Few people who come to Taiwan for a brief visit go out of their way to see "the other side of the hill," an area filled with wonderful tribal people, good cuisine, and multiple species of poisonous snakes. The problem: We only have one road and two train routes joining the nation's western coast to its eastern one.
Well, we had a road. It was washed out during last year's typhoon season.
But if you find yourself, as I did, living in Taiwan for more than three years and never having ventured beyond the popular locales of Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung—as well as a brief jaunt to the famous Taroko Gorge—it's a bit embarrassing. I found myself being asked, "Where do I go in Taiwan?" Spending most days holed up in my home office or art studio in Taipei, I don't get out much, so I bought a ticket to the southern tip of the island with no solid plan of return.
I spent my first two nights in a fishing village inhabited by a bunch of artists, one of whom happened to be the original drummer for Arcade Fire. I was given a tip to bus and hitchhike the East Coast, the other side of the hill, starting in Dulan.
Located just north of Taitung, Dulan is a small town of something like 3,000 people, and holds the distinction of having the highest concentration of artists on the island. It reminded me of my old hometown of Sonoma, California: locals without computers or cell phones by choice, a fine brewery with live outdoor music, and a lot of people who live comfortably on either side of the artsy-to-fartsy spectrum.
The train from Kaohsiung to Taitung, the nearest city to Dulan, took a few hours, followed by a two-hour bus ride. Needless to say, I was fucking hungry when I arrived in Dulan.
When I got off the bus, the first thing I saw was a burrito truck. Sitting in the middle of nowhere, Taiwan. Dripping , spinning on the heat.
To be clear, you don't find this kind of stuff here. Even our better beach resorts have a few noodle shops and a bar, at best.
Getting closer to the vendor, I recognized the name. Anita's Cantina, a former Mexican spot in Taichung, had retired out to the beach and started a truck among the other free spirits. I had been ordering Anita's hot sauce for years, but my source had told me she shut down and moved away. To find her and her husband, Paddy, on the side of a road in a town that very few go to was nothing short of amazing. Next to the al pastor rotisserie were two machines, one serving smoothies and the other with margaritas.
Anita carves the meat off the stick the way you'd see it done all over Mexico City. She lays it on a fresh tortilla and sprinkles it with salsa and chunks of pineapple. After that, you can choose from her homemade hot sauces, which come in original, verde, and pineapple.
Later, in search of a place to stay for the night, I came across a hostel called Dulan 102. On the chalkboard sign outside of it, inscribed under "Rooms Available," were the words "Mexican Food!"
Where the fuck was I?
Inside the hostel, a nice woman from Taiwan and her husband from Holland greeted me and checked me in. In the back sat Sheldon, a chef from Los Angeles who has lived in Taiwan for a while. But Sheldon was a man of few words. When I asked one of the hostel owners if I could take pictures of him cooking, and I was told, "You can't even fucking to him when he's cooking."
But what he lacked in conversation he more than made up for with his food. Sheldon's wet burrito may be the best burrito in all of Asia—perhaps even better than those at Viva Cantina in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The crazy thing is that Sheldon's wet burrito is entirely vegetarian. Having not been told this beforehand, I was convinced that it was filled with a good heaping of pork with vegetables and rice spewing out of a Taiwan-made tortilla, covered in red sauce that will make your mouth sweat. But no, it was soy "meat," and I loved it.
Three of these wet burritos later, on my last night at the hostel, I finally asked the man of great skill and few words why he chose to make burritos in Dulan. Being a Taipei person for years, I was enamored with the whole place.
"Well, I was tired of shit Mexican food," he said.
That was all the explanation I needed.