Sat, Apr 27, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Restaurant review: Auntie Hsieh’s

A basement in Ximending is a most unlikely place to find a homecooked meal

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

A perfectly steamed seabass rounds out a well-balanced meal at Auntie Hsieh’s.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

What is it about a meal that makes it feel homecooked, like you’ve slid off the streets and straight into the dining room of your childhood? Fresh ingredients, masterful technique and mere deliciousness go without saying — those are necessary to eat well, but still lack the je ne sais quoi of a good homecooked meal.

Beyond those qualities lies the depth of consideration by the cook for the person who’s eating. That’s an elusive trait, and a basement below a busy street between Ximending (西門町) and the 228 Peace Memorial Park (228和平紀念公園) is the last place I was expecting to find it, but there it is.

The storefront of Auntie Hsieh’s (謝阿姨美食坊) is a narrow staircase with unassuming signage. Come early for lunch or be prepared to join the office crowd in the queue winding downstairs into a spacious, air-conditioned basement that fits several two-seaters and two large round banquet tables. It’s quieter at dinnertime.

The restaurant has been around for 30 years, and this shows in its interior — clean but dated, with gingham tablecloths, PVC-upholstered chairs and wall trim an unfortunate shade of yellow, reflecting design choices of the 1990s. All of this only intensifies the impression that you are about to have a meal in a lived-in home.

There is no menu, only a rotating cast of time-tested dishes that come out of the open kitchen unbidden. When you enter, the six chefs and servers — all middle-aged women — mentally register the number of people you are with and wordlessly adjust the serving sizes and number of dishes for your table.

The Chinese phrase “three dishes, one soup” describes the Platonic ideal of a nourishing family meal. Auntie Hsieh’s does not follow that format exactly, but provides a satisfying and well-balanced table that fits the spirit of the law.

AUNTIE HSIEH’S
謝阿姨美食坊

Address: B1, 122, Boai Rd, Taipei City (台北市博愛路122號B1)

Telephone: (02) 2388-1012

Open: Mondays to Saturdays, 11:30am to 2pm, 5:30pm to 8:30pm

Average meal: NT$430 for one person; NT$400 per person for two or more people

Details: No menu; cash only; not wheelchair-accessible

On the net:

www.facebook.com/
Shieh23881012


A table for two will be served poached chicken, a whole steamed fish, stir-fried leafy greens, a small dish of pickles and a drink (tea, coffee or lemonade) for NT$400 per person. The portions are generous, and this basic set augments as the number of people at the table increases.

Our seabass arrives piping hot, freshly steamed in a light soy sauce base. The vegetables are perfumed with crushed garlic and do not leave me feeling like I’ve ingested an oil slick, which is often the case when eating out. Pickled turnips are a refreshing palate cleanser.

Only the chicken, which arrives as a cold starter, takes a bit of getting used to. The restaurant uses older birds that have built up muscle from running around, prizing the firmer texture of their flesh. Aromatics are kept to a minimum, so as not to distract from the pure taste of the chicken. Auntie Hsieh herself, Hsieh Pao-tsai (謝寶猜), tells me that this is the way Taiwanese like to eat it.

The chicken or fish can also be swapped out for other meats like braised beef or drunken prawns. Crispy and tender deep-fried pork is an excellent alternative. I also sample the burdock tempura, subtly sweet and crunchy without being greasy, and pearlescent pickled white bitter gourd. To find out what else is available, your best bet is to ask the boisterous staff.

The prix fixe deal gives you access to a free-flow supply of vermicelli in a savory broth studded with soft chunks of taro, porridge cooked in the same broth or steamed white rice. This soupy taro vermicelli is actually the restaurant’s signature dish, around which the experience revolves. The communal vat never runs out, but regulars are known to order a personal pot for their tables. Hsieh explains that the main dishes are seasoned sparingly in order to complement the flavorful noodles, so that diners won’t find their meal too cloying.

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