Moon House is a rustic little complex perched up on the hillside over-looking the Huatung Rift Valley (花東縱谷) in Fenglin Township (鳳林鎮) in Hualien County. Over the years, it has acquired a reputation as a “must-visit” destination for visitors to Hualien, especially foodies, as its chicken in plum sauce (碳烤梅汁桶雞) has become something of a local classic. It was this very reputation as a tourist destination that had kept me away from Moon House, but after I did stop by for lunch, the restaurant immediately became a preferred choice for special meals.
True, there are usually too many people and the dining area can be noisy. Parking is horrendous, service is variable — ranging from quite good to quite annoyingly arrogant — and prices are a little on the high side. But the food is generally excellent, and when the weather is good, the atmosphere of its spacious courtyard and the views it affords over the valley are unparalleled.
The first impression of Moon House is that of a teahouse, designed specifically for visitors to relax and to take in the scenery in a mood of quiet contemplation. Stone seats, a comfortable balustrade against which to rest, a negligently casual arrangement around the fishpond and the occasional stray chicken wondering around all generate a mood of ease and relaxation. A small dining area directly overlooking the valley is generally booked out weeks in advance.
Two larger dining areas branch off a central reception area. There is western-style seating as well as lower hawker stall type seating, all made of hardwood and placed on a floor of tatami matting. Remove the chairs and tables, and you could easily imagine coming to this place for a meditation retreat.
Address: 71 Fengmin 1st Rd, Fenglin Township, Hualien County (花蓮縣鳳林鎮鳳鳴一路71號)
Telephone: (03) 876-2206
Open: 11am to 2:30pm (3pm weekends), 5pm to 9pm (weekdays)
Average meal: NT$500 per person
Details: Chinese menu only, cash only
This ascetic first impression is quickly contradicted by the busy staff bringing plates of delicious-looking food to the table. The plating is not artful, but the signature dish — the chicken in plum sauce — is alluring with beads of succulent oil glistening against its slightly charred skin, and fruity and herbal aromas rising up from its plentiful gravy at the bottom of the serving bowl. This chicken comes with a pair of cotton workmen’s gloves and another pair of food service plastic gloves, both sets to be worn by the person deputed to tear this chicken apart and leave the dismembered carcass to steep momentarily in the sauce before digging in. The bird is priced according to provenance: A pure “local” chicken (土雞), often translated as free-range chicken, is NT$800, while a slightly less pure hybrid (仿土雞) is NT$550.
This chicken dish is best for a table of four or more, but such is its fame that I have seen tables of two manfully tackling it. Fortunately, Moon House has no objection to packing a doggy bag for leftovers.
The chicken in plum sauce, while the establishment’s most famous dish, is far from being its only attraction. The food has a strong Hakka influence, and there are a number of specialties from this cuisine, including Hakka-style salted pork (客家鹹豬肉, NT$250 for a small serving) and Hakka stir fry (客家小炒, NT$220). The crunchy mountain pig skin (脆薄山豬皮, NT$200), served cold, is a good example of the labor-intensive preparation of unregarded ingredients to create something really delicious.
Even for dishes that are not part of Hakka cuisine, such as lion’s head meatballs (紅燒獅子頭, NT$380), the flavors are big and bold. In the case of these meat balls, those preferring the refined tastes of Jiangzhe cuisine might find Moon House’s version a little too rustic.