A new Taiwanese food pop-up has arrived in Oakland, serving a stellar bowl of niu rou mian, or beef noodle soup. Yilan Foods operates out of the kitchen at Ninna Restaurant on Piedmont Avenue and has consistently sold out of its signature noodle soup dish as well as its lu rou fan, or stewed fatty pork over rice, since it opened in October.Yilan Food is currently open on Sundays for pre-order pickup and delivery in Oakland. (It also has an outpost in San Francisco.) Its hours are limited, as the pop-up is still in its early days.A group of friends came up with the idea for Yilan Foods and started fine-tuning its recipes just a month ahead of the pop-up’s public launch. The founders consist of Itthisak Rampaiyakul, a classically trained chef and owner of Ninna Restaurant (which has permanently closed with its regular Thai food menu); Eric Sim, a home cook; Alex Tong, who went to culinary school with Rampaiyakul and worked with him at the now-shuttered, historic Grand Cafe in San Francisco; and Christopher Lam, who went to high school with Rampaiyakul and runs the business side of the endeavor.For all of the founders, food is a way to connect to their roots. In particular, the menu and recipes are inspired by Sim’s roots. “Growing up, it was hard to find Taiwanese food and ways to connect to my culture,” said Sim, whose father is Chinese Malaysian and whose mother is Taiwanese. His mother is from Yilan, a mostly farming region just east of Taipei. Sim grew up in Oakland, where Cantonese was the predominant language, making him feel like somewhat of an outsider.
For a long time in Oakland, there was a dearth of restaurants specializing in Taiwanese food. In recent years, restaurants and pop-ups like Taiwan Bento in Uptown and Good to Eat Dumplings in Jack London Square started selling traditional Taiwanese dishes.While Yilan has regional dishes such as green onion pancakes, Sim said the pop-up isn’t specifically focused on food from Yilan, but Taiwanese food in general. Taiwan is known for xiao chi, or small bites, often served on the street and at night markets. While it originates from the Sichuan province of China, beef noodle soup has become eponymous with Taiwanese food.At Yilan Foods, beef noodle soup is the star, and it frequently sells out, sometimes as quickly as within 45 minutes of opening for pre-orders online. Yilan’s version of beef noodle soup ($15) features hong shao (red-braised) meat in a collagen-laden broth. Along with slow-braised beef shank, beef neck bones and foot bones add gelatin and flavor to the soup, which is both subtle and rich, but not oily. The broth is ladled over fresh wheat noodles topped with sauteed bok choy and pickled mustard greens. Most restaurants serve beef noodle soup with chunks of beef shank, but Yilan’s version has sliced meat, more akin to what you would find in pho. Still, it’s a very traditional bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup — one I’d recommend to my parents, who were raised in Taiwan and are accomplished home cooks. And the portion is large enough for leftovers.“I’m a firm believer that moms make the best soup,” Tong said, acknowledging all the excellent home cooks out there. “If there’s a mom that can slang beef noodle soup, it’s probably better than ours.” Despite Tong’s modesty, the fact that Yilan Foods consistently sells out of its fare, just through Instagram and Facebook posts and word of mouth, is telling. Yilan’s beef noodle soup is mildly spicy. I recommend adding beef tendons ($3), gelatinous chunks that almost melt in your mouth, to your order.
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 for one, plus leftovers. Often, the dish features minced pork belly, but some versions have larger, chunkier pieces of pork — such is Yilan’s lu rou fan, which has the addition of shiitake mushrooms and is served in an aesthetically pleasing to-go presentation, with pickled daikon and half a soft-boiled egg steeped in Puerh tea. The egg is more akin to a ramen egg than a traditional hardboiled tea egg. I personally prefer mine hardboiled, but the soft-boiled egg is a nice twist and makes the dish a little more modern. At $13 for a large bowl, Yilan’s lu rou fan is an extremely hardy and satisfying meal.I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Yilan’s housemade chile sauce. Tong — who has worked in the restaurant industry for years including a stint at Four Seasons in Las Vegas — put a lot of work into perfecting this highly addictive chile oil. A side portion comes with an order of beef noodle soup, but you can purchase an additional serving for $1. Made with high-quality chile peppers and Sichuan peppercorn, the sauce is fragrant and will elevate any dish that needs some spice. (I saved my sauce and used it with ramen and congee I made at home.) Yilan Foods eventually hopes to sell the sauce in larger portions; I see this becoming a pantry staple for many home cooks.Yilan’s menu just offers two staple dishes at the moment, but the team is currently fine-tuning a vegetarian lu rou fan, which would make the pop-up one of the only local spots that sells a veg-friendly version. Recently, Yilan added two side dishes ($6 each): garlic cucumbers, and wood ear mushrooms marinated in vinegar.
Down the line, the Yilan team hopes to move into a brick-and-mortar space. “The ride has been pretty crazy,” Sim said. “I didn’t think it would gain so much traction. It’s a very pleasant surprise.”And perhaps even further down the line, the founder-friends have plans to introduce locals to more Taiwanese food. Tong has been experimenting with making his own you tiao, or fried donut sticks. Typically a breakfast food that can be dipped or thrown into hot soy milk or incorporated in other dishes — jianbing, for example — Tong hopes to eventually serve fan tuan, sticky rice rolled around you tiao that can be made sweet or savory. Fan tuan are a highly portable, filling food that is usually eaten for breakfast and is harder to find in this area. “It’s a favorite amongst our team,” Tong said.While Sim is the only one with family from Taiwan, all of the Yilan team members have cultural connections with the project. Lam’s parents, for example, are ethnically Chinese from Vietnam, and he grew up mostly eating Vietnamese food. Yilan’s lu rou fan reminds Lam of a braised pork belly and egg dish from Northern Vietnam, thit kho. “It’s really cool connecting dishes from my childhood to dishes we’re serving in the restaurant now,” he said.For Sim, the last time he visited Taiwan was with his mom when he was 14. “Her family was very poor,” he recalled, describing the home as a shack in a rice paddy field. Yilan Foods is a homage to her, and to all immigrant parents who brought their children to the U.S. for a better life.Yilan Foods‘ East Bay pickup location is at Ninna Restaurant, 4066 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. Pre-order online starting at noon on Wednesdays for pickup between 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Sunday; delivery is available for an extra cost.