When you grow to my age, you don’t remember much about elementary school. You remember the names of your teachers and some of the names of your classmates. You remember making edible dirt with crushed brownies and gummi worms. You remember playing with a parachute in gym class and being sent to the principal’s office for making prank Valentine’s cards for classmates with crude names that you borrowed from that old PC game Scorch (well, I remember that last part).
I seem to remember worksheets that asked me what my favorite color was (don’t know), who my personal hero was (Raphael from TMNT), and what I wanted to be when I grew up (inventor/President of the United States). I didn’t know it then, but there was only one question with an answer that has not changed. What is my favorite food? My favorite food always has been and always will be beef noodle soup, 紅燒牛肉麵.
I grew up in Queens County, the most diverse county in the entire world (Google it). P.S. 163 and P.S. 173 were no different. People from every tribe, nation and tongue gathered a stone’s throw away from Manhattan to make a better life for themselves and for their families. They still do. But when you’re in grade school and you write beef noodle soup in a box on a worksheet, people don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. They think of chunky beef and vegetable soup. They think of beef stew with carrots and potatoes.
But they’re wrong. Beef noodle soup isn’t American. It isn’t Irish or English. Beef noodle soup is Taiwanese. Fatty beef shank, braised and slow cooked with bones for a deep, rich flavor. Soy sauce, rock sugar and star anise. Dough, delicious dough, hand pulled or knife cut into thick, chewy noodles that soak up the flavor without falling apart. Beef noodle soup is God’s gift to mankind, and it came by way of a little island formerly known as Formosa.
Main Street looked different when we were kids. When I was growing up, before there was Flushing Library, before there was Big Bowl or Starbucks, there was that wicked place Mega Academy and a string of excellent restaurants and supermarkets. On Main Street, in between 41st and 42nd ave., there was a Taiwanese Restaurant that made the best damn beef noodle soup in the city. Right smack on that street was a place that sold us 紅燒牛肉麵. I remember the sound of the bell against the door and the way the cashier had a booth before you got to the seating area. I remember the waitress with the hoarse voice, and the pulled back ponytail and a mole above her lip like Cindy Crawford. I remember the anticipation as we drove back home with it, burning hot even through the plastic container that I would hold to make sure it wouldn’t topple. Back then, I didn’t eat the meat or drink the soup, I just ate the noodles, and then I ate the extra noodles my mom would order for me and then I would eat my brother’s noodles that he didn’t finish, because beef noodle soup was my favorite food.
When I was 21, I had essentially dropped out of college and moved to California (sorry mom). Then I decided to tag along with my dad and stepmom as they explored some business opportunities in China and Taiwan. It’s the longest stretch of time I can remember spending with my dad. I celebrated my twenty second birthday in a two bedroom condo in Taoyuan. It was during this time that my stepmom began to see some of the odd freakish similarities between father and son. Not the least of these similarities was the fact that we found an amazing beef noodle soup place on ZhongHua Rd. and without her intervention, my dad and I would have eaten there for every meal.
My dad, too, has always loved beef noodle soup and much of the mythology of my dad involves it. My mom used to tell me a story about my dad when he was growing up. My dad left home to go to high school in Taipei, so my grandma would give her beloved son enough money for two bowls of noodles. Two bowls, because beef noodle soup was his favorite food. A classmate of my father’s lost his parents when he was young and didn’t have the means to eat out, so for three years, my dad bought two bowls a day, one for himself and gave one to his friend. We now know that friend as uncle Liang.
Later, in college, uncle Liang introduced my dad to a precocious young lady from Chiayi. That lady was and is my mom.
And thus, my parents fell in love (and out of love too, but that’s another story). When they were dating, my dad would take my mom all over Taiwan on his motorcycle. They rode through mountains and by the ocean, and when the engine would overheat, my dad would pull over to the side of the road and pee on it to cool it down. Dad would take off his belt and wrap it around the both of them as they cruised through the countryside day and night. My mom would fall asleep with her cheek pressed up against his back.
But they didn’t just travel around, they had their regular spots too. One of them was none other than a beef noodle soup shop. In certain restaurants, they will differentiate between 牛肉麵 (literally beef noodle), and 牛肉湯麵 (beef soup noodle). There were two differences between the two. First, the fact that the latter had no meat and second, the price. Since my parents were broke and in love, they split a beef soup noodle and the kind shopowner would give them a free tea egg.
After many shared bowls and after many long years of courtship, they decided to get married. The problem is, my grandparents didn’t support the marriage. They didn’t think my mom was good enough for their cherished son, so they didn’t show up for the wedding. When they did, guess who acted as a father for my own father when he married my mother. That’s right. The man who ran the noodle shop.
Usually, Stephy reads these things when everyone else does. I catch her on the bed or couch scrolling on her phone. If I’m lucky, she’s moved by something she read and accepts my kisses. With this post, I read it to her in different phases as I wrote it. She asked me where I was going with it. I think this is where.
Stephy likes beef noodle soup too. And so does her family. When we were in Taiwan, her dad brought us a really damn good one from somewhere deeper in the city. We ate it together— myself, Stephy, her dad, aunt, niece, nephew, grandma and NaiNai the dog. We also ate beef noodle soup in a famous shop in YongKang Street, and at another place with my mom and brother and a couple of instant ones from 7-11. All told, I ate at least one bowl per day during our two week trip in Taiwan last year. What was I saying?
Anyway, sometimes when she has the time, Stephy’ll make it at home. She makes it in the instant pot which spouts the smell of stewed beef all up in the air and when I walk through the door, I feel like I could cry. I feel at home. Maybe Shelby will feel that way too. Maybe it will be her favorite food, and she’ll think of good memories from growing up. Maybe she’ll think of the places she can count on, or her ethnic identity, or maybe she’ll think of people who love her. Or maybe not. Maybe she’ll have a different favorite food. Maybe it’ll be pastrami. I love Pastrami.