Taipei is thick with hot pot establishments. The range in price and quality is enormous, from the generic NT$299 all-you-can-eat joints with their long lines of students and families, to places that boast unique blends of hot pot stock and top-of-the-range ingredients.
Taihodien Restaurant (太和殿) is one of the latter. The establishment boasts that it hasn’t closed for a single day since opening in 1994, and its commitment to creating a memorable hot pot experience has made it a favorite with visiting Hong Kong celebrities.
The restaurant is easy to miss, especially with the MRT construction work taking place along Xinyi Road. There is nothing about the facade that makes it stand out, except perhaps the black-clad waitress standing at the door busily checking bookings. Some customers are taken to the main dining area, while others are led down an alley to the two additional areas in the next block. The interiors are similar, with a predominantly red and black color scheme, muted by clouds of steam. While there are tables for two or four, large tables predominate, and given that the restaurant is usually crowded, the noise level is high. Service has a no-nonsense efficiency: Orders are taken and delivered rapidly and the hot pots are topped up without the need to call for assistance.
Taihodien has built a reputation on the flavor of its chili broth and high-quality ingredients. A pot of chili broth is NT$300, with an additional NT$70 per person. The broth includes an unlimited supply of duck blood jelly (a particular highlight for connoisseurs of this delicacy) and melt-in-the-mouth stewed tofu. The broth itself, which is a dark, lustrous red, focuses more on richness of flavor than on a powerful chili hit, and with some care a “medium hot” (中辣) pot can be enjoyed even by those not usually partial to spicy food. That said, if you ask for a “very hot” (大辣) broth, you’ll get exactly what you ordered. A white broth is also available for those who don’t want anything to do with the spicy broth. A pot that has half chili broth and half white broth (鴛鴦鍋) is NT$350, and this is a popular option that allows diners to fine tune the flavor.
Address: 315, Xinyi Rd Sec 4, Taipei City (台北市信義路四段315號)
Telephone: (02) 2705-0909
Open: 12pm to 3am
Average meal: NT$600 per person
On the Net: www.taihodien.com.tw
Details: Chinese menu, credit cards accepted, minimum charge of NT$1,000 per table
The range of ingredients for the pot is relatively small, but also quite select. Three qualities of beef are available, ranging from prime beef (霜降牛肉) at NT$600 a plate, short rib (特級肥牛) for NT$500 a plate and regular beef at NT$280. Although the regular beef is served in frozen shavings (the two prime varieties are chilled, not frozen) similar to those at cheaper establishments, the meat is well marbled. It can be recommended for those who like a more pronounced meat flavor and more robust texture; the prime cuts offer more nuanced flavors. Two qualities of pork, distinguished by fat content (NT$300 and NT$250, the fattier meat being the more expensive), as well as lamb and a variety of well-prepared offal are also available (the ox tongue at NT$300 is notable for its delicate flavor).
Seafood ranges from Japanese Hokkaido crab claw (NT$1,000) to fish fillets (NT$200) and fish dumplings (NT$100). While there are many premium options, the cheap dishes can be as exciting as the pricier ones. A particular favorite are the dough sticks (老油條, NT$60) — deep-fried dough that has been allowed to dry out — which are ideal for dunking in the chili broth. Animated discussions about the best time to remove the sticks are a common occurrence, with some people preferring to allow the dough to soak through until soft, while others favor maintaining varying levels of crunch. But the enjoyment of this dish is ultimately down to the quality of the broth, which although rich and spicy, does not contain quick and easy flavorings such as shacha barbecue sauce (沙茶醬) or soy, which tend to make less laboriously prepared broth cloying.