But as with all things where food is concerned, we refuse to settle for anything but the best. And to seek out the best beef noodle soup in the city, we turned to a couple of locals for suggestions.
We met up with D’s uncle and cousin one night while in Taipei. As we got to know each other and chatted over a spread of colorful Chinese dishes, the question came up: where do we go for the best beef noodle soup?
They spoke in hushed whispers of one Chef Hung’s 888 bowl, named so because it costs eight hundred and eighty eight Taiwanese dollars… or approximately US $29.
Yes, you read that correctly. $29 for one bowl of beef noodle soup.
So what’s so special about this bowl? A few years back, this was the championship bowl in a nation-wide beef noodle soup competition (Taiwan takes their beef noodle very seriously!). $29 is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on one bowl of soup, when a typical bowl costs only $3-4. But championship bowl? Well, color me intrigued.
Now, Chef Hung is not unfamiliar to us. He has numerous awards to his name. His fame has even spread to America and Canada, where he has opened a few restaurants. In fact, there was one just down the street from where D lived. D took me there once and I noted nothing spectacular about the food. Completely unmemorable in fact. But is it better in Taipei?
A couple of days later, we ran into our airbnb host and proposed the same question. He thought about it for a bit, and a few minutes later, came back with a piece of paper written with the words Lin Dong Fang. A very locally famous place that many consider to be the best beef noodle soup in the city, he explained.
After mapping it out, we noticed it was not too far of a walk from Chef Hung’s. Obviously there was only one thing to do: eat them back to back and compare!
So one fine morning, we set off with hungry tummies on a quest to find the city’ best beef noodle soup. And thus, I give you:
Battle of the beef noodle soups: Chef Hung vs. Lin Dong Fang
CONTESTANT NO. 1: CHEF HUNG
What: Chef Hung 888 bowl
Where: corner of Jianguo Expressway & Changchun Road
Cost: NT$888, or US$29
Upon sitting down, we were given a menu and order sheet with a few dozen different noodles dishes to choose from. However, we barely glanced at it as we came for one thing only: the 888 bowl.
After several minutes of giddy anticipation, it was brought out. And… it was HUGE.
The meat includes an entire beef shank (from a baby cow from the looks of it), thin slices of raw beef, large chunks of beef (sorry, I don’t know the cuts), stomach, and tendon. The price of this bowl is all in the meat, so it seems.
But the meat was truly exquisite. The meat from the shank was fall-off-the-bone tender. The thin slices were melt-in-your-mouth buttery and soft. I usually don’t eat stomach but I was not about to let one cent of that bowl go to waste, so I hesitantly had a few bites and it was not bad at all.
The broth was on the light side as opposed to the usual heavy spicy-red soup like what I’m used to. It had a delicate clean flavor. The thick noodles were cooked to perfection, soft and yet with a bite. There were no condiments on the table to adjust the flavor. It was just as well because for this price, it had better be perfection!
So was it twenty-nine dollars good?
In the end, we both left slightly disappointed. There was nothing wrong with this bowl. Each component was undoubtedly good, amazing even, but I guess this is a case of the whole not being as good as the sum of its parts. Or maybe, this is just what happens when you spend that much on a single dish and expect it to be earth-shattering.
*Note: Chef Hung does have a lot of other noodles on their menu at the much more reasonable prices of NT$150-240.
CONTESTANT NO. 2: LIN DONG FANG
What: Lin Dong Fang beef noodle soup
Where: No. 274, Section 2, Bādé Road, Zhongshan District
Hours: Monday to Friday, 11:00 am – 5:00 am
Cost: NT$140, or US$4.59
By contrast, Lin Dong Fang was a tiny hole in the wall. There were literally only a handful of seats inside, mostly at the metal counters along the walls. The cooking station is open to the sidewalk so you can see the huge pots of beef stewing and watch the men make the noodles.
There were a few different options, but as we both can’t read Chinese too well, we just told them “niu rou mian,” or beef noodle soup and hoped that there would be no funny meats. We got a bowl of all thick cut beef shank, which were so soft that they fell apart in your mouth. The round noodles were just the right amount of chewiness.
All of that was fine and dandy, but for me, a truly fantastic beef noodle soup all comes down to the broth. So how did this one measure up?
Aesthetically, the broth is very clear. But it exploded with intense flavor, with major notes of celery and onion. It wasn’t so much beefy as it was herby, which was unexpected. There’s no spice to it at all, but if you wanted to adjust the flavor, there was a variety of condiments on the counter: chili oil and vinegar and a house-made beef butter paste (kind of like that packet you get with instant ramen, but a thousand times better). With a little sprinkling of chili and a dollop of the paste, the broth became even better!
*Note: Later, I read that this place is famous for the half shank & half tendon bowl. Also, that the wait is often over an hour long during lunch & dinner times. We came in the early afternoon and lucked out with no wait!
AND THE WINNER GOES TO:
Lin Dong Fang wins this competition hands down. Maybe I’m just saying that because I derive more satisfaction from eating a lot of good cheap food, than from one great expensive dish. But I would like to think that even in a blind taste test, I would still pick Lin Dong Fang’s broth over Chef Hung’s.
As we were leaving Taipei, we received a message from our host, saying “I hope you found the beef noodle we recommended – it’s just nominated as top 3 beef noodle by a local newspaper.”
Top 3?? It would seem that our quest is uncompleted! Well, this just means that when we’re back in Taipei, our search and this battle will continue!