If I had titled this post “Review of a Vegetarian Buffet”, it might have been the most anti-click-bait article to ever appear on Boarding Area.
Yes, I get it: most of us don’t care about vegetarian meals. However, before closing this tab on your browser, hear me out. Even the most carnivore among you, while in Taipei, may visit a vegetarian buffet and totally have your mind blown. Two reasons:
- While Taiwan is most famous for its cheap street foods, the people here love buffets and have created some that easily put Las Vegas to shame. Premium buffets race each other to wow customers with quality, variety, ambience, and more. It’s not hard to find a place with a larger food selection than Bellagio and Wynn combined.
- With a heavy Buddhist influence, Taiwan has a lot of devoted vegetarians, and far more people who practice vegetarianism on a regular basis. Taiwanese people also love to eat and don’t tolerate bland food. The demand drives some of the top culinary talents to develop fancy meat-less feasts. Like Subway’s Veggie Max or MorningStar’s veggie burgers? They’d hardly survive the competition here.
We planned a lunch with some vegetarian family members, so my dad made a reservation at Lian Xian Zhai (a.k.a. Jen Dow Vegetarian Restaurant). I recalled visiting another vegetarian buffet 20 years ago, which was delicious and etched a deep impression in my mind. When I asked my dad about it, he laughed it off, “Nah, that place from 1997 doesn’t even come close.”
Lian Xiang Zhai took up the entire basement level of a large high rise. It was a bit confusing to walk into an office building, then through its elevator bank, to find the entrance to a restaurant. Beyond the entrance was a small balcony, from which we walked down the grand staircase. Alternatively, two of the elevators shuttled diners from the ground and garage levels.
Lian Xiang Zhai main entrance
Lian Xiang Zhai staircase
Lian Xian Zhai elevator lobby
The reception desk was the least impressive part of the restaurant. It sat between a shiny column and one of the dessert stations. I had a feeling this wasn’t a typical buffet, when food placement started from the lobby.
The reception at 11:30am.
The small lobby right at the restaurant’s lunch opening hour was rather chaotic. Hundreds of people in dozens of groups already had reservations and were just waiting to check in. Supposedly reservations are not required, though it’d be hilarious to show up to this and admit that you did not call ahead.
A host took us through the main hall to our table in one of the side dining rooms. It was close to the food stations but fortunately out of the way of foot traffic.
One of the many dining halls.
Dining table and place setting.
There’s a famous Chinese story describing a granny from a poor village visiting a noble person’s palace gardens. That’s how I felt walking through the main dining hall. I’m a well-traveled food enthusiast with a big appetite, but my jaw literally dropped upon seeing the endless buffet options. I declared defeat knowing that even if I only took a small bite of each dish, I’d end up on the floor like a beached whale before tasting half of the variety.
Part of the main dining hall.
Part of the main dining hall.
Part of the main dining hall.
Despite having spent 2.5 hours there, I can’t confidently say that I found all the food options scattered around the restaurant. I definitely did not get to photograph some of them, and did not taste most of them. The following is my non-exhaustive list:
THE BEVERAGE BAR
An area the size of an NYC studio apartment was dedicated to drinks. A big part of it presented fruit vinegar, something I neither understand nor appreciate. The juice options were exotic, and the (canned) soda selection was comprehensive as well. In order to save room for real food, I avoided the drinks entirely.
Lian Xiang Zhai did not serve any alcohol, but its decor included a lot of liquor bottles.
Shots of vinegar with banana, rose, and another flavor.
THE VEGGIE-NOODLES-HOTPOT STATION
Here you could choose your own veggies, mushrooms, noodles, (vegetarian) tempura, (fake) fish cake, etc, and have the staff boil them plain, cook them in a selection of broths into a mini hot pot, or made into a noodles dish. I loaded up on a week’s worth of fiber here.
A lady picking up her hot pot.
A portion of the selection.
This auntie was preparing my noodles dish, which was topped with a few of the sauces next to the pot.
THE DIM SUM STATION
This station completely made me forget that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. Many dim sum staples weren’t meat-heavy to begin with, so it wasn’t a big leap to serve modified versions here. The amount of steam everywhere was reminiscent of popular eateries in Hong Kong.
Steam steam everywhere.
A variety of steamed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, etc.
Towers of steam baskets.
Some of the dim sum options… A few of them were so good that I came back for seconds.
THE JAPANESE STATION
Probably a misrepresented category label as I didn’t pay attention to what was in any of the trays. The stuff served at both ends of this station came from the Japanese cuisine, though.
Not exactly sure what this bar served.
Chawanmushi, the “tea bowl” steamed egg custard.
Fake sashimi (plant-based) and fish-less sushi rolls.
THE UNCATEGORIZABLE BUNCHES OF DELICIOUSNESS
In addition to the jaw-dropping varieties in the main dining hall, hot and cold buffets lined hallways, sides of the lobby, next to the grand stair case, etc.
Stir fries, rice, noodles, etc.
Synthetic meat dishes, tofu-based delicacies, etc.
The spicy spaghetti was awesome. Presumably the empty pots used to hold even tastier stuff.
Seven soup pots in a row, and this wasn’t even the main soup section.
The grand salad bar for those who insist on raw food.
THE DESSERT STATIONS
Japan has a chain called Sweets Paradise, famous among tourists for its dessert buffets. I’ve been to its Shibuya location, liked it, and am pretty sure that Lian Xiang Zhai’s dizzying dessert selection dwarfs the Japanese restaurant by a wide margin. I’m not big on sweets so can’t comment on the comparative tastes. My dad though ate at least two dinner plates full of these.
Main dessert station
A variety of cakes and cookies. Egg-free items are labeled for the vegans.
More cakes, jellies, etc.
I think those in shot glasses and martini glasses are fruits jellies.
Coffee and tea station, with machines that dispense cappuccinos from beans ground on demand.
Eight flavors of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. There was a constant crowd in front of these refrigerators.
Three or four flavors of Meiji (Japanese brand) fruit gelati.
Premium buffets in Taiwan like to carry both Haagen-Dazs and Meiji.
Asian desserts including red bean soup and almond milk.
WHAT I ATE
Reviewing the pictures just now, I realize that (1) I didn’t photograph everything that I ate, and (2) I really should’ve tried more than I did. Anyhow, here’s what some of the dishes look like up close.
The chawanmushi. This dish traditionally contains seafood, and the version here uses mushrooms for the flavor.
My aunt’s plate of sushi and sashimi. She was also a big fan of their hand roll (not pictured).
Veggie hot pot and dry blended noodles.
Dim sum and spaghetti. Delicate craftsmanship created these buffet-appropriate sizes.
Ice cream in a soup bowl.
LIAN XIAN ZHAI LOGISTICS
Lian Xian Zhai 蓮香齋
No. 188, Section 5, Nanjing East Road, Songshan District
The restaurant is in a residential & commercial district, at the Nanjing Sanmin MRT station. It’s a 800-meter walk from Core Pacific City (a mall you should check out when visiting Taipei), and 2 kilometers from the Songshan Cultural Creative Park.
The official lunch hours on the website run from 11:30 to 1:30. When we visited, they ended the food service at 1:45 and started closing down at 2:00. Everyone arrived at the beginning and many stayed till the very end. As such, while a reservation is technically not required, make yourself one. If you show up and all tables are taken, there’s no such thing as waiting for table turnover within a meal service.
The website lists a price of NT 600 + 10% for lunch, and NT 700 + 10% for dinner and weekends. Based on what we were told at the restaurant, those numbers are outdated and the 600 is now 770 (~USD $30). Because some organizations promote meat-free Mondays, this restaurant now offers a special Monday lunch pricing of NT 575 (~ USD $19). It’s among the more expensive meals I’ve had in Taiwan. However, it’s an amazing value considering what you get.
Next time you’re in Taiwan, of course you must hit up the night markets and have several rounds of amazing street food. In addition, however, do yourself a favor and visit this place. After all, getting your mind blown and tummy filled is what travel is all about!