En Route (January 1, 2010)
Coming into Taipei, my first thought was of dumplings. When I laid over here in 2006, there was a little place in the C gates serving jewel-like xiao long bao, Shanghai-style juicy pork dumplings. I would pay a high price — there is a 3% currency conversion charge on my credit cards — but it’s worth it. My second thought was what might await in the business class lounge. I upgraded my second segment by spending all of the miles from my 2006 trip. Would there be a shower? Wi-fi? Dumplings? Where to go first? Hmmm…
Honbaryu restaurant, the noodle and dumpling shop between gates C4 and C5, had a huge line. This was not necessarily a bad thing, as everything was sure to be freshly made. My set of 5 xiao long bao for $4 was as delicious and juicy as I remembered. The fine, thin wrapper, with a pale yellow color suggesting egg noodle dough, was cooked just right. The vinegar with ginger threads is intriguingly different than the accompaniments served in California: the vinegar here has a sweeter, more caramelized flavor. Or is it that they sweetened the ginger? I’d have another order to try to resolve the question, but it’s time to board.
When I printed my confirmation, I was given the option to pre-order my breakfast. I passed on the pork floss porridge and went for the beef shank noodle soup. This was not a decision I made lightly: I actually Googled “Din Tai Fung” beef shank noodles and EVA to see what the heck it was. While mentioned on many flight reports, I only found one person who actually tried it, and there was little to be heard about it. So here is the scoop. The tray arrived with a good sized bowl of dark broth with rice vermicelli and four large hunks of beef; a small plate of pickled greens (tougher than cabbage, more like kale); a medium plate with two slices of mystery pâté in an unrecognizable skin — my guess would be chicken — and an unfamiliar sea vegetable that looked like a wide green bean, had a texture similar to nopales, and tasted like seaweed, with just a touch of sliminess in the center. After nibbling a little from a small bowl of sliced chillies and green onions, I threw in the entire pile: got to practice for tonight.
The soup had a subtle flavor of star anise or five spice; I think they might have diluted it a little too much, but perhaps they are just going for “unobjectionable.” The pieces of beef varied widely. One was more fibrous, like brisket; another was tender and unctuous, like a rich short rib cooked sous vide; and the third was, um, a 1″ diameter translucent mystery part, presumably a tendon. All of it went well with a little “French red wine.” Even now that the tray is gone, the little spots all over my shirt tell the tale of noodles consumed with gusto.
Flight attendants kept taking my empty tea cup and refilling it with strongly brewed oolong; really they should just leave me a pot. Maybe next time I can order that online? But seriously, the main advantage of business class is that the seat cushions are much larger in all directions. It is particularly nice to have thigh support all the way to the knee, so that the front of the cushion doesn’t cut into the backs of my legs when I recline. If only it were less pricey; unfortunately I can’t afford to get used to this.
Coming into Bangkok, the temperature was a broiling 90+ degrees, not counting the effect of humidity. The four of us on this flight rushed through passport control, changed some money, waited (and waited, and waited) for our bags, and then sauntered through customs. We met Kasma, three travelers from the earlier flight, and our two drivers in the busy waiting area, and headed out for our first fine meal: a lunch in many courses.
A. Mallika is a popular spot a bit off the beaten path. Normally quiet for lunch, the New Year had brought a large crowd. Dishes arrived slowly. We started with a miang featuring pickled mackeral and the usual accompaniments, all to be wrapped in lettuce leaves. Crispy fried sprigs of fern-like cha om, topped with a stir-fry of shrimp, squid, and ground pork or chicken, was delicious and tasted oddly familiar (like potato chips? peanut oil??). A hunk of fried pork shank featured a crispy skin and thick layer of tasty fat around tender meat around an imposing bone; a tangy chilli-citrus dipping sauce helped balance the richness. Soft shelled crab nestled among leaves of deep-fried basil, while chayote greens were simply flavored with Thai oyster sauce. Before icy desserts, we scorched our palates on sliced ostrich with holy basil, garlic, and a more than generous serving of chillies. Although service was slower than usual, it was a very worthwhile stop.
The Grand Tower Inn was ready for us, and it only took a few minutes to get our room keys and drop our bags. Then I headed out to the train station for a brief ride to the On Nut station, and the nearest DTAC mobile phone store. Originally, I had planned to buy a USB modem for the computer, but my new phone says it can do the job. I will test that overnight and see whether I need to come back tomorrow for additional items. At least I can receive test calls, and I have gotten a number of unreadable text messages from the phone company (the Thai characters display as boxes, not that I could understand them if they displayed as Thai characters). I hope these messages aren’t important!
For dinner, we crossed Sukhumvit to My Choice restaurant. Because many trip members claimed not to be very hungry, we ordered smaller than usual portions, but we managed to cover many of the restaurant’s best dishes. First out was tender duck, sliced into just-bigger-than-bite-sized pieces, and topped with stir-fried greens. Next we got two salads. The first featured thin cross-slices of wing bean topped with fried shallots and chopped peanuts. (We cleaned this plate immediately!) The second paired chunks of long green eggplant that had been charbroiled tender with shrimp and fresh shallots. Two curries completed the set: one a wickedly hot dry “Southern Style” chicken curry, and the other a rich and sweet red coconut milk curry. We sampled shots of the local SangSom rum (I brought the bottle), which didn’t douse the fire. Nor did seconds and thirds of rice. Finally, coconut milk sorbet with lemon basil seeds provided some cooling relief while Kasma discussed some of our plans for tomorrow.