Few things are quite as comforting as a piping hot bowl of noodle soup on a cold winter’s day. Or on a hot summer’s day for that matter. The truth is every day is a great day to enjoy some hot noodle soup. However, just as with the amazing variety of Asian dumplings, from Korean mandu to Chinese har gow, the same can be said about just how diverse Asian soup noodles can be. Every region has its specialty and no two bowls are alike.

Prized as a national dish, Taiwanese beef noodle soup (niu rou mian) is deceptively complex and full of subtle nuance. A lot of work goes into perfecting the rich and savory beef broth, utilizing such ingredients as ginger, hot bean paste, dark and light soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine, sesame oil and star anise. Either beef brisket or beef shank is typically stewed or red braised and the bowl should always arrive piping hot and with a side of pickled radish for crunch.

While the main components are consistent — beef, noodles, and broth — each restaurant prepares the dish in a slightly different way.

Chef Hung, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

One of the best places to start is at Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle (#2800 – 4151 Hazelbridge Way) on the second floor of the Aberdeen Centre shopping mall. I remember it was a really big deal when this restaurant first opened a few years ago. The eponymous Chef Hung had already won numerous awards back in Taiwan for his “champion” Taiwanese beef noodle soup, including victories at the Taipei International Beef Noodle Festival, the Chinese International Culinary Masters’ Competition and the Beijing Asian International Kitchen Emperor Challenge Match. Several more awards have been bestowed since then.

People were lined up out the door for weeks. Thankfully, it’s much easier getting a table today.

Chef Hung, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

If you are seeking the greatest number of options for your Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Chef Hung is a good place to go. The most typical option is to choose between the standard flat (wide) noodle and the thin noodle, the latter of which is usually slightly thicker than Italian linguine. Both the wide noodle and the thin noodle are usually wheat-based and are traditionally hand-pulled.

Alternatively, you can opt for rice noodle or vermicelli if you prefer. The toppings can vary too, from beef shank to beef brisket, beef tendon and tripe (above) to five kinds of vegetables, plus combinations thereof. You can have the regular soup, a clear soup, or a tomato-based soup, plus the option for a fire chili soup for 50 cents more.

Chef Hung, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

The hand-pulled noodles here are terrific. The wide noodles offer more of a chew, whereas the thin noodles have more of a natural springiness to them. I personally prefer the tomato broth (above), as the acidity cuts through the savoriness. The beef shank is served in generously-sized morsels and every bowl comes with a couple pieces of bok choy.

Pearl Castle, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

Despite what its name might lead you to believe, Pearl Castle Cafe (#1782 – 6060 Minoru Boulevard in Richmond Centre or #1128 – 3779 Sexsmith Road in Continental Centre) offers much more than just bubble tea. It’s a full service restaurant with a great variety of Taiwanese dishes and desserts.

Among these are three options for Taiwanese beef noodle soup: the house special, which I ordered, along with a tomato soup and an “extreme spicy” soup. All three choices come with beef shank and bok choy.

Pearl Castle, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

You get to choose between wide noodles (as shown above), thin noodles, or vermicelli. With the bowl that I was served, the quality of the ingredients and the execution in their preparation was unfortunately not up to par.

Sticking together in unfortunate clumps, the noodles felt overcooked, losing the desirable “chew” or “bounce” that I’ve come to expect with beef noodle soup. The noodles were simply too soft. Similarly, the broth lacked the complexity found at Chef Hung’s. It was not nearly as rich or as flavourful. The generous portion of beef shank was appreciated, but the meat was not as tender as it could have been either.

Please note, this was based on my one meal at the Richmond Centre location, so it’s possible that service and execution are better at the Continental Centre location.

Strike, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

Given my experience at Chef Hung and at Pearl Castle, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that restaurants that specialize mainly in one type of dish tend to outperform those that try to be all things to all people. However, that’s not always the case and Strike (#120 – 4751 Garden City Road) is a great example of that.

Opened by self-described foodie Nelson Ou and his business partner, Strike aims to deliver excitement and “something new” to the table. The menu is decidedly Taiwanese in its inspiration, including sizzle plate steaks and Taiwanese “meat rice,” but you’ll also find fresh fusion fare like the restaurant’s signature yam fries.

Strike, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

In regards to the Taiwanese beef noodle soup, Strike offers the fewest number of options of the three restaurants featured here. The menu may quite diverse, but there is only one beef noodle soup: the appropriately named STRIKE Beef Noodle Soup. What’s more, you also don’t get to choose the type of noodle you would like to have. There’s just the one default option of the thinner style noodle.

This might give you the sense that Strike has all the odds stacked against it, but I actually preferred its bowl of beef noodles out of all the ones featured here. The beef shank was sliced, instead of arriving in chunky morsels. The broth arrived piping hot and rich in flavour. The generous helping of noodles had a satisfying chew to them and this was the only restaurant of the three where the soup was topped with pickled mustard greens for added balance.

Strike, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

Traditional Taiwanese beef noodle soup is usually meant to be heavier and fuller in flavour, in stark contrast to what you might experience with something like Northern Vietnamese pho from Hanoi. The beef broth is rich, complex and packed with umami. If you like it spicy, you can change up the broth to that as well. This may be attributed, at least in part, to the dish’s Sichuan-inspired roots. To be fair, there is also a clear broth variant, which is available at Chef Hung, but it’s not what most people imagine when they picture the dish.

At most restaurants around town that serve it, you can typically find a bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup for around $10. Even at an award-winning establishment like Chef Hung, the most expensive bowl tops out at just under $14. Try a few and decide what you like. Discover why Taiwan named this quintessential comfort food as its national dish.