Is there anything that warms the heart of a food-obsessed traveler more than civic pride in a local culinary specialty? In a country that more often celebrates a particularly polarizing political leader, the great affection among the people of Lanzhou for their famous noodles – which the city has reportedly even sought to trademark – gets our stomachs rumbling.
Once a major stopping point for Silk Road travelers and traders, Lanzhou can lay claim to a noodle tradition that has now reached just about every corner of China. Lanzhou lamian (or pulled noodles) restaurants pull double duty, serving as one of the cheapest and most entertaining dining experiences in China. Each order of noodles is hand-made to order in front of your eyes, guaranteeing a delicious and fresh meal.
In Shanghai, minority families from the far-flung Northwestern region generally run these mom-and-pop noodle shops. Ten of China’s 55 recognized ethnic minority groups practice Islam; of these, the Hui dominate the Lanzhou area, and they thus manage a great number of the popular lamian noodle shops across the country’s eastern seaboard. Hui religious beliefs mean no pork – a rarity in China – and the emphasis is therefore on satisfying beef, mutton and cilantro-infused soup broths.
All the Lanzhou lamian shops generally follow the same concept, making them easy to spot: A bevy of boys who are probably too young to be working in a restaurant staff the front of the house and constantly pull noodles, while the patriarch collects the money and sometimes also takes orders from diners. All the men don a white taqiyah (a traditional Muslim prayer cap), while the women wear colorful headscarves that can be spotted when they peek out of the kitchen where they’re cooking up the wok-fired dishes. With our trained eagle eye, we can generally spot these places from down the street whenever we’re hungry. Look for the pictures of mosques on a blue sign, usually accompanied by Arabic writing. The beauty here is that there is almost always a picture menu on the wall, facilitating easy ordering by pointing.
We usually go for the standard: a piping-hot bowl of niú ròu miàn (牛肉面), or beef noodles. Watch as the young noodle master pulls, twists and rolls the dough, repeating the process until the elasticity reaches that perfect pulling point, an event he punctuates by violently slapping the dough on the countertop. In mere seconds, noodles appear like magic, as he loops and pulls the dough through his fingers, creating one long delicious strand before sending it flying into a boiling vat of water. In less than a minute, those fresh noodles will land on your table, steaming and ready to eat.
Pulling noodles isn’t the only trick up the noodle master’s sleeve. Order a bowl of knife-cut noodles and watch as he rolls a block of dough around a rolling pin, using a special slicer to whip foot-long noodle strands into the water. While the ingredients in this dough are identical to those in the dough of the pulled noodles, the thicker noodles don’t have the elasticity pulled into them, so they come out chewy, almost meaty. We recommend ordering them topped with tomato and egg (番茄炒蛋刀削面, fānqié chǎo dàn dāoxiāomiàn) for a savory snack. Or try the chopped noodles (丁丁面, dīngdīng miàn): served in a Chinese sauce that recalls ratatouille, these noodles are cut into inch-long pieces, making for a delicious twist on macaroni that can be eaten with a spoon, for the not-so-chopsticks-inclined.
The Lanzhou lamian joint in Wuyuan Lu is a sure bet for a late-night noodle fix. With revelers coming around the corner from the nearby bar strip on Yongfu Lu, there is plenty of action here at just about all hours, plus the entertainment factor of seeing the poor hand-eye chopstick coordination of those under the influence. (Due to religious considerations, no beer is served here, but BYOB is usually overlooked.)
For a glimpse and taste of old-town Shanghai, the lamian place in Fangbang Lu offers proximity to one of Shanghai’s most famous sites, Yu Garden (豫园, Yu Yuan). With plenty of narrow alleys and backstreets to explore, this area of Shanghai always charms us with an amazing glimpse into the city’s past. You’ll want to get there soon, as – sadly – the constant threat of the wrecking ball looms over this quarter.
Neighbors in old lane houses and nearby office workers of all types seem to gather at the spot in Gao An Lu. After visiting this location for lamian for several years after evening yoga sessions, we can’t help but feel we’ve watched the family’s youngest grow up a bit. Situated on a pleasant tree-lined street near the southern edge of the former French Concession, this area offers plenty of colonial-era architectural gems to enjoy area after a meal.
Thanks to their hours and cheap prices that pull in taxi drivers, partiers, gourmands and construction workers alike, these joints selling Lanzhou’s famed noodles bring together those of all walks of life under the same roof, even if just for a slurp or two.