Taipei teems with trendy Japanese restaurants, but thankfully there are also plenty of down-to-earth and reasonably priced places such as Tian Cai Refreshment Saloon (添財日本料理).
Pay no mind to the ill-chosen English name. Tian Cai, which has been around since 1968, serves standard Japanese cuisine with the typical Taiwanese touch. Its clean and tidy branch on Kaifeng Street (開封街) near Taipei Main Station offers a welcome respite from the flood of cheap food stalls and greasy lunch box joints in the area, not to mention the general griminess of the neighborhood.
Judging from numerous midday visits, the locale is a favorite among the area’s office workers and bank tellers, many of whom likely come for Tian Cai’s inexpensive lunch deals. The ten-don (天丼, in Mandarin, “tiandong,” NT$130), an assortment of fish, shrimp and vegetable tempura served on rice, hits the spot when it comes to deep-fried comfort. The gyudon (牛丼, in Mandarin, “niudong,” NT$130), or thinly sliced beef and fried onions served on top of rice, is a decent version of this Japanese standard. I also like the omurice (蛋包飯, in Mandarin, “danbaofan,” NT$130), tomato sauce fried rice wrapped inside an egg omelet, which is not as greasy as what you normally find in a food court. On the other hand, the salmon fried rice (鮭魚炒飯, NT$200), which the staff often suggest, is a tad too oily.
Another dish you’ll spot on everyone’s tables are big plates loaded with the restaurant’s specialty, kanto-ni (關東煮), more commonly known as oden (黑輪). Oden is an assortment of tidbits, such as large chunks of daikon radish, fish sausages, and tofu, boiled in a soy broth. The restaurant keeps a large boiling vat of this wintery food next to the sushi bar, and customers can go there to choose the items they want. Prices range from NT$30 to NT$180 per piece, and Tian Cai’s offerings beat convenience store oden any day. I enjoyed the boiled fishcake tempura (甜不辣) and the hearty pork meatball wrapped in cabbage, especially when dipped in the accompanying spicy miso sauce.
Address: 38, Kaifeng St Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市中正區開封街一段38號)
Telephone: (02) 2361-2985, (02) 2361-2986
Open: 11am to 2:30pm, 5pm to 9pm
Average meal: NT$130 to NT$400 per person
Details: 10 percent service charge, No English menus
On the Net: www.添財日本料理.tw (or www.xn--qevngt1bf8pd6hz03b.tw/)
There’s a quaint, old-school charm to Tian Cai’s Kaifeng street branch. Sitting at the long wooden bar on one lunchtime visit, I watched the sushi chef, who looked like he was in his twenties, politely offer a toast to an elderly man, after he noticed the customer was dining — and drinking — alone.
The place doesn’t quite match the romantic image one might have of a wooden Japanese inn, but there are red lanterns hanging about, and the space is generally well-kept. The tables and chairs look like they’ve been around since the 1980s, but remain in good condition.
There’s no English menu, nor are there photos of the food on the well-worn laminated menus (which also look like they’re leftovers from the 1980s), but ordering shouldn’t be much of a problem for non-Mandarin speakers. The staff, composed of mostly elderly ladies wearing headscarves, matching pink shirts and flip-flops, are friendly, though they may seem a bit hurried during the lunch rush.
Tian Cai’s offers an extensive menu suited to dinner parties (regular customers can stash their bottles of scotch in a rack at the back of the restaurant). Fresh sushi and nigiri rolls range from NT$90 for a plate of sushi inari (稻荷壽司, tofu skin sushi) to NT$300 for a mixed plate (綜合握壽司). Japanese-style barbecue dishes start from NT$150, fresh seafood salads run from NT$180 to NT$400 and the dozen or so meat and vegetable stir-fry dishes average NT$200. Judging from the mixed nigiri plate, I found the fish to be fresh and of good quality.