Edmonton·FOOD REVIEW

Running hot and cold: Chef Hung is a culinary roller coaster

Going to Taiwan and not having beef noodle soup is like going to Naples and not eating pizza. Or, going to the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa. 

There's good and bad to eat at Chef Hung but 'nothing in between'

Champion beef shank noodle soup featured noodles cooked to perfection and big chunks of succulent shank. (Twyla Campbell)

Going to Taiwan and not having beef noodle soup is like going to Naples and not eating pizza. Or, going to the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa. 

The soup is such an integral part of the island's culinary landscape that, in 2005, the Taipei City Government founded an official festival to honour it.

To this day, the highlight of the festival is a competition that sees hundreds of people vying to win categories like best traditional spicy braised beef soup, best clear broth, and most creative soup, just to name a few. 

One of those contestants, Hung Ching-Lung, is a three-time champion, having claimed honours between the years of 2007 to 2010. It's unclear which category he won, but what is known is that B.C.-based Fairchild Group was so impressed, it ventured into a partnership with Chef Hung to open a restaurant. 

Since then, the group has opened 10 more Chef Hung restaurants in China, the U.S. and Canada. 

The newest restaurant, just off Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, features a storefront with an intriguing contraption of plastic noodles wrapped around chopsticks that rises to nearly six feet before falling to a bowl resting on a pedestal.

It's a mesmerizing display — unique to Edmonton but common in Taiwan, where kitsch like plasticised displays of food are the norm. 

Shredded soft dried pork and egg wrap (Twyla Campbell)

Lofty claims 

Inside, pictures of Chef Hung hang on walls and are printed on placemats. They show him receiving awards and posing with dignitaries. The first few pages of the menu contain information on his accomplishments as well, just in case you miss what's on the walls and tables. 

The menu states Chef Hung has spent 20 years perfecting this beef noodle recipe. Admirable, but the menu could do with a little less 'top quality this' and 'best of that,' and repeated mentioning of finest grade ingredients, secret recipes, and premium beef.

FYI: that outrageously marbled, "premium beef" pictured on the menu? "It's just a picture," reveals the server. "They don't actually use that."

The noodles, too, have lofty claims. They're made in Vancouver, fine, but to say they're made with "unrivaled techniques" and "delicately selected flour?"

It's all a bit much, to be honest.

The noodles, as it turns out, are lovely. Out of the four options (flat, thin, rice or vermicelli), I choose flat to be in my bowl of "Champion Beef Shank" soup.

There appears fewer than I'd like but it's hard to tell as they're hidden beneath a mountain of meat. Credit where credit is due: the noodles are cooked to perfection and retain enough integrity to prevent them from slipping off my chopsticks and back into the bowl.

Noteworthy, too, is the wholesome wheat flavour that comes through with each bite.  

I expected so much more.- Twyla Campbell

The beef also passes with high marks. The big chunks of succulent shank outshine the slices of delicate short rib, but not by much. 

Surprisingly, the broth disappoints. For all the talk and accolades, it leaves me unfulfilled.

The rich colour belies the fact that the broth is bland. Entirely forgettable, really. I expected so much more. 

The deep fried squid balls looked better than they tasted and had the texture of packing peanuts. (Twyla Campbell)

The pan-fried beef pancakes, on the other hand, are heavenly. The cakes are hefty and the crust, nicely browned.

The first bite through the crispy dough takes me back to the day I discovered these treats from a street vendor in Taipei's Banqiao District. The filling in Chef Hung's cakes is similar: juicy with a definite beefiness and enough green onion to offer some savoury punch. 

The shredded soft dried pork wrap, too, is impressive. The sweetness of the pork floss is offset by a fried egg and cradled in a roti-like wrap. Come festival season, this is exactly what I will purchase to eat while strolling Whyte Avenue. 

The chicken nuggets — an unfortunate name, as the pieces are actual chicken breast and not the flaked-and-formed version one associates with the word "nuggets"— is also a tasty grab-and-go option.

While these nuggets lack the heady seasoning found in the ones offered by Edmonton's other Taiwanese restaurant, Formosa Bistro, they arrive crispy, hot and tender and I have no trouble gobbling up one after the other. 

None of my three visits was overwhelmingly positive, but each was consistent. On every occasion I had one good dish, and one dish I regretted ordering — like the lo rou fan, a dish of braised pork over rice. The pork is dry and tough and covered in a sauce so thick and shiny, it's off-putting. It gets sent back to the kitchen. 

The hot and sour soup with dumplings fares no better. Like the lo rou fan, it shows telltale signs of too much corn starch, but it's also overly sour. 

The cabbage and pork dumplings are the only redeeming factor and I wish I would've ordered those just on their own. 

Of my three visits, I make one of those trips specifically for xiao long bao (also called soup dumplings). When I arrive, I'm told they're not available at this location, contrary to what the online menu shows. Not cool.

Eating at Chef Hung was like being on a roller coaster. Highs and lows, twists and turns, and nothing in between. 

Fortunately, I like roller coasters. 

The noodles are enticing enough to have me try them in a different soup, but any dish with sauce is one I'll avoid.

Same with the squid balls; they looked better than they tasted and had the texture of packing peanuts. But come festival season? I'm going to be all over those beef pancakes. 

Chef Hung is located at 10336 81st Ave.

You can hear Campbell's reviews on Edmonton AM every second Friday. You can also see more of her reviews on her blog, Weird Wild and Wonderful, and can follow her on Twitter at @wanderwoman10.