First Taste of Taiwan: Beef Noodle Style

January 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Disembarking was surreal due to the lack of late evening activity in the airport and general post-plane delirium.  I was still buzzing with curiosity and excitement even though I felt a haze of exhaustion from the long flight.  Since it was past 9pm, there wasn’t much day left to focus my energies, but it was probably for the best to rest early to help ease into the tremendous jet lag yet to come.

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport was quiet yet orderly with people including a very large group of school children waiting patiently and obediently for everyone else to go through before they even approached the line.  This was when I started to notice the surgical masks people were occasionally wearing.  Combined with the notifications of quarantine beagles and disinfecting mats along with an area where they use sensors to check you for fever, I realized how much more seriously they seem to take contagions over there.  I was almost a little bit concerned that being overheated on the plane for 14+ hours was going to light me up as a threat in the fever sensing area.  At the very least, I felt my inner temperature rise a little with anxiety, but I didn’t manage to set off any alarms that I was aware of.

Once we managed to navigate out of the convoluted parking lot, we decided to get something to eat before trying to rest.  Weary, bewildered enough to leave my camera behind with the rest of my luggage where we were staying, and not even entirely sure if I was hungry, I followed our host through the narrow, quiet maze of streets.  It was clear that the city was still awake; we saw several people going about their business renting movies and eating at a few of the restaurants on the way.  There were a fairly large number of people buying fruit at a stand down the street right next door to an internet café full of gamers.  I presume if one were planning on raging hard into late hours pwning n00bs, they could hop over and snack on some dragonfruit at 11pm if they really wanted to.  There’s something about a city that’s so quiet but alive at late hours that delights me.

We entered what I can only describe as exactly what you might imagine a quintessential noodle shop to be.  There was a bay of windows at the front and two rows of long tables pushed together with little plastic stools to sit on.  Little plastic stations of maroon plastic chopsticks and black and maroon spoon, pickles, chili oil, and tissues (used as napkins) lined up on the tables.  There was an element of organized messiness to the place–it felt as if it was obviously quite busy at times even though it was quietly serving its few late night diners.  Behind us were trays heavily dusted with flour that had probably recently been used for making piles of fresh noodles.  Stacks of trays and pots towered near the kitchen, and there was what appeared to be a few pieces of hanging laundry on the railing of stairs that I presumed led down to a residence underground.  Despite this bit of clutter or character if you will, all the dining tables were pristine even though the place felt not necessarily dingy, but just worn…used.  I’m sure these walls had witnessed more broth and hand-made noodles than I could even begin to imagine.

One thing that’s fantastic about the food that I experience on the trip is that so many of the places that we went to really specialized in one particular thing and did that with excellence.  So often every element served in the restaurant or street corner cart or open-air corner shop was made entirely in house.  When you’ve likely mastered something over countless years and aren’t stretching yourself too thin trying to serve a huge menu and manage to survive in an environment so ridiculously saturated with other food vendors, it’s probably going to be good.  The specialty at this noodle house in particular was Taiwanese beef noodle soup, or niu rou mian which is also the national dish of Taiwan and is featured in an annual festival in Taipei.  They also served a few different types of dumplings as well and a few variations of the soup.

The masterful ordering began.  I was agreeable to the mala beef broth with traditional northern style thick noodles and the two types of dumplings that were ordered from the woman running the place in her red apron who seemed weary from what was likely a very long day, but competent with an air of no-nonsense to her.

There was one young college-age kid slumped over his bowl of beef broth and noodles when we came in.  His neck seemed long and gangly as he bobbed and chewed his noodles in relative silence with the exception of the occasional, welcome slurp.  I’ve trained myself over the years to try not to slurp, and over the course of this trip I didn’t do very well at breaking my habit.  Yet the distinctive sound of slurping and noodles tickling the broth in the background of my meal has become reminiscent of such deliciousness.

Very quickly, the food arrived.  The broth was deep in color and speckled with orange oil.  There was a lovely, rich beef flavor with the perfect amount of heat to it that didn’t overshadow the stock but added that extra level of sinus awakening and tingle.  I didn’t find it particularly numbing, but I didn’t need for it to be.  The noodles were a little thick and very slightly uneven as a nod to their homemade origin, but perfectly fresh and just chewy enough.  There were generous pieces of well-marbled beef, and the fat had been cooked down so much that the striations of it were soft and gelatinous and the whole bite was quite delicious and the bowl was the humble price of TWD$100 which was at the time of the visit roughly $3 US for a sizable bowl.

All of the items were served painfully scalding in temperature, and despite trying to work my way up to being able to tolerate hotter things, I was still being a little tentative in attacking the items before me for fear of singing my palette for a few days.  Apparently this is a foreigner thing that is recognized as when one behaves in this way, they are said to have “cat tongue” in the way that cats gingerly lap their water.  I eased a little bit into not fearing the heat and worked my way up into rolling it around in my mouth, and into slurping in a lot of air with every bite, but I never quite worked it out perfectly.  It was as if the scalding broth was taunting me because it was so delicious I didn’t want to wait for it.

The wrappers on the dumplings seemed a little thick at first, but they melted away nicely to the simplicity inside.  There’s nothing quite like a really great homemade dumpling as I realized the first time I had some made for me.  It’s one of those things I’ve always gone back to, and there have been so few times I’ve been able to relive that in the US, but that was not an issue here.

This meal was magical for me, and honestly, it was easily one of my favorite meals from the entire trip in that it was so amazingly simple and disarming.  It was my first real taste of Taiwan, and it was something that I knew would likely be difficult or impossible to recreate or find at home.  I think sometimes the first time you have something new or really great the shock to your palette and senses hold onto that one particular experience and that precise version of it.  I managed to have another bowl of the same style of soup elsewhere and it wasn’t quite the same.  This place sort of won me over because the broth was so deep with beef flavor.  Maybe it was all a delirious dream at that point, too, but I really fell in love with this place in particular.  If I get the chance to go back, I’m going to undoubtedly request to go there first.

While I have no pictures of that night, I stopped to take a picture of the outside when we passed it on another day.  Here is my first and favorite place:

We stopped into a 7-11 on the way out and while you hear how much nicer and more exciting they are than ours, you don’t really understand until you see it for yourself.  They were clean and tidy with cute character mascots and full of what ended up being a pretty tasty array of viable food options.  They have an amusing variety of interesting and useful goods from beauty vitamins that look like candy and taste like salty minerals and bb cream to disposable underwear and terrifyingly potent baijiu very simply and deceptively labled “the cup.”  You can pay your bills, buy tickets to the metro, or do all sorts of stuff there.  I think we ended up stopping at a convenience store of some variety at least a few times a day for water or random drink exploration at the very least.

The first day of sorts was over, but there was a lot more of Taipei to consume and see.  Long days were ahead for certain.

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