It was the Sunday before Memorial Day, very much like this one; bright, sunny, and clear. It was also nearly 30 years ago, and summer looks different to a twenty-something than it does to a fifty-something.
I was a bartender back then, but a whole different kind of bartending it was. The movie “Cocktail” had just come out and it was all flash and flip. One thing that wasn’t different was the fact that in the bar/restaurant business the holidays are the days you want to work. And on that day, I was tired from slapping out mudslides, Yager shots and cosmopolitans from the night before, a night that for nightclub bartenders often ended at 3 in the morning.
I had wandered into my second job and was hoping to get something to eat from the Chinese restaurant next door.
“Hey Andy,” I asked the bartender. “What’s good there?”
“Get the braised beef noodle soup,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
I didn’t know it then, but that simple interaction would alter the course of my life. I hadn’t grown up in a family that had much money, so eating out was not really something we did. It wasn’t until I had gotten a job in the restaurant business that I began to really appreciate food. My first girlfriend and I would often eat at the town’s only Chinese restaurant which was also the only white tablecloth restaurant that I could afford. I loved the porcelain teacups, chopsticks, melamine spoons as well as the adult server. It seemed so decadent.
Even with that extensive Chinese restaurant experience I had never heard of braised beef noodle soup. And Andy was right, it was awesome. Large tender beef cubes, round noodles, mustard greens in a spicy broth. I could not get enough of it. For the next two years I ate at that restaurant at least once a week and always, always, ordered that soup.
One day I walked in and something felt different. I sat down and ordered the soup without even opening the menu. When it arrived, it was totally different. It was then that I noticed everything else was also totally different. The restaurant had changed hands, and the only thing it had kept was the name. I never went back.
Over the next twenty years I kept looking for that soup. There was no internet then, heck there weren’t even cellphones. So, when I say I looked. I mean I physically went and looked, Chinese restaurant after Chinese restaurant.
I branched out: Japanese restaurants, Korean restaurants, Thai restaurants. All had beef noodle soups but nothing like the one I remembered. Ironically in my quest for that soup I tried and experienced a lot of cultures that I then knew nothing about.
I also began to travel. I went to China. There I had Peking Duck in Beijing, Cantonese noodles in Guangzhou, and even wandered the so-called “wet” meat market in Wuhan. I didn’t eat meat for some time after that, but that is another story. Unfortunately, no braised beef noodle soup was to be found.
An interest in martial arts led to an interest in Japanese culture, which led to several trips to Japan. I read about a beef noodle soup in a Vietnamese cookbook called pho. That soup got me through my college career. It wasn’t braised beef noodle soup, but it was the next best thing. And Vietnamese beef stew ain’t bad neither. Just saying.
Eventually I gave up. Even scouring the internet for Chinese braised beef noodle soup hadn’t worked.
One day a friend of mine who had spent some time in Taiwan and had married a Thai woman, and I were discussing our travels. I told him about that soup and my fruitless search for it.
“It’s Taiwanese,” he said.
“I’ve had Thai beef noodle soup and it’s not the
same,” I said.
“Not Thai. Taiwanese.”
He was absolutely right. A couple of Google searches later and I had a steaming bowl of Taiwanese braised beef noodle soup with mustard greens sitting in front of me. It was like I was 22 years-old all over again.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-Happy Memorial Day Andy, wherever you are. You probably don’t remember that experience. But I will never forget it.
-They say it’s the journey that is important, not the destination. But I say, sometimes the destination isn’t bad either.
– “The more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be,” once said Anthony Bourdain.
-The restaurant business is about experiences as much as it is about food or drink. And I, for one, cannot wait to get back to it.