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.
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.
The beef in clear broth (NT$140 for a small bowl and NT$170 for a large bowl), which probably has closer roots to what might have been the original beef noodle dish brought over to Taiwan by Nationalist troops in 1949, is well prepared, though just a little coarse, and while superior in flavor to many, slightly lacking in depth. It is good without being memorable.
For something to remember, the heavenly four treasures beef noodles (天官四福麵, NT$280) is definitely worth trying. This is available in a Sichuan-style, regular red broth and in clear broth. The selling point of the four treasures is the presence of tendon, tripe, shank and brisket as the topping to the noodles. It must be said that the tripe I found to be sliced too thin and to be without sufficient flavor, but the brisket adds a lusciousness to the mix that makes the high price almost worthwhile.
Side dishes are generally excellent, and the chili sauce provided on the table is outstanding, very hot with a stylish finish, which is bound to appeal to chili lovers. It was particularly good with the dried tofu in beef juices (牛肉原汁滷花干, NT$40).
For those averse to eating meat, Shenhsien does provide one vegetarian option on its menu, a vegetable noodle dish (風味時蔬麵, NT$90), which shows an inclusiveness that is commendable. While this is the sort of place where you eat and leave — not detained by the ambiance or the chatter of the staff — while you face off with your heavenly treasures, you are not really expected to be thinking of anything else other than the food.