The stretch of Taipei’s Changan East Road (長安東路) directly west of Xinsheng North Road (新生北路) is lined with seafood restaurants. Almost all of them display tanks and fresh fish on ice and advertise stir-fried dishes for NT$100. It can be hard to distinguish between the different establishments, but Hsientingwei (鮮定味) is one of the most popular and stands out for its top-notch, helpful service and the tastiness of its cooking.
Even our dish of sweet potato leaves (地瓜葉, NT$70) was more special than the plate of cooked vegetables usually served up as an afterthought in other restaurants. The sweet, slightly nutty flavor of the leaves was highlighted by heaps of perfectly browned chopped garlic.
The star of our meal was the stellar porgy fish chin (剁椒鯛魚下巴, NT$150) steamed with ginger, scallions, peppers, garlic and salty fermented black soybeans until the meat had a delectably silky, melt-in-the-mouth texture. There was plenty of fish for two people to share, though by the time my companion and I were done with the last bite, we wish we had ordered another.
One of the restaurant’s signature offerings is its mala calamari (麻辣花枝, NT$100). Thick slices of squid are battered, deep-fried and then tossed in a sauce that, despite the dish’s name and the liberal addition of chopped chili, was only slightly spicy and not at all tongue numbing. My companion and I enjoyed the tender calamari, which had just the right amount of spring, and the accompanying sprigs of fresh cilantro, but the dish was ultimately too salty for our taste. On the other hand, if you are intent on consuming as much beer during dinner as possible, then the mala calamari is perfect for whetting your thirst.
Our sashimi assortment plate (綜合肚刺身, NT$200) only contained two types of fish (salmon and yellowtail). Both were sliced a bit roughly, but that did not impact our ability to savor the freshness of the meat. Hsientingwei also offers raw oysters (新鮮生蠔, NT$150). The two very large shellfish were taken out of their shells, neatly cut in half and placed on a bed of ice with sliced daikon. The plating surprised us, but the oysters were fresh, briny and very tasty, and the bed of ice helped them retain their plump firmness.
Service at Hsientingwei is excellent. Our waiter made suggestions to ensure that our meal offered a good balance of flavors and textures. All of our food arrived quickly and our dirty plates were almost immediately whisked away, even though the restaurant was at nearly full capacity. We only had one very minor quibble: our bottle of Taiwan Beer Draft was not icy cold enough. Hsientingwei’s prices compare favorably to those of its neighboring seafood restaurants, with most dishes costing less than NT$150 (hot pots meant for multiple diners are in the NT$380 to NT$580 range).