The search for the perfect bowl of beef noodles is never ending, and while events like the Taipei International Beef Noodle Festival (台北國際牛肉麵節) is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, it does provide a platform for competition, which one hopes leads to a striving for excellence. Shenhsien Sichuan Beef Noodles (神仙川味牛肉麵), located not far the Shuanglian MRT Station on Zhongshan North Road Section 2, is relatively inconspicuous among the swank shop fronts on that bit of high street, but it is still basking in a degree of popularity among beef noodle aficionados after a strong finish in both the clear (清燉) and red broth (紅燒) categories of the festival last month.
Shenhsian hasn’t put much work into its decor, and follows a traditional market stall styling with a glassed-in kitchen at the front and stark tiled interior dining area. Tables are small and tightly packed, and staff are not vastly forthcoming about the large menu. Despite the many dishes available, most diners focus on the establishment’s specialties, beef noodles in a variety of preparations.
The ticketed specialty is, as the name of the restaurant might suggest, the Shenhsien Sichuan Beef Noodles (神仙川味牛肉麵), which is a traditional red broth beef noodle dish that is not subtle about what it does, but is not without a degree of refinement either. According to Jiao Tung (焦桐), the prominent food critic and writer who recently released a book on Taiwan’s best beef noodle restaurants (see Taipei Times Sept. 29, page 12), Sichuan-style beef noodles are something that cannot be found in Sichuan, or indeed China; they are a Taiwanese original invented out of a nostalgia for, what, to many of the Nationalist troops who came to Taiwan after 1949, was the home country.
Address: 78-2 Zhongshan N Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市中山北路二段78-2號)
Telephone: (02) 2521-9880
Open: 10:30am to 10pm
Average meal: NT$300
Details: Chinese menu only; no credit cards
The creation of this type of beef noodles through the addition of spicy bean paste (辣豆瓣醬) has, in my experience, fallen a little out of favor in recent years, with many establishments favoring the use of chili oil in a dark beef broth for what continues to be described as beef noodles in red broth. They now often omit the Sichuan tag.
So in the naming of the restaurant and its signature dish, Shenhsien consciously forms a link with an old tradition of beef-noodle making in Taiwan. What it manages to do is finesse this old style dish, which can often be cloying, with the fermented bean paste giving the broth a heavy, and often excessively salty flavor. This can be off putting, and probably accounts for the fact that this style of preparation has been put aside by many establishments aspiring to a higher class of presentation.
Choose your heat
This signature dish comes in four heat levels from mildly spicy to extremely spicy, in a medium bowl for NT$140 and a large one for NT$170. Although the heat levels have been calibrated for Taiwanese standards, and are rather subdued, anything above medium heat should only be attempted by experienced chili lovers.
What makes the signature dish stand out at Shenhsien is that the beef broth manages to hold its own against the spicy bean paste, and the fact that the beef has been well selected and is cooked to a melt-in-the-mouth softness. The noodles are of moderate quality, but there is the advantage for hearty eaters that extra noodles can be requested when ordering for no extra charge.