Beef Noodle Soup is probably the most iconic dish in Taiwanese Cuisine. While it was first created by the Hui people, a Chinese Muslim ethnic group during the Tang Dynasty, the red braised beef version was created by veterans who fled from mainland China to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War.
In most places in Taiwan, you’ll rarely find a bowl priced over 240 New Taiwan dollars ($7.80). However, one shop in Taipei has made headlines for charging up to 10,000 New Taiwan dollars ($329) for a bowl of beef noodle soup.
After wondering what kind of an idiot would pay so much for a bowl of noodles, I did the most logical thing: Travel all the way to Taipei, pay $329, and try it for myself.
Niu Ba Ba, which translates to Cow Daddy, is located in the Neihu District of Taipei. I stayed at a major hotel that was just a 15 minute car ride to the restaurant. After telling our Uber driver what we were about to do, he was astonished.
“Wow, 10,000!? I can eat for a whole month with that amount of money!” he said, while probably silently judging me.
We had made reservations a day before since they don’t accept walk-ins. Upon entering the restaurant, we were surprised at how empty it was. There were only four tables and we were literally the only customers.
Soon, a young man came out and gave us our seats. He turned out to be the owner’s son who’s currently the manager at the restaurant. About five minutes later, Chef Wang Cong-yuan, the owner, came out to greet us personally.
Despite my poor Mandarin skills, Wang was warm and welcoming. You can hear the passion in his voice when he talks about his food. Despite being 68, the man doesn’t look a day over 50 and has the energy of a 20-something-year-old. He was gracious enough to show us his kitchen and storage room before we sat down to eat.
Prior to getting into the restaurant business, Wang worked 27 years in construction before launching Niu Ba Ba in 1990. However, success didn’t come immediately. The flavors of his beef noodle soup weren’t right and customers didn’t like it. Things got so bad that Wang’s partner backed out after just 11 days.
Despite these setbacks, Wang was determined and spent the next few years improving his recipe.
“After three to five years, I felt it was quite good already compared to other noodles soup makers,” Wang told NextShark. “But it took me 15 years to gain approval and recognition from others.”
And recognition Wang has gained indeed, drawing customers like Michelin-starred French Chef Jean-Michel Lorain Michel, Martial Arts Legend Jackie Chan, and Academy Award Winning Director Ang Lee, among many more.
The menu has eight beef noodle soups available: #1 is the “Beef Father Beef Noodle Soup” being the cheapest at 500 New Taiwan dollars (roughly $16) and #8 is the coveted “Presidential Beef Noodle Soup” at 10,000 New Taiwan dollars.
To compare them, we ordered the #1, #6, and #8. We were told that #6, priced at 1500 New Taiwan dollars ($49) is one of the more popular options and would take you 80% of the way through to the “Presidential Beef Noodle Soup.”
We were first served some appetizers including peanuts, cabbage, and seaweed. All of them tasted very good, especially the peanuts, which was probably the best I’ve ever had.
“Our peanuts take us three days to prep,” Wang said. “Our small side dishes look very simple, but it’s a complicated process for every dish.”
When the dishes finally arrived, we tasted #1 first. Overall, it was a solid bowl of beef noodle soup and I had absolutely no complaints about it. I wouldn’t say there was anything particularly special about it. The broth was fragrant and definitely more flavorful than most of the other places where I’ve had it. The meat was also pretty basic and tough like most beef noodle soups I’ve had.
Soon after, we moved onto #6. First crafted in 1995, this dish was the most expensive beef noodle soup in Taiwan. Over time, the more superior “Presidential Beef Noodle Soup” took its place. The broth here was definitely more bold and flavorful. The quality of the meat was a night and day difference compared to #1 — every piece pretty much melted in my mouth. If I were to compare it to the other beef noodle soups I’ve had, I would say this definitely tops the list of some of the best I’ve ever had.
However, we weren’t nearly done yet. It was time to move onto the grand finale, the coveted “Presidential Beef Noodle Soup,” the most expensive bowl of beef noodle soup in the world.
“The noodle soup you got requires three layers of broth — the #1 has only one layer,” he said.
The dish has three different broth layers made from six different types of stock. Each layer of soup is made individually and is distilled from beef bone, tendons and tenderloin. After that, it’s seasoned with soy sauce, rock sugar, five spice and nothing else.
“We keep everything as natural as possible and let the flavors speak for themselves,” Wang said.
The presentation itself was pretty basic, apart from the fact that it’s served on a $600 partially gold-plated bowl. Wang advised us to taste the first layer of the soup by taking a spoonful from the top.
“The first layer will taste completely different from when you put your spoon all the way down and taste all three layers,” he said.
The first layer was delicious and tasted like premium quality beef broth, just not as bold as I expected. Then I dipped my spoon down to the bottom as Wang advised and tried all three layers. He was right, there was definitely a symphony of flavors that is difficult to describe. The beefy flavor was so rich that you could feel it almost stain every corner of your mouth, yet it was clean enough that your palate wasn’t drowned in it so you could enjoy each new bite.
I should note, however, that the flavor of the broth is nothing revolutionary — Wang simply sourced all the best quality ingredients for a remarkably simple recipe.
One of the hallmarks of the dish is that each bowl has four different cuts of meat, imported from Japan, Australia, the United States, and Brazil. All are premium cuts, including Wagyu beef from Australia and Japan.
Each type of meat is prepared differently to make sure they are cooked to perfection. He cuts each piece against he grain and in specific shapes to ensure the best taste. Then he uses a special technique that involves slow-braising each piece for over three days, then freezing them individually over night so they can rest in between. The whole process takes about one week.
“I recommend every piece be separated into two bites,” Wang advised. “Take a bite, and then another, every piece should be eaten this way.”
There can only be one way to describe how the meat tasted: BOMB.COM. Each piece practically melted in my mouth without any effort. The beef was infused with flavor and spices from Wang’s braising technique. As someone who typically leaves the beef uneaten because it’s too tough, this was absolutely life changing. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say it’s the best I’ve ever eaten.
The noodles seemed pretty normal to me, definitely better tasting in terms of texture and flavor. However, I was slightly disappointed when Chef Wang told me they weren’t handmade in-house, but from a vendor they order from. I don’t know if that’s a big deal, but I was expecting more from a $329 bowl of noodles.
Despite what most people might think, the recipe itself is actually not really a secret. In fact, Wang says pretty much everyone of his staff members knows the process.
“Anyone can do what we’re doing, but not everyone is willing to actually do all the work it takes to make a bowl,” he added.
As for the whopping price tag for one bowl, Wang says that the price was actually left blank for over a decade. He wanted to let the customers decide how much they should pay. As time went on, Wang started experimenting with different prices.
“500 New Taiwan dollars ($16.42) was the lowest price I’ve been offered, the highest has been 30,000 New Taiwan dollars ($985),” Wang said. “I once tried charging 100,000 New Taiwan dollars ($3,284), but no one bought it.”
Eventually, Wang sought the advice of a three-star Michelin chef, politicians, and celebrities who frequented his establishment. Most of them suggested pricing in the range of 10,000 New Taiwan dollars, which became the official price in 2007.
Wang is not just a Beef Noodle Soup expert, but he’s also proven himself to be a smart businessman with how he runs his business. Before settling in his current location, the original restaurant was at a place that could feed up to 1,000 people a day. However, he realized that as he had more customers, his labor and supply expenses increased, which thinned his margins.
He came up with an idea: He began raising his prices on his cheaper items until less people showed up. Once he came up with the right price point, he moved into a smaller venue with just four tables. This allowed him to serve the highest quality product and cut down on labor costs while maintaining great margins.
“I want the to have best beef noodles soup restaurant in Taiwan,” Wang said.
Despite all the success, Wang says he’s far from wanting to retire. While his son currently runs daily operations, Wang still gets up early in the morning to make the broths to stay active and healthy.
So, is Chef Wang’s “Presidential Beef Noodle Soup” worth the price tag? Honestly, I personally don’t think so. I hate saying that because Wang was such a good guy and was so generous with his time with us. Don’t get me wrong, this was definitely the BEST beef noodle soup I’ve ever had. The broth was seriously addictive and I couldn’t stop drinking it.
However, I just can’t stomach paying such a high amount for a bowl of beef noodle soup. Think about it: $329 is even more than a 20-course omakase at Chef Jiro Ono’s sushi bar or a full tasting course at any L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon location in the world. If I had to personally price it myself, I would maybe pay $75.
I will definitely be back for the more affordable items, but I’m not sure if I’ll be ordering #8 again anytime soon due to the price. Nonetheless, there’s absolutely no doubt of the amount of effort Chef Wang puts into each bowl of his noodles. His passion for his craft is unparalleled and his motto of quality of quantity is something every chef should strive for.
Niu Ba Ba Beef Noodle Restaurant
No. 149, Section 6, Minquan East Road,
Neihu District, Taipei City, Taiwan 114