Lao Deng’s Dan Dan Noodles (老鄧担担麵)

Beef is when ya moms ain't safe up in the street ...

 Vote-rigging, embezzlement and murder: Taiwan’s beef noodle trade is a microcosm of organized crime.

Lao Deng boss Andy actually looks like he could have been a heavy on Taiwan Pili Fire (台灣霹靂火). At the incomparable Lao Zhang (老張) off Yongkang St (永康街), the proprietor Madame Eyebrow has something of the gangster moll about her and her other half, like Andy, has the disposition of a gracefully-ageing former enforcer.  I wonder … 

“They cheated,” says Andy. “They had some computer software that lets them show they got more votes.” 

“They” are the competition (one unnamed establishment in particular) in Taipei’s annual Beef Noodle Slurp-off, at which Lao Deng, to my surprise, has routinely failed to impress. Andy is adamant it’s down to virtual ballot-box stuffing through some kind of computer hacking. “You can see the figures. Over 100 votes a day. This small shop goes from having 30-40 customers a day to more than 100,” he grumbles. “It’s not possible.” 

His son concurs but dismisses the old man’s theory as to how this wanton skullduggery is being effected. “It’s not with a computer,” he says. “They couldn’t do that.” His much more plausible suggestion? “Ah, they just pay people to vote for them.” 

It’s been eons since I began trawling the dank backstreets, arm in tipsy arm with the Inveterate Bede, a fellow conoisseur of the hong shao (紅燒), whose snooping, flared-nostril proboscis sniffed out many a precious treat all over town.  Madame Eyebrow’s la wei (辣味) was a favourite, though Bede was known to fly into a One Cup sake-induced rage if, contrary to his demand for no gristle [we were not, after all, requesting the locally-favoured half-and-half (半筋半肉)] a piece of cartilaginous jetsam should be espied bobbing in the red oil-spill sea.  

“Two weeks at least before I venture through the portals of this establishment again,” Bede would mutter, disgustedly prodding the offending connective tissue. “Possibly three.” 

But that was long ago, in the heady days when we barely knew a bowl of the clear (清燉) from the red stuff.  And now, abandoned by Bede – who currently props up Rangoon bars, quaffing whisky-laced lager – I have vowed to plough on alone, unbowed in the search for the ultimate beef noodle experience (under NT$200) . When Lao Deng popped up one day, a heart-burning vision on the corner of a lane off Yanji St, I shuffled a giddy truffle of delight. I have an eye for these things, you see, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

Lao Deng decor

There’s not much between the hong shao and the Sichuan hot and sour (四川酸辣), the latter being more vinegary and a trifle spicier. Both are similarly seasoned with Sichuan peppers and both are bloody good at NT$120. I haven’t tried their trademark Dan Dan – basically a spicy sesame paste (麻醬) noodles at most places – or any of the other noodle dishes, but to be honest if you want to do a Barry Bonds and sample the clear in a spice haven like this, you need a slap.

Any hong shao purveyor worth their salt should be including steamed rice-powder pork chops (粉蒸排骨) on their menu and while I remember Lao Zhang’s chops being shorter on bone, there isn’t much between the two. The only conspicuous oversight is the absence of the requisite hefty bowl of pickle (酸菜) passing from table to table. Sort it Andy! 

As I’m settling up, Andy tells me a little about the metamorphosis of Lao Deng.  Old Man Deng’s original joint opened in the ’60s on Lianyun St (連雲街). The red broth apparently ran through his veins, via a century-plus tradition stretching back to the old country.* The Yanji establishment has been on this spot for seven years. 

I ask if they have any other branches around town. There’s one in Banciao – “It is Banciao isn’t it?” he asks his wife uncertainly. Oh, now then,  there’s one that was loosely connected to them and run by a distant relative. Not relative, associate. Off Yongkang. Not Lao Zhang or the vastly inferior Yongkang Beef Noodles. Went tits up a while back when the debt-ridden proprietor absconded with NT$7 million. Whereabouts unknown. It’s back in business now, it seems. “I don’t like to badmouth other places but I hear the noodles aren’t as good as ours.”  

And now we come to the murder. All right, there was no murder. It just made for a nice tricolon. But I’m sure in the annals of beef-noodlery there has to have been at least one, right? The closest I got was this little snippet from Taiwan’s late Brother No. 1, Bamboo Union guv Chen Chi-li (陳啟禮) .  He was definitely involved in murders, most notably that of journalist Henry Liu and, to my knowledge, is the only gang leader to have gone on the record about beef noodles. 

Admittedly, King Duck’s ruminations while wasting away in exile on his Cambodian estate, don’t exactly support my beef-noodle-business-as-a-hotbed-of-criminality thesis; but Chen sees it as an ideal career choice for a hoodlum looking to change his ways: “If I had opened a beef noodle stall after my release from prison last time, and worked from dawn to midnight selling beef noodle by the roadside, then people would say: ‘This big brother has been reformed. Look at how he is now living a straight life.'” **

Lao Deng’s Dan Dan Noodles, No. 17, Lane 137, Yanji St.

Tel: (02) 2779-0128

老鄧担担麵, 延吉街137巷17號

* While some will object to this term as loaded, the culinary anthropologist Kristal C.C. Pwo Li has argued in an excellent paper on the transfer of cooking and eating practices from China to Taiwan that it is appropriate in the context of food history.  “Aside from its socio-political implications, the term ‘mainland’,” argues Li “is clearly unsatisfactory as connoting a  place from which a continued exchange of practices, formative of and culminating in a shared reciprocity of gastronomy, accrued. The designation ‘Old Country,’ while not unproblematic, would seem intuitively much more incorporative of the putative mono-directional flow of practices on the one hand, and the notion of derivativeness, in and of itself, on the other.” (Li, Kristal C.C. Pwo, Exchange vs. mono-directionalism in the development of a Taiwanese gastronomy, International Food Culture Conference, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, May 23, 2004)

** Ko-lin chin, Hejin: Organized Crime, Business and Politics in Taiwan, p.82, M.E. Sharpe, May 2003

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