Carolyn J. Phillips • Los Altos, CA
The old Taipei railroad station was a mess, but I loved it all the same. Built by the Japanese back at the beginning of the last century, it was small and full of character, but could only handle a very limited number of travelers, so a new one was built a short while ago that is a modern marvel of engineering and design.
I miss the old one, though. And not only for the station itself, but also for all the little eateries that used to surround it, a tumble of ramshackle buildings that were razed as part of the downtown modernization.
Our favorite eatery was a Shanghainese pork place tucked away in a small alley off to the right of the station. It was a total health and fire hazard, and consisted of little more than a tiny, rickety, corrugated metal shack with some wonky chairs and tables out in the alley. The kitchen was just a plank shelf with huge vats of marinating pork chops, thick noodles, or braised pork omelets, and beside them were ancient propane burners cradling a couple of vile, crusted woks filled with a frying oil that must have predated most of the diners.
Even in the hottest weather, the cooks never relied on refrigeration – the salty marinade and the fast turnover would have made chilling their meats even in tropical Taiwan a complete waste of time, and besides, the grizzled old guys who ran the place were not slaves to the niceties of running a restaurant or anything as sissy as health codes.
Cockroaches the size of Brazil nuts clambered around, but no one paid them much mind unless they set foot on a table. Dogs scrambled underneath picking up dropped bones and motorbikes whizzed down the alley, barely missing the rapt diners. The walls were a greasy black, the surface of the floors (linoleum? cardboard? newspaper?) had long ago disappeared under a crumbly slick, and the kitchen crew was a bunch of cranky Mainland veterans of the war against the Japanese who made it clear that they’d be so much happier once you left.
In other words, it was the perfect place to find a great dish.
We’d always sidle in with great anticipation and a good dose of wariness. Would this be the day a snarling cook or maybe a giant firestorm would do us in? We were never sure, but it was certainly worth the risk. Their pork chops were, to put it simply, the best I’ve ever eaten: soaked in a sweet soy marinade, their edges caramelized during a quick deep fry so that the sugary salty crunch yielded to juicy perfection. And their ground pork wrapped in a thin omelet was sublime, for it was napped with syrupy dregs from the bottom of the pork chop fryer.
Nothing remains of this wonderful ode to pork. It lingers in the past, like a beloved, cantankerous old relative whose hygiene was often questionable and whose manners left a lot to be desired, but after whose passing becomes so synonymous with the blissful memories of a certain time and place that he transcends his shortcomings and grows into a figure that is nothing short of mythical.