Taipei’s beef noodle soup
Every great city is defined by a handful of iconic dishes that draw heated discussion among local foodies. Where does one experience the best croissant in Paris, the best bowl of ramen in Tokyo, the best slice of pizza in New York City? In the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, a city with an eclectic range of Chinese cuisine, the dish that inspires the greatest passion and most diverse opinion is undoubtedly beef noodle soup.
It was the Chinese civil war between Chairman Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists that brought this hearty dish to Taiwan. Retreating Nationalist troops from mainland China’s Sichuan province introduced a spicy version to the island in 1949. Beef noodle soup has since evolved into countless variations and has grown in popularity to become Taiwan’s national dish. It is so important to Taipei that the city holds its own beef noodle festival each year.
There are almost 3000 beef noodle restaurants in Taipei. The range of preferences – spicy red braised or clear broth; tendon, tripe or shank; thin, ribbon or knife-cut noodles – means that if you sing the praises of a celebrated restaurant to a local, you are still likely to be met with, “Oh, there’s a much better place than that.” Another familiar refrain is, “There are no beef noodles better than the ones my mother makes.” Essentially, beef noodle soup is Taiwan’s comfort food.
One of the most famous of all Taipei beef noodle restaurants is Lin Dong Fang, located in central Zhongshan district and open from 11am to 3am. When I first visited in 2015, it was spread over two shopfronts with a couple of huge cauldrons of rich brown broth bubbling away by the footpath and a slightly smaller pot simmering with starchy water for the thick noodles. Lin Dong Fang built its reputation on flavoursome clear-broth noodles that were said to include herbs from traditional Chinese medicine. It was opened in 1976 by the eponymous Mr Lin, who claims the recipe was passed down from his grandmother. Although it was high summer, people were lined up outside in the heavy humidity, waiting their turn to hunch over a steaming hot bowl of beef noodle soup served in a plain metal bowl with only a few electric fans as airconditioning.
When Michelin issued their first guide to Taipei last year, Lin Dong Fang was one of eight beef noodle restaurants out of 36 establishments cited as Bib Gourmand Restaurants that serve “exceptionally good food at modest prices”. Today, the restaurant has moved a few doors up the street, with a fitout that includes timber panels, sparkling granite bricks and polished concrete walls. Diners get only a glimpse of the ground-floor kitchen as they ascend a steel staircase to a long, narrow airconditioned dining room. A sign on the wall states (in English): “Crafting the perfect bowl of beef noodles is like directing a masterpiece of cinema … Much like a lead is nothing without their supporting cast, our beef noodles are nothing without the soup, the stock, the spices.”
Diners can turbocharge their herbal bovine broth with a spoonful of the restaurant’s chilli-infused beef butter, which can be purchased by the jar. Now served in an earthenware bowl, the soup has not changed and the price of a generous “small bowl” of “half beef/half tendon” has risen slightly from 190 to 220 New Taiwan dollars or $10. As Taiwan is the world’s most mountainous island with 286 summits above 3000 metres, there are few cattle farms and local beef is priced at a premium. Most of the beef found in Taiwan’s beef noodle soup is sourced from Australia and the thick cuts of slow-cooked Australian beef shank at Lin Dong Fang are deliciously tender. The gelatinous tendon is pleasantly chewy as are the hand-pulled wheat noodles.
While beef noodle soup is generally a cheap eat, Taipei also has a number of higher-end offerings. One of the most renowned is Regent Taipei, a luxury hotel also in Zhongshan district. Their 2012 Champion Beef Noodles took out first prize in the clear-broth category at the eighth Taipei International Beef Noodle Festival. At the time of his victory, Regent Taipei chef Zhang Ching-an was, at 24, the youngest chef to enter the competition. Zhang grew up on his grandmother’s clear-broth beef noodles, which he considers unsurpassable. “These noodles remind me of my childhood and my grandmother,” he says. “It’s just so familiar … and evokes such nostalgia and warmth.”
Zhang’s noodles feature at Azie, the Regent’s grand cafe, as well as on the room service menu. A trio of thick slices of slow-cooked Australian beef shank feature alongside bird’s nest fern, a crunchy and slightly bitter green from Taiwan’s mountains, and hand-pulled noodles. The winning recipe also has a French touch with three kinds of mushrooms sautéed in garlic butter and a lightly seasoned beef bone consommé that is deliciously drinkable down to the last spoonful. This and the original spicy braised version, a thick dark soup with American rib eye beef and tendon, are priced at New Taiwan dollars 550 including service charge ($25). In the luxury beef noodle stakes, Taiwan’s most expensive is at Niu Ba Ba “Ox Daddy”, which prices its Presidential Beef Noodle Soup with locally raised wagyu beef at NTD 10,000 (about $460).
The hippest new arrival on Taipei’s beef noodle scene is Good Mommy & Co, which opened in downtown Da’an district last year. Upon entering, diners are greeted with a powerful aroma of bone broth wafting from the open kitchen and the sounds of old-school hip-hop. The restaurant’s menu is entirely in Chinese, apart from the words “Tasty”, “Good Vibes” and “Cash Only”, and offers the choice of braised soy or clear broth and three kinds of noodles: flat ribbon, thicker ones hand-sliced from a lump of dough, and thin noodles. The decor includes roughly painted concrete walls with ’90s movie posters, photos of Biggie Smalls, Tupac and Bruce Lee, a vintage arcade game and skateboard decks. Good Mommy & Co raises the hipster stakes with a speakeasy hidden behind a curtain. Come evening, young bartenders with sleeve tattoos serve cocktails such as a Mexironi, a riff on a negroni with Campari, Plantation rum and mescal.
This afternoon, however, I am here for the noodles with Pia Chung, 35, the producer of a local travel television show. We opt for clear broth with ribbon noodles and soy broth with thin noodles, plus a couple of empty bowls to divide the two between us. The braised soy broth remixes the classic red braised Taipei style with a touch of Tokyo shoyu broth, but we both find it a touch salty. Of the two soups, the clear braised broth is the clear winner.
“This is Tainan style,” she says of the thin raw beef slices cooked in scalding soup, favoured in the southern Taiwanese city. The ribbon noodles are nice and chewy with a balanced bone broth and thin-sliced Australian beef reminiscent of Vietnamese pho. “It’s good,” she adds, “but the best beef noodles in the world are the ones my mum cooks.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Broth’s keepers". Subscribe here.