Taipei’s beef noodle restaurants take on US and Japanese fast food

Restaurants in Taipei are putting new twists on the popular Taiwanese beef noodle soup to combat diners’ growing appetite for burgers and Japanese rice bowls

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 3:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 3:00am

Taiwanese beef noodle soup is world famous, appreciated for its deeply flavoured, rich broth, and long-simmered, tender meat. People in Taiwan have been eating basic versions of this dish for as long as anyone can remember.

But over the past couple of decades, Taiwanese beef lovers have started turning towards American hamburgers and Japanese rice bowls. That trend has prompted beef noodle chefs to create new recipes to keep customers from straying too far into foreign territory.

They are using top cuts of meat or tossing in a salad’s worth of vegetables, for example,to help Taiwan’s beef bowls stand out among similar renditions of the cheap, filling versions that are eaten in many other parts of East Asia.

“Beef noodle soup still has the advantages of tradition and ubiquity,” says Matt Gross, a New York-based food critic who has sampled the noodles of Taipei. Competition, he says, “is coming from cooks and restaurateurs who, because Taiwan is increasingly a forward-thinking, internationally connected country, feel they have the freedom to experiment.”

Two Taipei restaurants, 186 Beef Noodles and Niu Baba, serve the dish, and their versions couldn’t be more different.

A one-room diner and takeaway stand in an older part of Taipei, 186 Beef Noodles boils salt, fruit and vegetables into the broth rather than use flavour enhancers. Its four types of white flour noodles range from a wispy vermicelli to some that are 3mm thick. A takeaway bowl of noodles costs NT$120, about HK$28.50.

“Everyone’s specialty is different and everyone’s recipe is different,” says Lee Tzu-chuan, owner of the seven-year-old shop. “Here I use fruit and vegetables to cook in the broth.”

Niu Baba, which is Putonghua for “cow father”, sits on a hillside among the lavish new housing compounds of northeast Taipei. It serves noodles in floral-patterned bowls that cost the father-son management NT$12,000 each. It’s technically closed to walk-in customers, leaving seats only to people with reservations.

Over its 22 years, the place has gained a name for a bowl of beef noodles that costs NT$10,000 per person. That price offsets the cost of imported meat and the elaborate process to bring out its organic taste without any hint of raw beef. The restaurant sells 30 to 50 of these bowls per month. Niu Baba’s cheapest offering goes for NT$500.

Its chefs take four kinds of beef, all from Australia or the United States, pan fry it, boil it, freeze it overnight and cut it into the best pieces. Oil from the beef is thrown out. Chefs add garlic, onions and tomatoes. The ingredients are offered with five kinds of tailor-made noodles.

“Our braised meat flavour isn’t too strong,” the owner’s son, Eric Wang, says in explaining the challenges of a high-end beef noodle bowl. “Beef initially has a raw meat taste, which isn’t good, so the idea is to cover up that flavour. Yet high-end food should not rely too much on additives and you still want to hold onto the original taste.”

The chefs at Niu Baba do not reuse beef to boil in subsequent broths, which many other restaurants do to save costs.

First-time customer Hsu Tung-hsun says he appreciates the ambience at Niu Baba but comments on the price as he slurps up a bowl of the cheapest version.

A high-end restaurant must pay more than average to afford top-quality beef, he observes, but other places dodelicious bowls for far less money. “The price difference is huge, though the quality of beef is quite a bit higher,” Hsu says. The Taipei resident normally eats beef noodles at the cheaper places because they are convenient and taste good.

Taiwanese consider Hong Kong beef noodles saltier and oilier by comparison, and lacking the variation of Taiwanese recipes. Their guess as to why: Hong Kong has so many other kinds of noodles that beef bowls are not a priority.

Burgers and Japanese food aside, beef noodles will remain popular in Taiwan because they offer inexpensive but filling fast food to students and office workers on lunch breaks, Wang says.

To stand out among the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 beef noodle spots in Taiwan, one place dry-ages its beef for 21 days. Other noodle shops use an Indian-style curry sauce, or add as many vegetables as chunks of beef to compete on healthiness. Look out for chives, cabbage, carrots and squash in some bowls.

Taipei has held annual beef noodle festivals to encourage more recipe innovation, and Gross “can’t wait” to see what they come up with. “Now, I don’t want truffles or broccoli, but I bet there are some new, delicious, and very Taiwanese items that could land atop bowls of beef noodle soup.”

Five popular beef noodle restaurants in Taipei

1. Niu Baba, 149 Minquan East Road Sec. 6, tel: +886 2 8791 7187 (reservations only)

2. 186 Beef Noodles, Zhongshan North Road Sec. 2, Lane 93, tel: +886 925 501 567. Open: 11am-9pm

3. Yong Kang Street Beef Noodles, No. 17, Lane 31, Jinshan South Road Sec. 2, tel: +886 2 2351 1051. Open: 11am-9 pm (may close from 3.30pm-4.30pm)

4. Lin Dong-fang Beef Noodles, 274 Bade Road Sec. 2, tel: +886 2 2752 2556. Open: 11am-4am

5. Taoyuan Street Beef Noodles, 15 Taoyuan Street, Zhongzheng District, tel: +886 937 860 050. Open: 10am-8 pm

6. Zhen Shan Mei Beef Noodles, 47 Anju Street, Daan District, tel: +886 2 2377 8866. Open: 11am-2pm, 5pm-9pm