Taipei: Serving Up Ramen and Their Very Own Lu Rou Fan

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of my favorite things about Taiwan is that not only does it have some dishes and food of its own that are delicious in their own right, it’s easy to find a large variety of authentic styles of cuisine due to the rich cultural blending over the course of its history.  There is an especially notable influence of Japanese culture from their 50 year rule over Taiwan, and the Japanese restaurants I tried there were easily as good as what I later experienced in Tokyo often at a fraction of the price.

I’m not entirely sure when my ramen cravings began.  I got the idea in my head at some point last year when the weather turned cold and my weekend Buford Highway explorations turned to the quest for “broth, broth, broth.”  Good luck finding really fantastic ramen in the states is all I have to say.  I managed to find a few places that have been reasonably good, but I knew they weren’t as great as they could be.  I became wildly curious about getting to try ramen on this trip especially after hearing there was excellent Japanese food to be found, and I suggested it just about every day.

Our host guided us to a place that he felt was the best nearby.  Rakumenya 樂麵屋 (7, Ln 10, Yongkang St, Taipei City (台北市大安區永康街10巷7號) is one of the more popular ramen places in the area and his food opinions so far had yet to lead me astray.

We saddled up to a busy bar while the noodle slingers and broth ladlers greeted us loudly in Japanese…sort of like the Moe’s burrito chain where they always call out a greeting in unison, only here they had something far more superior to offer than fast food burritos.

check out the menu with the pictures of perfectly styled ramen:

Then the most fun part was the ordering process sheet (secured for us in English too which was helpful) because you could tailor every element of your ramen to your liking from broth thickness to noodle thickness to noodle doneness.  Also, if you decide you need more noodles, they’ll bring you some for free so long as there is broth left.  Pretty nice, I’d say.

We also tried a few small plates as well.

A simple cold dish of mushrooms, seaweed, and sesame marinade was a nice light beginning and had some welcoming mildly chewy textures.  I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, so it’s difficult to go wrong with these things as far as I’m concerned.

This was also quite good for as simple as it was.  It was cold shredded chicken and cucumber in a creamy sesame and vinegar dressing with shreds of yellow bell pepper, but it was so light and refreshing that I couldn’t stop eating it even though I knew there was a giant bowl with my name on it sloshing its way to me very soon.

It really was a beautiful bowl of ramen, wasn’t it?  Well, it tasted every bit as good as it looked and the portion was pretty massive–that spoon indeed is a sort of ladle.  It was apparent that a lot of time had gone into the broth; the flavor of a deeply developed milky pork bone tonkotsu had a quiet complexity about it that elevated it beyond any other ramen I had ever tried.  The noodles were fresh with just the right amount of chew although I discovered I actually preferred the less done version which was a bit chewier and felt more able to soak up a little bit more of the thick broth.  The garnishes served more than visual interest as they supplied nice textures and different enhancements to the overall flavor.  The pork slices (we ordered extra) were fully saturated with the broth and tenderly fell apart with little effort.  The duck egg was very precise and such a simple pleasure in the bowl.  I married some of the creamy yolk texture into a portion of my broth.

It’s going to be hard to go to Taipei again and not go back and revisit some of these places since nearly everywhere we had been taken to up until this point was pretty memorable.  This place in particular had a great looking variety of broth that I wanted to revisit.  I spent a little bit too much time curiously peering over into many a bowl of red spicy broth in front of people nearby.  If you’re ever in Taipei and want some ramen, I very strongly suggest you visit this place.

We tried to walk off some of the ramen sloshing around in our full and happy bellies, and after a bit of time wandering around some boutiques it somehow it seemed a good idea to sip on a little bit of freshly-made juices they were selling…to help digest, of course.

I was a little worried since I chose a passion fruit juice that was sweetened, but they only added a very small amount of sweetness so that it enhanced the fruit.  After a few sips, I had forgotten they had even sweetened it at all.  They have a good sense about not over-sweetening things here for the most part that I appreciate.

Also, I was pretty happy with the abundance of ripe tropical fruit.  At some point we bought a huge  variety to sample ranging from the bright orange, mildly-flavored, and custard-like persimmons to the custard apple with creamy, milder center expanding outwards the grainier, sugarier pointed ends.  The pomelos were actually tasty with a soft citrus sweetness hidden behind their large thick citrus hides (the few I had tried at grocery stores in the states were decidedly not ripe).  Due to the great tropical climate of Taiwan, I was happy to snack on a great variety of local fresh fruits fruit as often as I got the chance, and Taipei was happy to provide me the option to purchase fruit pretty easily and at most hours.

After our walk, we returned for a nap.  This was when the jet leg really hammered into us and the nap was a little…longer…than it should have been.  Of course after power napping for several hours, the only thing really left to do in the evening when you wake up is eat…again.

One of Taiwan’s traditional dishes is lǔ ròu fàn (卤肉饭), essentially Taiwanese homestyle rice and gravy with ground pork.  One of the popular chains to get this dish along with many other traditional Taiwanese comfort foods is Formosa Chang (鬍鬚張).  Formosa Chang is a fast food chain with an excitable bearded man serving as their mascot, but just because they are a fast food chain doesn’t mean that they haven’t won a few awards in lu rou fan competitions.  What’s amusing to me is while I found their prices quite cheap, I found out that they are considered a little bit pricier than most by some locals.

A bowl of lu rou fan here will cost you NT$30 for a small bowl and NT$59 for a large bowl (less than US$1 and US$2 respectively).  It tastes about like you might imagine–comfort food is universal in this way, I believe.  This simple fare has a mild sweetness mingled with soy in thick gravy, and the bits of pork are fatty and delicious and cling happily to the rice.  The bowl here comes garnished with a bright orange pickle of some sort that I couldn’t easily identify but added a little spark of acid.  This dish really has a hearty comfort food feel to it.

The tea eggs were sitting in a bowl of their nice 5 spice soy tea juices and were a nice added bit of protein complement to the rice.  The soup was super simple broth with a fair bit of fat on it and brimmed with this odd yet distinctive flavoring of dried wolf (goji) berries.  There was something very earthy, herbal, and even foresty about the flavors of this soup that wasn’t immediately desirable yet managed to become tastier as I continued to eat it.

They had a grilled mackerel on the menu which is something I often enjoy.  This version was a little bit on the dry side, but it was still fairly decent and straightforward.

They also offer greens of whatever is best in season, and this cabbage (NT$40) was deliciously enhanced with some of the pork braising liquids.

On the way out, they let us pick a card from a box for every NT$100 we spent.  Each card was a coupon for a free item which was sort of a fun little promotional spin to the end of the meal.  While everyone else got coupons for free tea eggs, I got one for pork ball soup, so I suppose I won.

There might be better places to get lu rou fan, but Formosa Chang does a pretty good job and it’s very easily accessible and convenient since there are about 36 locations in Taipei alone.  It’s also pretty easy to find as well because all you have to do is look for their bearded icon.

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