Taiwan has few reasons to smile this week as it mops up from Typhoon Morakot. One bright note - hundreds of villagers thought to have perished under a mudslide were apparently able to make it to high ground before disaster struck. Our thoughts are with the folks on Taiwan as they continue to dig out.
Meanwhile, we continue to be amazed by our Taiwan trip - the wonderful foods and friendliness that we found on that island nation -- and to sing its praises to whomever will listen. Just the thought of returning makes us smile. The thought of returning to this joint in particular makes us smile biggest.
Laopai Niurou La Mian Da Wang. The shop's name translates to something like 'Old Brand Pulled- Noodles-With-Beef King'. And that pretty much sums it up. They serve Taiwan's beloved niurou mian, or beef noodles, and they pull their pasta by hand every day. They've been around a long time (thirty years, to be precise). And when it comes to the art of cooking beef noodles, they're masters.
The King is sited near Taipei's train station, in a dark alley fragrant with the aromas wafting from the twenty or so food shops that line both its sides. It's a street food goldmine well known to locals, but we stumbled upon it by chance. And as soon as we saw the chief noodle cooker, a jolly on-his-way-to-bald man who hails from Tainan (a mid-west coast town that some consider Taiwan's 'small eats' capital), hoist high those thick ropey strands, we knew we'd found lunch.
Beef noodle preferences, like those for any iconic dish the world over, are personal. Some like their beef noodle soup spicy while others vote for a heavy star anise and cinammon presence. Shaved noodles (dao shao mian) float some boats, others prefer their pasta pulled. We ate our way through quite a few bowls of niuroumian over the course of three weeks, and it's the King's that kept drawing up back.
The hefty noodles are chewy, and the broth tastes mostly of long-cooked meat with enough star anise and cinnamon to flavor, but not overwhelm. There's the tiniest bit of chili bite to this noodle soup, betraying the alleged Sichuan origin of niurou mian. The King cooks its beef until the meat is gelatinously tender, reminiscent of mom's pot roast after several hours in the oven.
They're best eaten with a splodge of every available condiment: soupy chopped ginger and garlic, Sichuan-style la jiao (chili flakes in oil), and chopped preserved mustard greens. We enjoyed classic unadorned niurou mian, and Sichuan niurou mala mian, with plenty of chili and Sichuan peppercorn. If I had it to do over again I'd veer from my usual chili-friendliness to choose the former; in my opinion the Sichuan peppercorn interferes with the intense purity of the beef-flavored broth.
The King also does a mighty fine platter of shuijiao (boiled pork dumplings)
and a mean hot and sour soup. The latter is nothing like the gluey overadorned (no shredded cloud ear fungus or lily buds here) versions often served in the States, but close to one I enjoyed in Chengdu back in the day: a thin meat soup packed with strips of firm tofu and soured not only with sharp white vinegar but also tart pickled cabbage, carrots, and bean sprouts. The 'hot' element you add yourself, from the bowl of lajiao on your table.
LaoPai Niurou La Mian Da Wang, Chongqing Nan Lu Yi Duan 46 Gang (No. 46 'Alley' off of Chongqing South Road, Section 1), Taipei.