One of the things about Taiwanese food I love best are the small, hole-in-the-wall places. Cheap and inexpensive, they churn out good quality food day in day out for years. Taiwan has a multitude of would-be snack shops, and only the best can survive the competition year in, year out.
A few weeks ago, Mr Taiwanxifu and I went into the central Taipei district — near the Presidential Palace — to do some errands. It was mid morning and suddenly Mr Taiwanxifu became anxious. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘I want to take you to eat noodles for lunch and its best to go now before it gets too busy.’ Since it wasn’t even midday I did not understand the need for hurry — until we got there.
Hualin Dry Noodles (樺林乾麵 — hualin ganmian) is a well known favourite among the students of the nearby Soochow University (Dongwu campus) and Downtown Chinese Culture University. But it is not just a student haunt: its devotees include military officers from the nearby defense force headquarters. An elderly couple has run the shop for decades. I can vouch for this — Mr Taiwanxifu was a regular twenty years ago when he was a University student, and the same hardworking couple welcomed us when he took me back recently.
The line snaking out the door (even though it was not yet noon) might be long, but the shop has an efficient process for serving people. They take orders for noodles and soup while people wait, so they are cooked and ready almost as soon as you find a free seat. Being Taiwan, no-one jostles and people calmly wait in line. And diners are generally happy to share tables with total strangers. Once seated, you can help yourself to their small but appetising selection of ‘entrees’ (小菜, xiao cai). We chose a plate of cold shredded bean curd and dried anchovies with chilli.
The fish ball soup arrived not long after we sat down. The simple, not overly salty broth contained two fish balls made from different types of fish. The larger, paler ball was filled with a savoury meat mixture. The fish balls were super-soft pillows, indicating they were fresh and homemade.
But it is the noodles that everyone flocks to the Hualin Dry Noodle shop for. In Taiwan, they refer to this type of boiled noodles as ‘dry noodles’ (gan mian). Back in Australia we would probably use the Japanese term — somen noodles. Whatever the name, the simple wheat based noodles are deceptively delicious. You can eat them plain, but it is more usual to drizzle on some vinegar, sesame oil and/or chilli oil before consuming them.
A meal at Hualins will not break the bank. I only had NT$200 in my purse, and we still came away with change. Items on the menu cost only between NT$20 and NT$50, so even if you splurge and order entree, soup and noodles it will still be a cheap date.
Hualin’s Dry Noodles are set in a little laneway opposite the downtown branch of the Chinese Culture University at No 15, Lane 91 Zhonghua Road (樺林乾麵, 台北市中正區中華路一段91巷15號). They are open for lunch on weekdays, but are closed on weekends.