Turnstyle, the underground food hall at the 59th Street subway station, continues to serve as a legitimate gift to the city. It’s an escape from the elements with free wifi and good coffee, a place for arepas while teleconferencing at a clean communal table, and a reliable spot for great Andean fare. And now, Turnstyle is also home to a cool little all-day Taiwanese stall called Zai Lai, hawking homestyle fare in compostable bowls and milk teas in astronaut-style plastic bags.
Generally speaking, Zai Lai is among the more crowded stalls at Turnstyle, with folks lining up for steamed pork buns, rice porridge breakfasts (pro tip: it’s less crowded in the mornings), meatball rice bowls, and oyster omelets — a staple seafood dish of the island nation.
On a recent morning I opted for niúròu miàn ($13), the beef noodle soup that’s practically Taiwan’s national dish. One of the great things about living in Hell’s Kitchen is the stellar collection of Japanese noodle shacks, from Slurp Shop to Totto to Ippudo to Hide-Chan. Zai Lai, with fare from Taiwan, is without question a solid addition to the West Side soup posse.
Chef Edward Huang, born in Texas, raised in California, and who previously operated a Zai Lai pop-up near Madison Square Park, serves a reasonably classic version of this dish. He uses the traditional red-braised beef shank, along with mustard greens, baby chestnuts, and whole wheat noodles. The soup, on a recent morning, took just under 10 minutes or so to come out. That’s a bit of a wait for a subway dining spot, but I’ll argue that the wait is worth it on a cold day.
Everything tastes like it should: The soft chunks of braised shank constitute an uppercut of pure bovine intensity. The broth, despite being as dark as Thanksgiving gravy, manages to be light and clean on the palate, with a straightforward beefiness that doesn’t linger too long. Huang, present during my visit, didn’t say what spices he used, but I detected a whisper of cinnamon in the broth. The noodles were spot on, more pleasantly toothsome than al dente.
My background in Taiwanese noodle soups is not deep, but I’ll say that Huang’s Zai Lai is a righteous addition to Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood whose thriving diversity acts as a counterweight to a Manhattan that can feel blander by the year. I’m calling the beef noodle soup here a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).