Nothing is quite as comforting and fortifying as a bowl of noodle soup. And niu rou mian, or Taiwanese beef noodle soup, brimming with chunks of long-simmered beef and noodles in a savory broth, is among the most comforting and fortifying. Many consider it to be the national dish of Taiwan, and it has been a staple of New York City’s Chinatowns for decades. But young Taiwanese-American chefs have of late been putting their own grass-fed spin on their grandparents’ comfort food. Herewith, a list of the absolute best bowls in New York.
The Absolute Best
1. Mama Lee
213-12 48th Ave., nr. Bell Blvd., Bayside; 718-767-8680
Partaking of the absolute best bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup in New York requires a trek deep into Queens and likely entails a subway or two and the Q27 bus. In Bayside, you’ll find the matriarch and chef in question, one Mei Lee. She’s quick with a cup of complimentary corn tea and may recommend one of the many over-rice dishes, but if you insist on the beef noodle soup, you’ll be amply rewarded. The bowl brims with a heap of stewed beef and bright-green bok choy, while the broth gets its incredible richness and depth of flavor from beef knees and shanks that are boiled for eight hours with ginger and onions. Lee cubes and browns the shank before braising, which gives it a wonderful roastiness and a meaty texture. But the chef has another explanation for her soup’s high quality: “The fat has a nice fragrance,” she says when asked her secret. “It tastes like butter.” Nonetheless, this is a well-balanced bowl with spices like cinnamon, star anise, and chile playing a supporting role to the beef and broth. The calligraphy behind the counter was painted by Papa Lee and reads, “Yi Ping Xiang,” or “No. 1 Taste.” Indeed!
2. Ho Foods
110 E. 7th St., nr. First Ave.; 347-788-0682
Faithful fans line up nightly at Richard Ho’s tiny restaurant, which serves the most cheffed-up version of the Taiwanese comfort-food classic in New York. Ho’s beef noodle soup begins with cow’s feet and pasture-raised-beef shank bones that luxuriate for 24 hours along with star anise, cinnamon, garlic, scallion, tomato, and seaweed, among other things. In a separate pot, what is surely the best beef shank being used for the dish in town cooks in the same broth. The two are combined to create a sumptuous bowl. Take your pick of thin or wide noodles, the latter offering a pleasantly chewy alternative. For ultimate decadence, ask for the “rich and spicy” option and add tendons. The dollop of marrow, beef-tallow-enriched hot sauce, and wobbly tendons combine to clear the sinuses and warm the body.
3. ChiMaMa’s Noodle House
45-37 C Bell Blvd., nr. 45th Rd., Bayside; 718-631-8881
The sign for this Queens shop proudly proclaims “Since 1950,” but it’s clear from examining the black-and-white photos that the vintage refers to ChiMaMa’s original and extant location in Taichung, Taiwan. One large color photo features an ornate vermillion ink stamp that reads, ji xiang (“auspicious”), surrounded by garlic, ginger, and chiles, a harbinger of what’s to come when you order the niu rou mian. The soup here is unique in that the base broth is made from pork bones combined with ginger and Chinese wine. ChiMaMa’s also has the distinction of being the only place on this list (and possibly in the whole city) to use boneless beef short rib, rendered super-tender and flavorful thanks to a braise with soy sauce and star anise. The finished product — a combination of the pork broth along with the meat and the braising liquid — is offset by suan cai, crunchy pickled mustard greens, making for some mighty fine slurping.
26 St. Marks Pl., nr. Second Ave.; 646-882-0231
Chef Eric Sze named his purple-neon-bathed restaurant for his homeland’s telephone code. Much of the menu consists of his updated versions of Taiwanese comfort foods, but Sze doesn’t fool too much with the beef noodle soup. The rich beefiness comes from oxtails that surrender all their luscious gelatin after 16 hours, resulting in a silky broth. The noodles are appropriately springy, and the beef shank itself is quite tender. It’s a comforting, slightly newfangled version of the Taiwanese classic.
5. Happy Stony Noodle
83-47 Dongan Ave., nr. Broadway, Elmhurst; 718-335-0500
Chef Chih Shen “Stony” Hsu makes his broth from beef neck bones and Chinese aromatics, including goji berries, fermented bean paste, and star anise. Chef Stony takes a light touch with that last ingredient, its licorice note a mere whisper rather than the shout it so often becomes elsewhere. Generous bowls of suan cai to add to your soup grace every table. Don’t be shy about munching on the crunchy, piquant green bits while you wait for your noodles; everybody else does. The thick-cut braised beef shin is extra tender, and for an even more fortifying bowl, you can supplement it with jiggly bits of translucent amber-hued tendon. For a real taste of Taiwan, ask your server for Taiwanese Kong Yen vinegar, which is made from glutinous rice and tomato paste and acts as a great foil to the rich meat and soup.
6. Hwa Yuan
42 E. Broadway, nr. Catherine St.; 212-966-6002
The cold sesame noodles prepared here by chef Chen Lieh Tang according to his father Shorty Tang’s recipe are the stuff of legend. What many diners don’t know is that the old man also made a superb beef noodle soup with a wonderful depth of flavor and just a hint of chile heat. It’s listed on the menu as “braised beef noodle soup (a Tang family classic).” There’s no option to add tendon, but don’t worry: Chef Tang throws in a bit to keep the concave slices of beef shin and crunchy bok choy company. The flavor of star anise is definitely there but not overpowering.
7. Very Fresh Noodles
425 W. 15th St., nr. Ninth Ave.; no phone
As the name implies, the noodles in the La Mei Taiwanese beef noodle soup served at this busy Chelsea Market stand are the freshest around. Order a bowl and one of the cooks will go to work slapping and stretching broad bands of biang biang mian as you watch from your seat at the counter. The chewy ribbons are a novel, fun accompaniment to the broth, which, in addition to the usual ingredients, includes tomato and orange peel. Instead of the standard radial cut, the beef shank is sliced vertically, then chunked, giving it a meatier texture.
8. Four Four South Village
38-06 Prince St., nr. 38th Ave., Flushing; 718-886-5001
It’s all about nostalgia at this downtown Flushing restaurant decorated with vintage radios and black-and-white photos of Four Four South Village, a Taipei community built in 1949 for the military personnel of the 44th Arsenal of the Combined Logistics Command of the Chinese army. It was in these settlements, known as juan cun, where the classic Taiwanese comfort food is said to have originated. Take a seat and the server will bring over a dry-erase marker and a menu with boxes to check. You’ll want to check off box 113, a tasty trifecta of braised beef, tendon, and tripe — known as hong shao niu san bao mian in Mandarin. Instead of the commonplace beef shin, the restaurant uses “rib finger meat,” the flesh from between the ribs. The other thing that sets Four Four South Village apart is the springiness of its noodles, round strands that easily maintain their chewiness through an entire slurping session.