On a recent weekday night around 9pm, curious patrons were flooding into the Lao Tung Beef Noodle Shop near Mackay Memorial Hospital (馬偕醫院). The reason behind the chain's popularity: It was recently voted one of the top 20 beef noodle shops in Taipei and crowned champion of the traditional beef noodle competition at this year's Taipei International Beef Noodle Festival (台北國際牛肉麵節).
In business for 50 years, Lao Tung has expanded from its humble origins in Xinmending to a chain of stores under second-generation owner Liu Cheng-hsiung (劉正雄), a chef with more than 20 years of experience.
Lao Tung stews its signature beef broth for more than 24 hours without adding any non-beef ingredients to taint the flavor. While its prize-winning plain, or qingdun (清燉), beef noodle bowl with cow cheek has yet to make it to the menu, the more traditionally minded can order its popular hot-and-spicy, or hongxiao (紅燒), beef noodles or its qingdun beef brisket noodles (NT$130).
Those who like to mix and match can try the curry beef tendon noodles (半筋半肉咖哩牛肉麵, NT$200), which came in fourth in the creative segment of the beef noodle cook-off and is among the most frequently ordered of the restaurant's dishes. The tendons go well with the rich curry broth.
Another must-try is Lao Tung's trademark curry-fried bean curd with beef noodles (咖哩牛肉油豆腐細粉, NT$130), prepared in accordance with the recipe a Chinese Nationalist Party soldier brought with him from Shanghai when he fled to Taiwan.
Apart from beefy fare, the restaurant also offers northern Chinese specialties such as scallion pancakes (蔥油餅, NT$30), red bean paste pancakes (豆沙鍋餅, NT$80) and beef rolls (牛肉捲餅, NT$70). Served steaming hot, the red bean pancakes make for a filling dessert. The scallion pancakes are great as appetizers and won't leave oily stains all over your face.
One note of caution: Lao Tung seems to have fallen victim to its own success and the dozen or so branches scattered across Taipei are said to differ greatly in terms of quality control. The chain's award-winning shop on the Minsheng West Road is probably the best place to enjoy the authentic taste of its half-century-old tradition.