The Friends Of Armed Forces Association Restaurant (軍友餐廳) at the Taipei Hero House is famous for its breakfast buffet, mostly because of its NT$100 price in an expensive part of Taipei, just a few blocks from Ximen MRT station.
Over the last few years, Hero House has been trying to market the meal as a buffet of soldiers’ food, a questionable strategy that’s currently fronted by the tag line, “Double your vitality and gain full combat power to take on a bright day” (讓您精神加倍， 戰力十足，迎接光明的一天).
Still, their breakfast is not exactly the food of soldiers. Many menu items are served in the armed forces, but they’re also traditional Taiwanese breakfast foods, for instance congee with all the fixings.
For NT$100, it’s a bounty. You get a fresh dessert soup, such as red or green bean porridge. At the restaurant’s far left, a table has steamed buns on a tray, plus an unexpectedly chewy rice congee sprinkled with mung bean and Job’s tears (pearl barley). It’s joined by ceremonial leaf-shaped plates of toppings: candied beans, two kinds of pickles, a great sour radish.
One table down, there’s a weak gesture at a Continental breakfast, featuring grapefruit, pats of butter and a commercial oven that makes prettily browned toast. There was no line for toast, and the most popular item at the station was grapefruit.
The buffet’s specialty is the rotating entrees. There are five dishes daily, and the combination is rarely the same.
On Thursday, it was chicken cubes, garlic pork chops, Chinese wolfberries, seaweed and cabbage. The day before that, it was chicken cubes, vermicelli noodles with pork, bean sprouts, sweet mustard greens and Taiwanese-style tempura (boiled seafood paste, 甜不辣) smothered in a thickened sauerkraut sauce.
As a rule, dishes are low in detectable fat, salt and gourmet accents, and that adds rather than subtracts. The vermicelli noodles are less greasy than what you’d get at a night market, so that you can even taste the separate ingredients: the porkiness of the pork, the cleanness of the rice noodle, the individual vegetables. The sprouts, served in a hash with carrots and other vegetables, look like nothing special but are tender.
The worst shortcoming is that depending on when you get to them, the food is either warm or cold. Pretend you’re in the army. Or fill up on eggs. In the corner there’s a hot egg bar, manned by a friendly cook who prepares them a different way each day. Monday is poached, Tuesday and Friday are boiled with soy sauce and tea, Wednesday is fried, Thursday is stewed and the weekends are scrambled.
The eggs, like everything else at the buffet, are basic rice-belt foods that you would still find at traditional breakfast buffets — if you can find a traditional breakfast buffet. Among an endangered breed, the Taipei Hero House breakfast has survived, apparently on revenue from its hotel guests (once predominately servicemen and now mostly tourists) and from retired soldiers who live in the neighborhood, who on any given day can be found in the restaurant eating alone.