Columnist: Ted Pigott Ted's Beyonder Story
(The First Article in a Three Part Series)
I’ll be the first to admit that when I came to Taipei in 1996, some of the things that I loved most back in America–specifically coffee, pizza, and beer–were pretty far at the back of my mind.
As a young, eager student of Mandarin Chinese, I wanted to study Chinese—and drink as much tea as possible, especially after I discovered the sweet, milky magic that I came to know as “珍珠奶茶.”
As for pizza, why should I bother when I could find beef noodles, dumplings, deep-fried chicken cutlets, pork chops with rice, and teppanyaki almost anywhere in the city, at almost any hour of the day or night?
Plus, I could always wash it all down with Taiwan beer, a light and refreshing lager that I grew to like, which was good, because it was pretty much the only beer widely available at the time.
To be perfectly honest, twenty years ago, options for good coffee, pizza, and beer in Taipei were fairly limited, and you just had to make the best of what you could find.
Fast-forward twenty years. Today in Taipei, it is outrageously easy to find outstanding coffee, high-quality pizza, and premium craft beer in the city.
And since I love all three of these things in equal measure, this has made me a very happy Taipei resident.
Taipei—A City of Coffee
Let’s start off this series of articles with the thing I start off most every day with—coffee. In fact, when I’m grinding the beans to make my first cup of the day, I usually think of the opening lines from the Beastie Boys song “Super Disco Breakin’”: “Well, it’s fifty cups of coffee / and you know it’s on.”
Now, I may not drink fifty cups of coffee a day, but I do appreciate a fine cup of joe, and I will drink my fair share of hot java throughout a typical week. You might go as far as to say that I am a bit of a coffee “addict,” since my day is a whole lot better when I have a cup of black gold in the morning.
I certainly know that tea is a “national treasure” in Taiwan, and I always drink it whenever it is offered to me here, especially when visiting others in their homes.
Honestly speaking, though, I simply like coffee more.
Perhaps my palette is not developed enough to appreciate all the subtleties and nuances of the different styles and grades of tea. Or maybe I prefer the taste (and the smell) of the drink I grew up with—coffee. Or I guess you might even say that tea simply is not my cup of—er, tea.
All I know is that I think coffee tastes good and that it’s easier than ever before to find good coffee in Taipei, which is a good thing for a coffee lover like me!
As a student in Taipei in the mid-90s, I have to confess that I drank Nescafe instant coffee (“Just add hot water!”) for my first few months here, until I finally figured out where I could buy coffee beans. In fact, some of the first Chinese characters I made sure to learn were “咖啡,”and even today, the sight of these characters on a sign or billboard always fills me with joy, because I know that I’ll be able to get some coffee if I should want some.
I would look for these characters when I made the trek over to the Fong Da coffee shop in Ximending to load up on coffee beans. I knew that this shop had opened in 1956, but even in 1997, it seemed retro, almost like a relic from times past. Actually, it still seems pretty much the same today as it did back then.
Over the years that followed, though, a funny thing happened. A coffee roaster opened up in my neighborhood, and all over the city, small, independent coffee shops began to pop up in the lanes and alleys. This was especially true in the areas near Shida and Taida, as well as the Yongkang Street area and the Minsheng Community area.
At the same time, chains like Starbucks, Mr. Brown, and Ikari, among others, began to have a stronger presence in the city. More budget-friendly options like 85°C also began to appear around Taipei.
I myself also began learning more about the history of coffee in Taiwan. Though tea reigns supreme on the island, coffee also can be grown in certain areas of the land. This is something the Dutch must have figured out when they introduced coffee to Taiwan back in the 1600s, according to the history books.
However, it was only later, during the Japanese colonial period between 1895 and 1945, that coffee really became established in Taiwan. Although most of the coffee beans grown in Taiwan were exported back to Japan, a kind of “coffee culture” eventually caught on in Taiwan.
I learned even more about this a few years back when the National Museum of History hosted a wonderful exhibition about “Early Taiwanese Coffee Culture.” It told the story of how cafes and coffeehouses were first set up in Taipei by the Japanese, near the area that is now Ximending. Later, coffee shops were opened by Taiwanese students who had studied abroad and returned to live in Taiwan.
I even visited places in Taiwan where coffee was being grown, up in the mountains of Yunlin and Pingdong. I was always glad to pick up some locally-grown coffee beans and enjoy a cup of coffee that was truly “Made in Taiwan.”
Finding Your Favorite Cafes and Coffee Shops
Today, finding a good cup of coffee in Taipei is not just easy—it’s also a lot of fun. Without a doubt, Taipei has become a happy-hunting ground for coffee lovers like me. Just pick a neighborhood in the city, and you’re sure to find a cool little café or coffee shop on one of the small lanes. According to some reports, there are thousands of independent coffee shops and roasters in the city today.
Personal favorites of mine include Woolloomooloo XinYi (WXY), especially when I’m in the mood for a flat white. Actually, excellent, Australian-inspired coffee can be found at any of the Woolloomooloo locations.
I also like Fika Fika Café, which serves AeroPress-brewed coffee and delicious desserts. With a minimalistic, Scandinavian-inspired décor, this café is a pleasant place to pass a few hours, though it does get crowded in the afternoon and on weekends.
Other coffee shops worth checking out include Rufous Coffee, near Taida, and Caffé Libero, near Yongkang Street. (Honestly speaking, there are dozens of coffee shops and cafes to explore in the alleys in the Gongguan, Shida, and Yongkang Street areas.)
I also enjoy Cama Coffee when I’m looking for a mid-range coffee on the go. My personal favorite Cama is the Dongmen branch on Xinyi Road, near Jinshan South Road. The staff—and the coffee—here are always outstanding.
Frankly, the only problem that a coffee lover in Taipei might have now is trying to visit all of the cafes and coffee shops in the city. It’s a fun—and caffeine-fueled—quest, though, and something I look forward to taking on, since I love drinking a cup of coffee and drawing up a sketch or two in any of the city’s excellent and varied cafés and coffee shops.
I guess it all comes down to this, at least for me.
I love coffee.
I love Taipei.
And I really, really love coffee in Taipei!
Be sure to check out part two (pizza in Taipei) and part three (beer in Taipei) in this series, in the next few months to come!