Niil Rou Mian from Yilan Foods, or Taiwanese beef noodle soup. Photo: Momo Chang
A new Taiwanese pop-up has arrived in Oakland serving an excellent bowl of Niu Rou Mian, or beef noodle soup. Yilan Foods works in the kitchen of the Ninna Restaurant on Piedmont Avenue and has consistently sold out its signature noodle soup dish as well as its Lu-Rou fan or steamed fatty pork over rice since it opened in October.
Yilan Food is currently open for pre-order pickup and delivery on Sundays in Oakland. (There is also an outpost in San Francisco.) Hours of operation are limited as the popup is still in its infancy.
A group of friends came up with the idea for Yilan Foods and started fine-tuning its recipes just a month before the pop-up opened to public. The founders are Itthisak Rampaiyakul, a classically trained chef and owner of the Ninna Restaurant (which has closed permanently with its regular Thai menu); Eric Sim, a home cook; Alex Tong, who attended cookery school with Rampaiyakul and worked with him in the now closed, historic Grand Cafe in San Francisco; and Christopher Lam, who went to high school with Rampaiyakul and runs the business side of the company.
For all founders, food is an opportunity to connect with their roots. In particular, the menu and recipes are inspired by Sim’s roots. “Growing up, it was difficult to find Taiwanese food and ways to connect with my culture,” said Sim, whose father is Chinese Malaysian and mother is Taiwanese. His mother comes from Yilan, a mainly agricultural region east of Taipei. Sim grew up in Oakland, where Cantonese was the predominant language, which made him feel like an outsider.
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Co-founders of Yilan Food (from left) Itthisak Rampaiyakul, Eric Sim, Christopher Lam and Alex Tong. Photo: Yilan Foods
Oakland has long had a shortage of restaurants specializing in Taiwanese cuisine. In recent years, restaurants and pop-ups like Taiwan Bento in Uptown and Good to Eat Dumplings in Jack London Square have started selling traditional Taiwanese dishes.
While Yilan has regional dishes like spring onion pancakes, according to Sim, the pop-up doesn’t focus specifically on foods from Yilan, but on Taiwanese food in general. Taiwan is known for Xiao Chi, or small bites that are often served on the street and at night markets. Beef noodle soup comes from the Chinese province of Sichuan, but is synonymous with Taiwanese food.
At Yilan Foods, beef noodle soup is the star and often sells out, sometimes as soon as within 45 minutes of opening it for online pre-orders.
Yilan’s version of beef noodle soup ($ 15) features Hong Shao (red braised) meat in a collagen-laden broth. Along with the slowly braised beef thigh, beef neck bones and foot bones add gelatin and flavor to the soup that is both subtle and rich, but not oily. The broth is ladled over fresh wheat noodles with sautéed bok choy and pickled mustard greens. Most restaurants serve beef noodle soup with pieces of beef, but Yilan’s version has sliced meat that is closer to what you’d find in Pho. Still, it’s a very traditional bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup – one that I would recommend to my parents who grew up in Taiwan and are savvy home cooks. And the portion is big enough for leftovers.
“I firmly believe that mothers make the best soup,” said Tong, praising all of the great home cooks out there. “If there’s a mother who sluts beef noodle soup, it’s probably better than ours.” Despite Tong’s humility, telling is the fact that Yilan Foods is constantly selling its prices only through Instagram and Facebook posts and word of mouth. Yilan’s beef noodle soup is slightly spicy. I recommend adding $ 3 beef tendons to your order, gelatinous pieces that almost melt in your mouth.
Lu rou fan of Yilan Foods. Photo: Momo Chang
Yilan’s other offering is lu rou fan, another Taiwanese staple. In Taiwan, the braised pork rice dish is often served as a snack or mini meal. Yilan’s version is generous enough for a meal plus leftovers. Often times the dish has minced pork belly, but some versions have larger, chunkier pieces of pork – like Yilan’s Lu-Rou fan, who adds shiitake mushrooms and is served in an aesthetically pleasing take-away presentation with pickled daikon and half a soft-boiled egg, soaked in puerh tea. The egg is more like a ramen egg than a traditional hard-boiled tea infuser. Personally, I prefer my hard-boiled egg, but the soft-boiled egg is a nice twist and makes the dish a bit more modern. At $ 13 for a large bowl, Yilan’s Lu-Rou fan is an extremely robust and satisfying meal.
I wouldn’t be sure if I didn’t mention Yilan’s homemade chili sauce. Tong, who has worked in the restaurant industry for years, including at Four Seasons in Las Vegas, has put a lot of work into perfecting this addicting chilli oil. A side dish comes with an order of beef noodle soup, but you can purchase an additional serving for $ 1. The sauce consists of high quality chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorn. It smells and highlights any dish that needs a little spice. (I saved my sauce and used it with ramen and congee that I made at home.) Yilan Foods is ultimately hoping to sell the sauce in larger portions. I see this becoming a pantry for a lot of home cooks.
Yilan’s menu currently only offers two staples, but the team is currently fine-tuning a vegetarian Lu-Rou fan, which would make the pop-up one of the few local spots selling a veg-friendly version. Recently, Yilan added two side dishes ($ 6 each): garlic cucumber and vinegar-marinated wood ear mushrooms.
Yilan Foods has a few side dishes, including these vinegar-marinated wooden ear mushrooms. Photo: Yilan Foods
All along the line, the Yilan team hopes to be able to move into a stationary room. “The ride was pretty insane,” said Sim. “I didn’t think it would gain that much traction. It’s a very pleasant surprise. “
And maybe even further down, the founding friends have plans to introduce more Taiwanese food to the locals. Tong has experimented with making his own You Tiao, or fried donut sticks. Usually a breakfast meal that can be dipped or tossed in hot soy milk or incorporated into other dishes – jianbing, for example – Tong hopes to eventually serve fan-tuan, sticky rice rolled around you that is sweet or can be made hearty. Fan tuan are a very portable, filling food that is usually eaten for breakfast and is harder to find in this area. “It’s a favorite on our team,” said Tong.
While Sim is the only one with a family from Taiwan, all members of the Yilan team have cultural ties to the project. For example, Lam’s parents are ethnically Chinese from Vietnam, and he grew up mainly on Vietnamese food. Yilan’s Lu-Rou fan reminds Lam of a braised pork belly and egg dish from North Vietnam, Thit Kho. “It’s really cool to combine dishes from my childhood with dishes that we now serve in the restaurant,” he said.
The last time Sim visited Taiwan with his mother was when he was 14 years old. “Your family was very poor,” he recalled, describing the house as a hut on a rice field. Yilan Foods pays homage to her and to all immigrant parents who brought their children to the United States for a better life.
Yilan Foods’ East Bay pickup location is at Ninna Restaurant, 4066 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. Pre-order online on Wednesdays, Wednesdays for collection between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Sundays; Delivery is possible at an additional cost.
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