Good Times With Fine Coffee in Old Houses
Article ＿ Chen Wanjing
Old houses have a special type of tranquility. People enter and find themselves slowly absorbed by them, as if taking a ride in a time machine, immersed in the atmosphere of yesteryear. Features such as mottled walls and antique wood-frame windows bring back long-forgotten days, as though springing forth from old black-andwhite films, transformed with the vivid colors of the present day. In this issue we visit three cafés housed in renovated historical buildings. Under the care of a new generations, their historical elegance has been maintained. In this new era, they burst with new vitality while brimming with the aroma of coffee.
Boan 84 – Coffee “Clinic”
In the past, Baoan Street (保安街) in the city’s Dadaocheng (大稻埕) sector had earned the nickname “Doctor Street” (醫生街), as it was filled with clinics and pharmacies. Boan 84 is in what was originally the Shuntian Surgical Hospital (順天外科醫院), opened by Taiwan’s first Taiwan-born surgeon, Xie Tang-shan (謝唐山). The facility’s renovation has given life to a new composite facility with a café, art gallery, cultural- creative merchandise sales section, and performance space.
The key architectural features of the old building, erected in 1912, have been faithfully preserved. These include the elegant original hospital fascia signboard, wash-stone outer walls with their decorative plant-and-flower carvings, and Greek-style columns. The long, narrow townhouse-style structure seems to draw people inside. On the first floor, red brick in the flooring circles the location of the original consulting room. The space beside the atrium, originally the surgery, is today a bathroom, wittily identified with a sign with the words “Emergency Room.”
Head up the stairs to the second floor, where the white wall on the left is made up of small mosaic tiles; this type is no longer produced, and today they are showing their age, the rows having become uneven. The windows on the third floor have the original wood frames and latticework, giving them a very distinctive look. The new-design stepped stage brings players and audiences closer together, engendering a new-era experimental spirit. Miss Mi (咪姊), the café’s manager, says that to blend in with the atmosphere of the old place a retro-style Italian espresso machine was specially chosen, which complements the single- origin siphon coffee brewed.
With each serving of single-origin coffee a small cup of ice coffee is also served, which prepares the palate for the coffee’s aroma and acidity, enhancing the hot coffee’s subtlety. The café’s ice drip coffee is also very popular. The natural fermentation process brings out an elegant wine-like fragrance. The addition of ice cubes made with ice drip coffee brings deep satisfaction to the passionate caffeine addict.
Tadpole Point – Explore the Flavors of an Old Military Dependents’ Community
The Treasure Hill military dependents’ community, which once faced demolition, was reborn as an artist village that the New York Times has declared one of Taipei’s best attractions. Meander up the gentle slope here and soon the small Tadpole Point (尖蚪) signboard appears. An old briefcase serves as a doorstop, keeping the door wide open to invite everyone inside. A distinctive curtain marks off the work area. Head up to the second floor to enter another world, relaxing on the comfy old-style leather sofas in the living room or the Japanese-style cushions placed in front of the windows. Dive into the cozy study and dig into whatever catches your eye in the bookcase, on a voyage of discovery through the owners’ reading preferences.
Tadpole Point has a homey feel. This is the specific intent of the owners, A-Fa (阿發) and Little Xi (小嬉) – continuation of the atmosphere found in the original military dependents’ settlement. The furnishings are simple, with interesting old things from their private collection casually placed here and there, bringing many a knowing smiles from customers. Speaking with sincerity, A-Fa says that the tadpole in the café’s name is a “screaming” tadpole; biologists have found that tadpoles emit a high-frequency scream-like sound when encountering danger.
Thus, he wants the message of the café to be that we must all support each other, and help each other grow strong. Influenced by the Japanese manga series Shinya Shokudō, known in English as Midnight Diner, the aim of Tadpole Point is the same relationship as that between the diner and its regulars, sharing the common foods of everyday life. One example is the freshmade mentaiko rice balls (明太子飯糰; “mentaiko” is marinated pollock/ cod roe), in which the balls are smeared with mentaiko mayonnaise and baked. The dish has a refreshing sweet/salty taste. Accompanied by hand-drip iced coffee, this is an especially appealing treat at the height of summer when appetites are somewhat diminished.
Each year A-Fa, himself an artist-in-residence at Treasure Hill, invites other artists to stage exhibitions, in keeping with the special “collective” spirit of the community. In this “secret base” at the edge of the city, the imagination is allowed to run free, and new possibilities for old houses, and for people, are explored.
SheMe House – Old Grain Warehouse, Coffee Bean Aromas
Push open the gray-blue metal gate, walk through the lush little courtyard, and you stand before an old Beitou grain warehouse built during the Japanese era (1938). It reemerged as the SheMe House after renovations by the café’s youthful operators – a place where the luscious aromas of coffees and confections float through the air.
To save the warehouse’s original look, renovation work was kept to a minimum. To preserve the high-wall ventilation windows, supplementary 45cm-thick brick walling was introduced. Windows and walls help with ventilation, heat dissipation, and prevention of moisture buildup. This is architectural knowledge derived from the original owners to ensure that the nature of the stored grain did not change. By happy coincidence it suits the green architecture concepts of today.
If the wooden ceiling had not rotted and been replaced with metal siding, the interior would be a lot cooler. On both sides of the interior of SheMe House, transparent corrugated sheeting is used, allowing in the natural light. This saves on artificial lighting during the day and provides a feeling of warmth in winter. Well aware of the current obsession with coffee and love of sweet treats, a transparent-compartment design was chosen for the bean-roasting and baking rooms, showing customers the freshness involved in preparations. Quality beans are sourced from growers around the world, which are slow-roasted to ensure a polished finish. The myriad house-made desserts feature seasonal fruits cultivated with natural methods. The menu, thus, changes with the seasons.
The pastry chef, Su Yi-fan (蘇怡帆), specially recommends the pumpkin cheese tart accompanied by hand-drip Ecuadorian coffee, the coffee’s tea fragrance highlighting that of the pumpkin, and the pineapple pound cake with a handdrip Kenyan coffee, which emphasizes the pineapple’s sweet/sour character. Long ago an artery plied by long lines of ox-carts, Beitou’s Datong Street (大同街) is today a quiet roadway to which hipsters come in search of aromatic coffees. New life has been given to this old grain warehouse, with the rich spirit of the agricultural world given respect in its floating coffee fragrances.