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Does anyone say “use your noodle” anymore? Our grandparents used to admonish us with that idiom when we didn’t think a situation through, but the phrase seems to have mostly gone out of fashion along with polyester suits. However, deep in the former French Concession, one esteemed food vendor is definitely using her noodle to help her customers enjoy, well, noodles.

Ms. Lu, the sole waitress and “boss” of Lao Difang, orchestrates orders of pulled pasta without even the help of a pen. While the closet-sized dining room is only four tables small, the line winds its way down the street during lunchtime, when diners slurp down bowls of steaming noodles as though their life depended on it and orders roll in for takeout by the minute. Ms. Lu juggles the comings and goings en masse as if she has a computer where the rest of us mere mortals have just a noodle.

One bite into our order, and it’s clear Ms. Lu’s decision to specialize in noodles was no mistake. Despite the pasta focus, the menu is vast, a textbook example of just how many noodle varieties can be found across China. There are at least 30 options on offer, all differing in the toppings plunked atop the wheat-based noodles, and almost every single option comes recommended by our tablemates.

We suggest starting off with the fried pork noodles (炸酱面, zhá jiàng miàn). Typically a Beijing specialty with a thick brown sauce, these are the Shanghai-ified version of the noodles found in the capital, and they’ve done the city proud. Bits of minced pork are stir-fried with just a splash of oil and vinegar, and a helping of red chili flakes adds spice and a slightly sweet flavor.

With the scallion oil mixed with pork and greens topping (葱油肉丝拌面, cōng yóu ròu sī bàn miàn), Lao Difang sticks to what Shanghai noodles are famous for. The small strips of pork drip a simple scallion oil sauce that, when mixed with the noodles, ends up resembling the closest flavor profile you’ll find to the Westernized lo mein dish – only these are light-years better and less greasy, relying on the freshness instead of the oil to deliver the taste. If you love spice, add a dollop of the red chili paste you’ll find on the table.

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, the eel noodles (鳝丝面, shàn miàn) are topped with bits of fried unagi that yield their crunch with a chewy finish. Your tablemates with heartier appetites will probably be chowing down on the house specialty, fried pork cutlet (炸猪排, zhà zhūpái), to really fill up. Throughout the year, you can usually find a seasonal specialty written on a piece of colored paper taped to the menu, and it’s hard to go wrong with what’s fresh from the market.

For the character-illiterate, Lao Difang is a spot where you can blindly point at any dish on the menu and be happy with the results. Too often at other small shops, this technique results in cold pickled chicken feet, but here you’re guaranteed a bowl of steaming fresh noodles topped with something delicious. And just around the corner, you’ll find Yongkang Lu, a hip, up-and-coming area full of cafés and small shops to peruse when you’ve had your noodle fill.

Address: 233 Xiangyang Lu, near Yongkang Lu
Telephone: +86 21 6471 0556
Hours: 11am-2pm, 5pm-6:30pm (will close earlier if supplies run out)
Menu: Chinese menu only
(photo by UnTour Shanghai)
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