Sat, Jun 15, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Restaurant review: Face to Face Noodle House

This Malaysian chain is expanding Taiwanese palates, one bowl of noodles at a time

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

The signature Sarawak noodles at Face to Face Noodle House feature springy Hong Kong-style egg noodles topped with barbecued pork and minced pork.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Aside from being the name of a government policy to revitalize engagement with Southeast Asia, “New Southbound” could just as well describe the Taiwanese palate these days.

A growing number of eateries specializing in Southeast Asian cuisines are popping up in Taipei. Recently, a wrong turn took me past Face to Face Noodle House, the first overseas branch of a Malaysian chain that opened with little fanfare in Zhongshan District (中山) in February.

I was magnetized by the sight of the words kedai kopi (Malay for “coffee shop”) emblazoned on the wooden shutters at the entrance of the restaurant. Hailing from Singapore — Malaysia’s closest neighbor — the prospect of Malaysian street food made me almost emotional.

Malaysian and Singaporean dishes like bak kut teh (pork rib soup), curry, nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) and Hainanese chicken rice have been available in Taipei for a while. But that hasn’t been the case for noodle dishes, until now.

The cultural influence of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, who for centuries have settled and integrated into the region, means that a lot of Southeast Asian food occupies a sweet spot just foreign enough, and also just familiar enough, to pique the interest of Taiwanese consumers.

Even on weekday nights, this eatery often sees a small queue of patrons, young and old. It recreates the atmosphere of an open-air coffee shop commonly found in any Malaysian town and city — right down to the candy-colored melamine cutlery — but in the considerably more comfortable, air-conditioned interior of a restaurant.

Face to Face claims to be the home of the original Sarawak noodles (NT$150), named after the state on the island of Borneo in East Malaysia. The ubiquitous Malaysian Chinese dish combines dry Hong Kong-style thin egg noodles, char siu (caramelized barbecued pork) and more minced pork.

The noodles were purportedly invented by the owner’s great-grandfather around the turn of the 20th century, after an apprenticeship with a chef in Hong Kong. Whether that’s true or not, the dish was certainly gratifying. The noodles themselves, on the verge of clumping together, were a bit too dry for me. But that’s where the complimentary soup — a light broth made by simmering dried anchovies, pork bones and soy beans — can be spooned in and tossed around to help loosen things up.

Sarawak noodles may be the signature dish, but what I’ve since made repeat visits for is the dry pan mee (NT$150), thicker noodles topped with anchovies, minced pork and a soft-boiled egg.

Southeast Asian anchovies — bigger than those used in Taiwanese and Japanese cooking — are dried and deep-fried until addictively crunchy and salty. The egg does double duty as a sauce, allowing ingredients to cling to the noodles. A heaping spoonful of the restaurant’s own crispy chili, more fragrant than spicy, is an essential addition to the mix.

Spiciness is so central that there is no one-size-fits-all chili in Southeast Asian cooking. Instead, heat sources are developed specifically to complement the textures and flavor profiles of particular foods.

Crispy chili is appropriate for most of Face to Face’s dishes, including char koay teow (NT$165), flat rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese sausage, prawns and scrambled egg. The version here is very respectable, managing as it does to coax forth the desirable but elusive charred fragrance from cooking in a wok at very high heat.

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