteys in there, but the draw towards that incredibly spicy REAL Jamaican food would override all fears. And we’d board the 7000 hour streetcar ride from Crackersville to Parkdale. It’s changed now. But I’m sure the food is still good.
It just seems to me like the rest of the world–not the European settlers of the Mymericas–all just like hanging out. The doors are open. The voices loud. The food is hot, the drinks are cold. And you’d have to work hard to spend a million bucks. This is one of the best parts of living in Taiwan. There’s a kind of open-air stir fry joint that can be found everywhere. It doesn’t even matter if you know what town you’re in. Walk around and the sounds and smells will lead the way. The greatest part of this, for me, is that I know I can truly trust this kind of grubby place to almost alway get good food and have a good time. In fact, I’m actually quite wary of the yuppified, modern eatery here. A lot of times, it’s all just window dressing and totally misleading. When I see these new, sparkly restaurants I almost always assume the food sucks and is overpriced. I fear the facade. True, I’ve had some bad experiences in both the sanitary design boxes and the dive joints, but way more in the first kind.
There is dust hanging in strange sheets from the half in, half outdoor tin roof. It looks oddly like Spanish Moss, but it’s not. It’s dust, spider webs, dead shards of roaches perhaps. The stools are cheap plastic, and sometimes so low to the ground that your knees hit the round and wobbly tables. There’s an area just by the get-it-yourself beer fridge that has all the makings of your own personal hot sauce concoction; rice vinegar, chillies, soy sauce, and if you’re lucky, and you usually are–the house’s own mix, which is always great. The place is usually packed with loud groups of drunk locals working on a table full of delicious and mysterious plates of food. Bottles deep of one kind of booze or the other. The food comes fast and hot. Plates and plates of it. The meats are full of flavor, and the fresh veggies are cooked just enough to allow their juices to create lovely, salty thin sauces that you later pour into your rice bowl, or just drink from the bottom of the plate.
These are honest places. They have nothing to hide, and sometimes judging by their open-air almost parking lot appearance, they have no place to hide. They’re not on the hard sell, and not on the hard-take, yet the owners and servers alike are almost always friendly and real. That’s it. Real. We spent the weekend riding around a part of central Taiwan looking for such restaurants in between swimming in a beautiful jungle river. We ate insane amounts of food and punctuated each dish with several bottles of beer. And as usual, we were shocked by how cheap it all was. This kind of place brings a mist to my eye. And always reminds me of how lucky I am to live in such a cool fucking place. And perhaps the best part of all, is getting to share such experiences with the people I love.