Beef noodle soup

A bowl of beef noodle soup at U Knead Sweets bakery in Columbia. The shop has been selling the soup for over a year.

The secret is out. U Knead Sweets on Cherry Street has an uncharacteristic menu item — beef noodle soup.

Four years ago, Helena and Allen Shih opened their bakery in downtown Columbia — it was a dream come true. The Shihs' parents are from China, but both Allen and Helena grew up in Korea. When Helena was a little girl, she remembers walking by a bakery in Korea, wishing she could eat those baked goods. “My eyes were just big, and I had this big grin on my face,” she says.

Helena and her husband are the only bakers at U Knead Sweets. However, they don’t advertise like most shops in Columbia. “It’s all by word of mouth, and being able to be here for four years — that’s amazing, just by word of mouth,” Helena says.

They started selling beef noodle soup in August of 2015. Helena says they began making the soup because they noticed a lot of Chinese students who were looking for a fast, home-cooked meal. Her husband came up with the idea to serve the dish.

Every Chinese New Year, Allen Shih would cook a big feast. Afterward, so much beef would be left over that he would repurpose it into beef noodle soup. Helena says her kids loved it — and that’s how they decided to start serving it at the bakery.

They never thought the dish would become so popular so fast. “We started, and kids just loved it,” Helena says.

MU student Xinyue Li is from China. She says she found out about the soup last year when her friends told her the cake at U Knead Sweets was really good. Li says she now visits the bakery a few days a week. “It’s really good,” Li says. “When I really miss my home I will come here to eat the noodles.”

Although the soup became so popular, the Shihs initially never wrote it on the menu board. “We thought, you know, kids will tell kids, and then American people started coming in,” Helena says. “They tried it and then they started liking it.”

To her surprise, Americans like it a lot. “I have a family that comes in, and the gentleman said, ‘You should call this happy noodle soup because every time I eat this I get so happy,’” Helena says.

Now, menu items are written on the board in both Chinese and English. U Knead Sweets serves beef noodle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and they also offer carry out.

The secret is in the noodles. “It’s a fresh pasta noodle. It’s supplied to us only, and that’s a secret. It’s fresh pasta so it’s not like a dry noodle. It’s very like chewy; it has a bite to it. That’s how Asians like their noodles. Fresh pasta is very popular in China,” Helena says.

Unlike in China, the noodles are not homemade. Helena says fresh pasta is unavailable in Columbia, so every Sunday she and Allen take a trip to St. Louis to gather the ingredients. They can also add a marinated hard-boiled egg to the noodle soup upon request. “It’s not even written on the board — that’s a secret, too, but that’s something that goes well with the noodle,” Shih says. “It’s marinated with the same marinade we marinated the beef in.”

First-time customer Arthur Wang is from Lanzhou, China — home to the famous Lanzhou beef noodle soup. When he first heard a bakery in Columbia served beef noodle soup, he thought it was too good to be true. “I actually [didn't] believe it,” Wang says.

Wang says Lanzhou's beef noodle soup relies on local ingredients only found in his hometown. The last time he had the soup was about a year ago — the day before he left for the United States. Wang says Lanzhou beef noodle soup can take up to 12 hours to make.

After trying the Shihs' soup for the first time, Wang says it reminds him of Taiwanese beef noodle soup. Although the noodles are not as chewy as the ones back in his hometown, he says he still likes it. “I would say this is the best beef noodle soup I’ve ever had in Columbia,” Wang says. “Even in some Chinese restaurants, they’re doing that in a very American way. This tastes like my hometown.”

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