Turf War on Taoyuan Street


Clowns to the left, jokers to the right: Everything looks peaceful on the surface

Furtive as a street-corner stool-pigeon, Mr. Sun peers from behind a pillar and beckons with that palms-down flap that baffled me when I first saw students use it to signal for assistance, fresh off the plane, a decade ago.

I cross over.

 “You know why they don’t want you taking pictures?” he asks. There’s no need to follow the trajectory of his small, sunken eyes. I already know what they’re fixed on: The corrugated iron façade directly opposite where a shop sign should be. I know because I quizzed the owner about this anomaly when I ate there the week before.

“You see. No name. I’ll tell you why. It’s a problem with Taipei City government. The owners …”

Sun stops short. The enemy has suddenly looked up from his soup basin like a dog catching a whiff of a malodorous waft. He darts a suspicious glare in our direction, then, satisfied there’s nothing too untoward afoot, resumes ladling broth into the bowls that are spread across the steel counter.

 “Illegal?” I proffer.

 “I can’t really say,” he says, all but saying. “But it’s not good. Not good”

Pulling power: Sun works his magic

There’s needle between the noodleries on Taoyuan Street. At Taoyuan Street Authentic Shandong Beef Noodles (桃源街正宗山東牛肉麵), which has been on this spot for 62 years, the diminutive, jug-eared proprietor, Sun Mao-song (孫懋松), has been pulling noodles since he was a nipper.

 “Seven years old I was, when my dad first got me doing it,” he says, mimicking a chest expander exercise by way of demonstration. He also points out his various awards, including a medal from a competition in China and a certificate for “respecting and promoting public health.”

I was informed by an ex-pat Hong Konger that the signless rival has been around for a comparable period of time, though Sun professes to have no idea, which – given the stone’s throw proximity of the two establishments – seems a little hard to credit.

 “I don’t know anything about them,” he sniffs.

Except that they don’t make their own noodles. And their water (allegedly) hasn’t been properly purified. And their noodles (allegedly) are full of starch (澱粉), which will do all sorts of bad things to your  tummy.  “You might as well go there and buy instant noodles,” says Sun motioning to the Family Mart around the corner.

Pinter would be proud

Customers don’t seem to share Sun’s disdain. Signless does a rip-roaring trade on weekends when it’s often full to 30-plus capacity. Sun’s second floor dining area is brighter and more attractively furnished but, at around half the size, would be hard pushed to accommodate as many people and, when I was there, didn’t look like it would need to. One thing I like about the Shandong place, though, is the dumbwaiter that brings up the steaming bowls from the cooking area below.

There’s not much to separate the hong shao (紅燒) style beef and broth at the two places. In both cases the meat is decent, tender and without too much tendon – unless, of course, it’s the half-tendon, half-meat (半筋半肉) you’re after – and the soup tasty enough without being anything extraordinary.

Sun’s noodles are wider, flatter and thicker, (寬板的) with the al dente texture that is apparently expected of the hand-pulled, homemade variety. I have to admit to being a bit of a philistine and preferring Signless’ softer, rameny-style offering. (It’s funny how ramen may have originated from the Chinese lāmián [拉麵] and that the two types confusingly share the same Chinese characters now. Would the addition of a hand (“手”) in front of “pulled noodles” make the difference?)

A bowl of Shandong's finest

Glutton that I am, I’d have to say that the bowl I had at Sun’s was noticeably smaller than what I got across the road. All in all, I’d give Signless the nod, particularly as it has the feel of a more traditional Taiwanese eatery.

Signless is unofficially known to many simply as Taoyuan Street Beef Noodles (桃源街牛肉麵), which seems to have led to some confusion between the two establishments, with local bloggers mistakenly giving the phone number for Shandong in reviews. *

To those in the know, Signless is in fact Wang’s Beef Noodles (老王記牛肉麵), which is what the boss told me when I ate there the week before.

Ending where I began: When I took some snaps out front after finishing my meal at Sun’s place the following week, I was shooed away and told it was “not allowed.”

Oi! Less of that mate: Lao Wang's boss doesn't do photos.

Now I know lots of businesses in Taiwan can be funny this way – often for fear of upsetting customers – but there seemed something more to it here. Friends have suggested a tax ruse.

Regardless of whether there is something going on, you can taste the beef between the two restaurants on Taoyuan Street.

* Sun’s place appears to have changed name and sign a few times over the years. The confusion, coupled with Sun’s assertions of uniqueness, bring to mind this scene from an all-time classic, which I dedicate to its biggest fan – my friend The Aesthete. 

Taoyuan Street Authentic Shandong Beef Noodles, No. 16 Taoyuan St, Zhongzheng District, Taipei

桃源街山東牛肉麵, 台北市中正區桃源街16  

02 2375 8973

Lao Wang’s Beef Noodles, No. 15 Taoyuan St, Zhongzheng District, Taipei

老王記牛肉麵, 台北市萬華區桃源街15


 (The restaurants are west of the Presidential Palace, about midway between 228 Peace Memorial Park and Ximen MRT)

About the Author