Close to the Tonghua Street (通化街) night market, Hui Guan (回館) occupies a rare niche in the city’s dietary landscape by serving cuisine from Ningxia, a Hui autonomous region in China. Li Hai-jung (李海蓉), who is Muslim, opened the restaurant a few years ago primarily to observe her religion’s dietary code and satisfy her craving for a taste of home.
A red lantern hanging at the entrance makes Hui Guan hard to miss. The interior is simple and understated, spiced up with wood furnishings and the signatures of celebrity patrons written on the walls.
Though the meat is halal, alcoholic beverages are served. Hui Guan offers ice-cold Taiwan beer in tin mugs, which go well with the richly flavored dishes.
From a menu featuring a selection of meals made from nearly every sheep part, the cumin-flavored mutton with bread (孜然羊羔烙饃, NT$280), a type of street food in Ningxia, is a friendly choice for first timers. Stir-fried with cumin, celery, onion and other vegetables, the mutton cubes are paired with slightly salted breads made in accordance to a recipe from Li’s mother.
Meticulous effort goes into preparing Hui Guan’s Ningxia braised mutton (寧夏手抓羊肉, NT$260). It requires a process of boiling, braising and marinating, which is repeated. The cooked meat is surprisingly tender and is meant to be eaten with bare hands. The salty and slightly spicy soy-cheese sauce on the side helps neutralize the mutton’s gaminess.
For those with a low tolerance for spicy food, it is recommended to inform the chef while ordering as he doesn’t skimp on the red chili oil or peppercorn (花椒), which are found throughout the menu. The sour and spicy lentil noodles (酸辣扁豆粉, NT$120) are a good example. The deceivingly mild looking plate of cold noodles had one of my dining partners, who has been known to eat spicy hot pot for breakfast, proclaiming his admiration for the dish while gulping down cold beer.
On the other end of the flavor spectrum, mother’s salad (母親手拌菜, N$$180) mixes onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and pea sprouts seasoned with a sweet-and-sour dressing. The ginger-flavored thousand-year eggs (薑汁松花蛋, NT$140) give the staple snack a refreshing update. One must-try appetizer not to be found on the menu is the preserved garlic sprouts (蒜台), which pack a vinegary punch.
The restaurant also serves mutton and beef brochettes (NT$100 per plate). The meat has the right amount of fat to render it alluringly juicy, though the unpleasant smell of grill smoke lingers long after the meal.
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