From roadside eatery to big city darling: How one Taiwanese turkey rice vendor made it big – CNN

(CNN) — For decades, Liao Shou-fang has been hawkishly presiding over his turkey rice eatery — Rou Bo — to make sure every dish is served exactly the same way.

And then along came CNN Travel, and everything changed. In a good way.

That was five years ago.

Today, what was once a roadside stall is now a burgeoning empire, whose growing fame on the Taiwan food scene owes far more to its delicious specialty than it does its brush with international fame. (More on that in a moment.)

Some things haven’t changed, though. Every morning, whole turkeys are poached in an aromatic broth of ginger and scallions for hours, then brought out to cool at room temperature.

The meat is shredded and layered over rice, and the fat is rendered and combined with turkey jus and shallot oil to make a minimalistic, yet effective, dressing.

Tradition usually dictates that freshly fried, crispy shallots should be served on top as garnish, but Liao personally thinks the texture of fried shallots is distracting and prefers to only use the reserved oil for flavor.

The final dish is a warm bowl of rice anchored by glistening chunks of turkey meat. Known for its sharp, clean flavors, Rou Bo has been a local favorite in Tainan — a city in southern Taiwan — for years, and up until recently, was a just small roadside stall with a handful of tables.

Rou Bo’s turkey on rice is famed for its sharp, clean flavors.

Clarissa Wei/CNN

Tainan is known as the epicenter of Taiwanese street food culture, but turkey rice is a bit of an anomaly there.

The dish actually hails from Chiayi — a city just north of Tainan, known for its affinity for turkey. While turkeys were introduced to Taiwan by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, they only became an industrial staple in the 1950s.

Soon thereafter, restaurants in Chiayi started serving turkey over rice as their specialty. It’s said that attachés to the old American air force base in the area developed a craving for turkey, which jump started the industry.

Liao apprenticed under a chef from Chiayi, who made him promise he wouldn’t become competition when he graduated. So after his training, he kept true to his word and moved down south to Tainan to start his own place, and has been there ever since.

CNN Travel feature leads to unexpected boost

For years, Rou Bo was my only exposure to turkey over rice in Taiwan. My father’s childhood home is just around the street from the eatery, and Liao’s turkey rice was one of the highlights of my family’s annual visits to Tainan from Los Angeles.

So when CNN Travel commissioned a piece in 2015 on Tainan’s street food hits, I naturally drew from my regular repertoire of childhood favorites. Of course, I included Rou Bo in the list.

Rou Bo’s original street-side location is in Tainan.

Liao Wei-chieh

“All of a sudden we had people contacting us asking if we wanted to open another location,” says his son, Liao Wei-chieh.

Liao Wei-chieh grew up working shifts at his father’s turkey rice stall, rotating between the front and back of the house. When he opened the second location of Rou Bo in Taipei in 2015, his dad was quite reluctant at first.

“His condition was that we could do it as long as we didn’t change the flavor,” he says.

Liao Wei-chieh eventually convinced his father to move the original location off of the streets and into a brick and mortar restaurant.

He says the 2015 article, which came out after the opening of their second location, gave them a further, unexpected boost.

As a result, they were recruited into their third location, a stall at the food court in Taipei 101 — the tallest building on the island. There’s a proud CNN logo on their signage — a nod to the article — and he’s constantly fielding requests from other food courts around Taiwan who want them to open.

Capitalizing on international recognition

In Taiwan, there’s prestige attached to being mentioned by international media.

“We’ve been invited by government officials to cater for their events,” boasts Liao Wei-chieh.

The global stamp of approval is extremely significant for many, and in Taiwan, it’s not uncommon to see people holding tight to a media mention — however small — for years.

Rou Bo now operates in three locations, including one in Taipei 101.

Liao Wei-chieh

For many street food vendors, international recognition means making it big.

One of the most cherished authorities for restaurants in Taiwan is the Michelin Guide, whose Bib Gourmand list has been a frenzied topic of discussion among foodies online.

“Recognition from the Michelin Guides has definitely sparked new interest from young locals,” says Kathy Cheng, a culture writer and communication consultant in Taipei.

“Funnily enough, it took a European food guide for Taipei locals to appreciate the small businesses operating right under our noses, some that have been around for decades.”

Some eateries anointed by the Michelin Bib Gourmand awards have even parlayed their mentions into a whole new storefront.

“In Huaxi Street Night Market, the city government directly gave some of these vendors subsidies to renovate,” says Taipei culture writer Jason Cheung.

Rou Bo has had a similar trajectory, and over the years, has grown from a street food stall to a big city darling.

But despite the kudos, Liao says the secret is keeping a consistent menu and not compromising on the food.

Taipei 101 is Taiwan’s tallest building and a popular tourist attraction.

DANIEL SHIH/AFP/Getty Images

“Once people saw the article, they were interested in us. But ultimately, we’ve kept customers around because of the quality of our food,” he says.

In the four decades that they have been open, the eatery is now an institution. While Liao Wei-chieh and his siblings are eager for more locations to open up, he notes that his dad is wary of the pitfalls of expansion.

One thing they can’t do right now is open in spaces that require a central kitchen, because ingredients have to be made fresh on-site.

It’s a work in progress, and Liao plans on eventually going as big as his father will allow.

“He’s constantly warning us not to mess up the recipe,” he says.

Roubo Huoji Rou Fan, No. 12-2, Gongyuan Road, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6228 3359