With the opening of Whalen’s last month, the area off Anhe Road (安和路) near the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel suddenly has a crowd of restaurants serving Western-style brunches and sandwiches.
The competition is as tough as ever for the long-standing bar and restaurant Carnegie’s, given the presence of the popular chain, The Diner (樂子), and the recent opening of Toast, another Western restaurant run by former Carnegie’s employees. The owners of these establishments are probably watching each other with a wary eye, but for diners in the neighborhood, this only means more choices.
Each place has its own unique charm and drawbacks. The Diner comes the closest you can get to authentic American greasy spoon grub in Taipei, but the wait for a table is always too long. Carnegie’s food has slid downwards a few notches in terms of quality, but their spacious outdoor patio is hard to beat for a meal with friends. Toast feels like a stylish, upscale neighborhood pub, but its overwhelmingly large menu raises the question of whether they’re spreading themselves too thin (I’ve enjoyed every meal there on my four visits, but various friends have reported hit-or-miss experiences).
Whalen’s is out to fill a niche of its own. It sports an interior that feels like a cozy European cafe. The walls are painted in earth tone colors and furnished with dark wooden furniture; there’s a huge fresco painting on the wall leftover from the previous tenant, an upscale Italian restaurant.
But the food is unabashedly North American. The restaurant, named after Canadian expat owner Alex Whalen, offers plenty of comfort on a plate — almost too much. The selection will be familiar to regular patron’s of Bongo’s and Forkers, another set of popular burger restaurants started by Canadian expat Andrew Lunman. As “restaurant consultant,” Lunman helped create the menu, which revolves around egg breakfasts, sandwiches and poutine (the French-Canadian snack of French Fries topped with gravy and cheese curd).
Address: 145, Anhe Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市大安區安和路二段145號)
Telephone: (02) 2739-3037
Open: 10am to 9pm
Average meal: NT$300
Details: Credit cards not accepted, 10% service charge
Like Bongo’s and Forkers, Whalen’s menu relentlessly pursues guilty pleasures. Cheese, and lots of it, is a staple ingredient across the menu; gouda, cheddar, jack and padano are melted in a variety of sandwiches and burgers stuffed with multiple varieties of meats dressed in creamy sauces (dijon mayo, spicy mayo and hollandaise). Within the selection of 10 omelets, you’ll be hard pressed to find one without some kind of guilt-inducing ingredient. For example, the Taste of Chili (NT$270) and The Uneggspected (NT$280), both unusual omelets filled with off-the-wall items such as chili con carne and sun-dried tomatoes, come topped with sour cream.
When it comes to poutine, Whalen’s Canadian Classic (NT$150) will easily fill you up, with goopy brown gravy and melted cheese drowning those freshly made French Fries (which taste exactly the same as Bongo’s). If that doesn’t do it, there are variations like Philly Steak Poutine (NT$180), which adds sauteed steak and bell peppers to the mix, or The Roughneck Poutine (NT$180), which comes with chili con carne and a dollop of sour cream.
Of course, you can ask the kitchen to go easy on the cheese, as I did when I ordered one of the restaurant’s “skillets,” or eggs (beaten) and chopped vegetables thrown into an iron skillet, baked in an oven and served hot at the table. I found the original skillet (NT$280) — loaded with potato homefries, chunks of sausage, bacon, bell peppers, onions and Gouda cheese — to be a hearty and satisfying meal. The skillets are a novel idea for Taipei’s Western restaurants and somewhat lighter than the omelets. In general, you can customize the toppings or ingredients in the meals, but there are a few odd exceptions — my dining companion wanted a skillet without the home fries in the mix because he didn’t want potatoes, but was told that the ingredients were “already prepared,” and couldn’t be taken out.