I have heard that the hot summer months are one of the best times to enjoy Japanese buckwheat soba noodles. And I Chun-liu introduces us to a special soba place on Zhongshan North Road.
Of the various types of Japanese noodles, I have a special fondness for soba (buckwheat noodles). Ever since I tasted handmade soba at the venerable 549-year-old Owariya (http://www.honke-owariya.co.jp/english/) in Kyoto, I have been searching for a good soba restaurant in Taipei. Shouldn’t be too difficult, I thought, given the high concentration of quality Japanese restaurants here.
How wrong I was. For some reason, Taiwanese seem to really love ramen (Chinese-style wheat noodles), judging from the number of ramen outlets dotting the island. You have to search hard to find a homemade udon (thick wheat flour noodles) restaurant; harder still to find a soba restaurant.
The first handmade soba restaurant I tried several years ago – with a Japanese owner-chef no less – was a big letdown: the noodles were overcooked with many broken strands. I was about to give up hope when I stumbled upon二月半そば in a just-trying-my-luck Google search. Owned by a Japanese couple, the restaurant opened in mid-February 2013 and now has another branch in Kaohsiung.
The name originated from the fact that it takes two-and-a-half months from sowing to harvest to produce buckwheat. 二月半そば uses buckwheat grown in Taiwan and offers special seasonal dishes (季節限定).
Located in the same lane as Spot Taipei (former U.S. Ambassador’s residence now housing a cinema, gift shop, restaurant and café) at Zhongshan North Road, 二月半そばoccupies an elongated space with traditional Japanese décor. The clay and straw plastered walls give it a rustic look. Although it was full house that night, with several customers waiting in line, the high ceiling kept the noise level well dispersed.
You are served a cup of hot soba tea once seated. The rather extensive menu (http://healthysoba.com/menu) includes: cold soba, dipping soba, hot soba, house specialties, à la carte dishes and a handful of off-the-menu items (ask the waitress).
We went for the hot soba as we wanted to see if the dashi (broth) was up to scratch. My husband ordered the Tempura soba soup (soba with deep-fried battered seafood and vegetables); NT$280. The tempura was fresh and crispy without being too oily. It was evident that good oil was used for the deep-frying as there was no stale taste. The dipping sauce for the tempura was also right for us in terms of saltiness.
I had the Grated Japanese yam with soft poached egg soba soup (NT$220). Nice broth with a light smoked bonito flakes taste. Though the buckwheat noodles were not as flavourful as those in Japan (perhaps due to different variety of buckwheat), the texture was good, with the right amount of chewiness. I liked the soft wakame seaweed too.
Both of us ordered normal serve of noodles, which was just nice, with two side dishes. Small eaters can request for reduced noodles (NT$10 off) while those feeling hungry can pay NT$30 more for a single upsize or NT$60 for double upsize. Another thing to note is that cold soba, which has a firmer bite, uses 100% buckwheat while hot soba uses 90% buckwheat + 10% whole wheat flour.
The delicate flavour of the Tamago-yaki (Japanese rolled omelette); NT$80 was a pleasant surprise. 二月半そば makes Kansai style tamago-yaki or dashimaki-tamago, using seasoned stock and salt. It was soft and moist, not salty or sweet at all, unlike Kanto style tamago. Those who like it more salty can add some soy sauce (provided in a dispenser).
We found the Japan-imported Kamaboko (boiled fish cake); NT$120 too hard for our liking. We much prefer the humble fish cake we get with our fish ball noodle soup at Singapore hawker centres.
It was an enjoyable dinner overall. The noodles, broth, tamago-yaki were all good. It’s unfair to compare Taiwanese buckwheat with the Japanese variety, so just go there for a hearty and healthy bowl of soba. At such reasonable prices (NT$770 for 2 bowls of noodles and 2 side dishes + 10% service charge), we are not complaining.
Address: No. 1-1, Lane 20, Zhongshan North Road Section 2, Taipei (opposite Spot Taipei)
Tel: (02) 2563-8008
Open: 11:30 am to 2pm and 5:30pm to 9pm (Wednesday closed)
Note: Cash only; 10% service charge
Reviewed by: I-Chun Liu