Ask any Taiwanese what their number one to-eat dish is and the answer is likely to be Niu Rou Mian. Originally a Northern Chinese recipe, it eventually made it’s way to Taiwan when millions of Nationalist Mainlanders fled the Middle country to escape Communism (source : Travel in Taiwan). It’s a relatively simple recipe, but that’s also why so many adore it. Niu Rou (beef) Mian (noodles) are slow cooked beef slices (Either sirloin or stewing (braising) beef is used) ; spicy soya sauce (or lighter clear broth ; some vegetables and the all important mian. Today Niu Rou Mian’s popularity is so wide spread and deeply rooted in Taiwan’s gastroculture that there is an annual Beef Noodle Festival with the intent to rubber stamp Taipei as the bona-fide capital of Beef noodles. Speaking of Taipei, the city is like a really large open-air food hall. There is just too much to eat. On almost every other street corner, you’ll likely find mobile kitchen units. These movable street vendors are usually manned by single individuals, selling a savory or sweet snack and with nothing but the loudness of their voice as their main form of advertisement. If there is something you crave, chances are you’ll likely run into a street seller just by walking down the street. With such a wide selection, the problem isn’t finding something ‘authentic’ in the city, it’s about finding where the real gems are hidden. Of course, like many things in the world of food, the way to find out about the best in town is through word of mouth. Fortunately for me, I have my entire extended family in Taipei to help me put this hit-list together. On this occasion, we went to three of the most established names in the Taipei Beef Noodle scene, namely Lao Chang, Lin Dong Fang and an unnamed shop in Taoyuan Street. This isn’t the stuffy world top 50 awards folks; This is old fashion, word of mouth street food opinion. Let’s get slurping.
Contestant Number One : Lao Chang Niu Rou Mian
Lao Chang is one of the most respected families in the business. It’s a brand respected and celebrated by the local residents and as far as I know, their noodles are so dependable that it’s usually a representative destination for tourists looking to sample Taiwan’s national treasure. Therefore, it seems fitting for us to start our Beef Noodle adventure with Lao Chang.
One of the unique features of beef noodle houses are their selection of ‘Xiao Chai’ or small dishes. Usually pre-cooked and prepared on a counter as a kind of self-service sort of thing, while there are some staple dishes such as bean curd, tofu and pickled bitter gourd, each restaurant has their own family recipes unique to them alone. I suppose you can treat them as side-dishes, it’s a little more inventive than say garlic spinach and chips. At Lao Chang, we opted for their shredded beancurd, some greens (unfortunately I forgot what they were) and one of their signature small dishes – steamed spare ribs with rice flour. I liked the sort of chilli spiked oatmeal packed with the wholesome spare ribs – we have imitations of this in London, particularly at Leong’s Legends, but when compared, it is like a photocopy of a photograph.
OK, onto the mainshow, Lao Chang’s Niu Rou Mian.
Their signature rendition is a spicy braised soup, reddish in colour and equally potent in taste. The stock is decidedly beefy, and almost carries hints of marmite and also flavours of soya beans. The soup is hearty and the balance of spicy punch against the bovine is just right, with just a light layer of oil – nothing in London compares. Their beef noodles also come in a lighter, clearer broth, free of oil and devoid of spiciness, but still rich in beefiness, we ordered both and also with tendons and beef – half and half as they say. The slow stewed beef exhibited hallmark rip-away-tenderness and with the broth completely soaked into the meat, carried with it a soggy richness – this is textbook good. Though sadly, I thought the noodles were just textbook good. Full of bounce but not dense enough. It easily slipped away from my chopsticks and they tasted a little too rigid, with little inherent flavour, most of all, it didn’t have that oxygen releasing wow factor that I associate with great noodles.
In the end, I thought Lao Chang was pretty good, but not outstanding – the worst of this lot. Everything was textbook, still it beats everything we have in London. Interestingly enough, there is another reputed Niu Rou Mian house situated next door to Lao Chang called Yung Kang which some argue is the better half. But both noodle houses have their set of fans and are split down the middle. My extended family so happened to favour Lao Chang to Yung Kang. Maybe next trip I guess.
Contestant Number Two : Lin Dong Fang Niu Rou Mian
When we arrived at high noon, it had a queue. A pretty long one, which gave me a good quarter of an hour to photograph the surroundings. This place is proper old school and is actually spread over three separate old shop houses. The owner had chosen to maintain the traditional setting – something which I appreciated as I think Taipei’s old shop houses are now attaining a kind of vintage ambiance with time. What can I say? I’m always hopelessly in the mood for romance.
Right then, let’s start with their small dishes. Beancurd, Dragon whiskers with ginger and Bamboo shoots.
The small dishes here are modest, nothing to shout about, oh and the Dragon whiskers is really just a fancy name. It’s blanched vegetables.
Ok here we go, presenting Lin Dong Fang’s Niu Rou Mian.
Alright, this particular recipe is slightly different. The soup is something special – it is supposedly made with a medley of secret herbs, giving it a Chinese medicinal, herbal style taste with just a faint beef flavour, but that’s not the only thing that makes it something special. The soup is relatively mild in terms of flavour, instead, the real USP is the home-made beef butter concoction. Supposedly derived from beef stock, beef fat, oil and chillies giving way to a kind of grainy chilli beef butter which would actually make for a good sandwich spread. That stuff is amazing, it’s elemental in that it’s buttery, spicy and beefy. When the butter hits the soup, it melts and turns the soup into an oily and spicy red soup – basically the customer has the opportunity to control the degree of spiciness with this garnish. It’s like a sort of secret ingredient, when added to the relatively light herbal broth, really turns it into an eye-opening mouthful. Chilli herbs, woah. I also asked for mine to be half tendon and half beef slices – the tendons were similar to Lao Chang, springy marrow-like flavours. Naturally, the beef slices were also melt-them-polar-ice-caps fantastic though the superstar of this dish were the noodles. In a word : awesome. The noodles were dense and had amazing soaking ability. This meant that as the beef butter melted into the soup; the noodles start absorbing more flavour. They tasted better and denser the longer it stayed in the soup. Oh and yes, out of these three places, Lin Dong Fangs’ noodles were the ones that had that oxygen releasing liveliness of great hand-pulled noodles. This was brilliant, the more I ate it, the better it tasted. I just couldn’t get enough, I ate half of my partner’s portions too. This is the reason why I’m 80 kgs now.
This isn’t the average Niu Rou Mian, the soup is herbal, it has beef butter (that’s my term, and also sold separately in jars..) and the noodles are out of this world lively. What do we say, al dente? Hell yeah.
Lin Dong Fang Niu Rou Mian (林東芳牛肉麵) £3
274 Bade Road, Sec 2 (八德路二段274號（中央日報旁)
Tel : 02 2752 2556
Contestant Number Three : Tao Yuan Street Niu Rou Mian
Finally we go to Ximending to visit one of the most well regarded beef noodle houses in Taipei. This one is quirky – it has no name and so people simply refer to it as the ‘One at Tao Yuan Street’. Firstly, abit of culture, Ximending is home to Taipei’s oldest theatre – The Red House, now a tourist landmark of sorts – and was once the busiest Theatre street in town, sort of analogous to the West End I suppose. Incidentally ‘Ximen’ means West Gate. Anyway, today, it’s otherwise nicknamed the ‘Hirajuku’ of Taipei, home to independent fashion shops, Japanese stationery and book shops and otherwise funky youth culture outlets. Cinemas, lights, pretty girls and massive billboards – sinner’s paradise.
Tao Yuan Street’s nameless shop is nonsensical, lit with garish white fluorescence painting a sobering ambiance, as if it was some sort of interrogation room. Service was terse, disciplined and serious, it kind of gave me the impression of a sort of prison mess, ala Wentworth Miller’s screwdriver. Anyway, customers slurp their noodles with a military-like demeanor; the room was mostly quiet, anti-chatter so deafening, pins dare not drop. I spotted a signage inside the shop which loosely translated to ‘The only shop, genuine article, no branches, no exceptions’. It doesn’t even announce itself as a Beef noodle house. Packed to the brim when we visited, and we had to share a large table with strangers.
OK here it is – Tao Yuan Street’s finest.
Woah. This is another style of Beef noodles completely unique and different to the two other noodle houses. The soup is greasy and has a deep beefiness about it. The no-nonsense philosophy is carried into it’s food – no tendons here, just beef, lots of it. I love the beef here. Deep spiciness matched with rich beefiness. It’s salty and the beef are thick cut with wonderful fatty bits that manages the now familiar disintegrate-upon-chewing tenderness. I didn’t like the noodles here though, for some reason, it didn’t quite match up to the quality of the beef. Perhaps there was just a tad too much oil, making the noodles heavy instead of lively.
Still, it was an awesome bowl of beef noodle soup, albeit an intense experience – second to Lin Dong Fang I’m afraid.
Tao Yuan Street Niu Rou Mian, £3.
15 Tao Yuan Street
MRT : Ximending Station
Links : Tripadvisor
And the winner is…
On this particular trip, it has got to be Lin Dong Fang. The noodles really did it for me, it was lively and springy, the herbal soup was an interesting twist and that beef butter just rounded off an excellent beef noodle experience. Honestly though, I am comparing the local favorites in the city – all three noodle houses have their loyal customer base, and choice is a matter of taste, so to speak. I don’t think one can really go too far wrong with beef noodle soup in Taipei, the standard is just so high that I somehow think it’s impossible to have a bad bowl of niu rou mian… well I say impossible. Regardless, the benchmark is way, way higher than in London and there are tens, if not hundreds more noodle houses in Taipei which I’ve not been to. There is another called Liao Jia which I wrote about here that I visited in 2009. The noodles were exceptional, if not better than Lin Dong Fangs’ and they specialise in a clear broth made with ox tail and in the absence of soya sauce, as opposed to popular red braised one with lots of soya.
Well, my niu rou mian education was enlightening if not fattening. I hope you found this resource useful, my Taipei conquests doesn’t end here; Next Tuesday is going to be Authentic Taiwanese Cuisine – six restaurants, six perspectives into Taipei’s finest, all in one piece.