The Michelin Guide might have come to Shanghai last year, but the far more interesting trend for budget diners in the city is the fast-casual local restaurants opened by savvy young Chinese with an eye for design and a great palate. The Noodlista is one such shop – just check out its logo. The character for noodles is warped into a downward facing arrow, as if to say, “Get your noodles here!” It’s good advice, and local millennials are taking it: come lunchtime, Noodlista is always packed to the gills with young worker bees from nearby office towers.
Showcasing the management’s fluency with both Eastern and Western cultures, English and Chinese coexist happily on the menu. “Noodlista” is a much better name than the clunky translation of the Chinese “Shopkeeper, Give Me 100 Grams of Noodles” (trust us, it sounds much better in Mandarin). The blonde wooden tables with burnished metal stools sit under a wall of empty bottles of Shancheng beer, a Chongqing brew that was created in the 1970s to pair well with the spicy dishes common in this municipality and is now majority-owned by Carlsberg. The ceramic and cork vinegar bottles on each table look like they’re straight out of Spin Ceramics’ showroom.
The attention to detail extends to the Chongqing-style food. The base of the “vegetarian noodles” (重庆小面, Chóngqìng xiǎo miàn) is made with three different varieties of dried chilis, including chao tian jiao (朝天椒) and er jing tiao (二荆条) –green and red Sichuan peppercorns. The former is more numbing, the latter more fragrant, and together they create a lip-smackingly delicious soup.
At lunch, you’ll find most diners ordering the vegetarian noodles set, a steal at RMB 37 (US$5.35). Along with the generous bowl of noodles, the set includes an “chicken in chili sauce” (口水鸡 Kǒushuǐ jī) appetizer, which might be more familiar to non-Mandarin speakers as “mouthwatering chicken” or, occasionally, “saliva chicken.” The sliced, poached chicken comes with bones still intact. Dressed in a spicy chili oil with an umami bump from fermented black beans and freshness from green onions and beansprouts, this well-balanced dish is what Sichuan food is all about. A bowl of Chongqing-style jelly rounds out the set as dessert. Diners can choose between “white,” with a fermented rice wine topping (酒酿, jiǔniàng), or “brown,” with brown sugar syrup and goji berry (红糖, hóngtáng).
For just one RMB less, you can get Set A. In English, the menu calls the main “dandan noodles”, but the Chinese is more accurate: 豌豆杂酱小面 (wāndòu zá jiàng xiǎo miàn), stewed chickpea sauce noodles. They are also topped with minced pork, chopped peanuts, blanched bok choy and sliced green onions that meld into a thick sauce, turning each strand into a savory slurp. A poached egg and a side of kelp and pork rib soup complete the set.
For a noodle shop, the menu is extensive, sprawling from side dishes to desserts and including 15 noodle and wonton dishes that top out at around RMB 40 per bowl – so far everything we’ve tried has been more than worth the cost. You can sub rice noodles (米线, mǐxiàn) for wheat (小面, xiǎo miàn) on most bowls. Exceptional service extends to the menu, where notes about dietary restrictions and what can be subbed out are listed below the options for spice level (not 不辣, low-medium 微辣, medium 中辣, extra 加辣).