Forget the pears. Sanwan (三灣) is all about the beef noodles

Stalls line the main road of town. Locals definitely see this as a selling point for a place that is otherwise pretty much just a 711 stop off between Toufen and Nanzhuang (南莊).

Anytime I take a break from a spot of frenetic one-handed Internet surfing these days, to see what’s afoot on the Taiwan blogosphere it seems I come across some bozo muscling in on my territory. If it’s not old Turton gliding through the serenity of Liyutan and holding forth on the wind-turbine protests at Yuanli, it’s Micky Fagan lambasting the Dapu land-grab or scoping my old watering holes. Then there’s Ozsoapbox … This guy seems to be going into overdrive to compile a compendium on Zhunan (竹南) and my missus’ hometown Toufen (頭份). Woe betide the lad if I catch him down the No! No! No! talking bar giving it the large any time soon.

These encroachments constitute , and I make no bones, a fucking liberty of the highest order, and are the kind of shit up with which I shall not put without serious remonstration. These fools want beef? Let’s take it to Sanwan (三灣). Under the late-19th Qing admin., Sanwan was a farming village, or zhuang (莊), and part of the market township, or jie (街), Zhonggang (中港), which –  as far as I can tell –  lives on only in the name of the river runs through Miaoli County (苗栗縣).

Any time a zhuang began to generate enough commercial bustle to warrant an upgrade, it would have jie status conferred on it. Bigger or more important (Zhonggang was apparently smaller than Sanwan) hubs of activity had an overseer (總理) assigned to them. It is is speculated that another reason for a location to have an overseer would be to handle any ethnic squabbles, though I’d say this was probably more the raison d’etre for their presence in settlements closer to the coast where, traditionally, there has been a greater Hoklo presence in Miaoli.

In Sanwan’s case, the fact that, in the 18th century,  it had been a guard post town, or ai1 due to its position on the eastern frontier of the savage lands, made an overseer a necessity. 2

It’a strange little place, Sanwan. Pretty in parts but something of a nothing town, it’s renowned for its pears, which came to prominence through grafting with imported Japanese trees during the colonial era. Personally, I find these course, watery Japanese pears (as we called them when I was a kid in the UK) not a patch on good old British orchard  pear-shaped pears, but I’ve not yet found a fruit which I wouldn’t scarf (including stinkmeister durian), so I have no real issues.

The main sign (below) just says Old Beef Noodle Shop but the boss pointed me to this one above the door as the proper name: Shen’s Beef Noodles.

The couple who run the place (the Shens?) are always happy to see us back there. The wife has doted on my two boys since they were babes.

There’s one thing that has had me coming back time and again, though, over the last 12 years and that is the beef noodle par exemple that is served up out of the front room of an old couple’s house on the main road of the town.  I usually cut through the lovely back roads from Toufen, turning off provincial road number three/Zhongzheng road (中正路) outside town.

Everything about  these noodles is spot on. The orange broth comes in one default setting: good and spicy, though I suppose you can ask them to tone it down a touch. Me loving it that way, I wouldn’t dream of doing so, but some acquaintances who don’t have the constitution for such things, (here, I’m thinking of my pal Carol Pickswilt who favors bland fare) might find it a bit much as the first meal of the day.

Last Monday, I took my mate Strawbree down there.

“Dude, it’s a beef noodle, man. How good could it be?”

He was whingeing because I dragged him out of bed and cajoled him to get a move on, lest we miss it. (I’m not sure of the exact opening hours as I’ve turned up once or twice on weekends  and it’s been closed. Even my father-in-law, who introduced me to the place, doesn’t seem sure.)

Anyway, he soon changed his tune once he got a whiff. As well as the fantastic soup, there are the massive hunks of tender meat. As much as I’ve come to love braising (I’ve still yet to really experiment with it in my own cooking), the fact is, it’s often used to mask substandard meat. With far too many a beef noodle I’ve come across, one ends up with a fairly tasteless substance in the mouth once all the broth and juices are out of the equation. (It’s a worthwhile experiment doing just that: sucking out the juice and seeing what you’re left with to chew on.)

You’ll not find bigger hunks of braised meat in any former mountain frontier guard post town in Northeastern Taiwan. I reckon.

They sometimes use cabbage in the broth, though I’ve noticed this has been omitted on occasion. Though I’m not normally a fan of this veg (something I’m kind of embarrassed about), it makes for a nice touch in a meaty, spicy dish like this. Perhaps the only slight mark against the dish is that the noodles are of the cheaper variety, but it does little to detract from the whole. Another massive plus is the beef is also seldom overly gristly.

“I mean … Really. How good can one bowl of beef noodles … (slurp) Damn, that shit’s good!”

Simply put, the Quest for the Golden Horns has a provisional champion, and as such, is suspended until further notice.



  1. I’m not sure what the character for this word is, but a friend thinks it might be 隘.
  2.  Most of the info. in this and the preceding two paragraphs comes from pages 209-10 of Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China: Northern Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century by Mark A. Allee.

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