In the West, this food may be served in a small portion as a soup. In China, a large bowl of it is often taken as a whole meal with or without any side dish. In Chinese, "牛肉麵" literally means "beef-noodles". If one orders "牛肉湯麵" or "beef-soup-noodles" in a restaurant in Taiwan, China, or Hong Kong, one might be given a very inexpensive bowl of noodles in only beef broth but no beef. Since beef has become much more affordable these days, most restaurants no longer provide these broth-only noodles. If one orders a "牛肉湯" or "beef-soup", one could be given a more expensive bowl of beef broth with chunks of beef in it but without noodles.
When the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War, refugees from mainland China including Chinese Muslims introduced the beef noodles to the Taiwanese. Despite the traditional Taiwanese aversion to eating beef, and that virtually no wheat (a main ingredient of noodles) is produced in the island, the dish is available on Taiwan, including the instant noodles, food pouch, and microwave meal versions. Certain sources argue that the modern form of the Chinese beef noodles was actually invented in Gangshan Village, Kaohsiung County by Republic of China Air Force personnel who fled to Taiwan from Sichuan. Despite the southern Taiwanese roots of the modern beef noodles, the City of Taipei styles itself as the "World Capital of Beef Noodles" and has recently started to host an annual Taipei Beef Noodles Festival.
One version, called niú nǎn (牛腩), includes beef tendon as well as meat. The slow-cooked tendon is enjoyed for its soft, gelatinous texture. Another version is where the meat and soup has been cooked with heavy dose of hot chili oil.
The Chinese Muslim version uses halal (清真) meat and contains no spices or soy sauce. Only salt and green onions are used to add flavoring to the soup. The Chinese name for the Muslim version of beef noodles is clear-broth stewed beef noodles (清燉牛肉麵). In Taiwanese halal restaurants, only quality local beef from the Taiwanese zebu (黄牛, lit. "yellow cattle") prepared by the local halal butcher is used for the beef noodles.
When soy sauce is added, the soup is called red roasted or braised beef noodles (紅燒牛肉麵). In this version, the stew meat is sometimes stir fried with hot sauce before being simmered as soup.
Some restaurants use canned beef stock and thinly sliced beef chuck.