Unwieldy English restaurant names often lose a lot in translation. Take Zhu Que Men, or “The Gate of the Vermillion Bird.” The name, which draws on Chinese astrology and Taoism, might seem a little highfalutin’ for a home-style noodle joint, but the subtext speaks volumes.
Ancient Chinese scientists paired an animal with each directional point on the compass, as well as the five elements. The Vermillion Bird stands for South and ranks as Fire, an element that translates at the table to a spicy bowl of noodles. Legend has it that this mythological creature was a notoriously picky eater, but Mr. Li, the noodle shop’s affable, chain-smoking owner, has created a menu that not even the Vermillion Bird could turn its beak up at.
Mr. Li makes every noodle strand in-house, from the cold noodles (凉皮, liáng pí) to the rice vermicelli; the second-to-none sour plum juice (酸梅汤, suān méi tāng) is also homemade. For his Xi’an hamburger (肉夹摸, ròu jiā mō), he uses 40 closely guarded ingredients and a starter stock he brewed over 20 years ago to create the pork marinade. The rich, viscous medley of star anise, cinnamon and other secret spices infuses itself into the fatty pork, which is then roughly chopped on a well-worn wooden block and stuffed into pork buns that soak up the extra juice for mouthwatering bites.
But the real specialty item at the restaurant – which focuses on dishes from the province of Shanxi – is the noodles, and Zhu Que Men might just serve the most slurpable ones in town. Though it’s located in an out-of-the-way location north of Suzhou Creek, we regularly make the trek for a bowl of Mr. Li’s oil-sprinkled noodles (油泼面, yóu pō miàn). This unassuming dish comes to the table with thick, hand-pulled noodles made of millet topped with bok choy, green onion tops and red chili flakes – a simple appearance that belies the big flavor that comes out of the bowl.
The history of another of Mr. Li’s specialty noodle dishes imported from Shanxi, the sào zǐ miàn (臊子面), can be traced as far back as 1,000 B.C., during the Zhou Dynasty. These thin, pliable noodles steep in a bowl with a fiery pork broth and veggie mirepoix. The phrase sào zǐ translates as “bashful,” and culinary lore about the noodle dish’s origins abounds, as food historians argue that the sào zǐ refers to either a homonym for the dish’s meat topping (哨子, shàozi) or to a shy sister-in-law surnamed “Sao” who performed some variety of kindhearted deeds that resulted in a delicious noodle dish. But one thing they can agree on is that the spicy noodles taste best when hand-pulled by a blushing bride attempting to show her in-laws she’s at home in the kitchen. Mr. Li might not pass for a blushing bride, but he does source the acidic ingredient necessary to give the soup its sour kick from a mountaintop in Shanxi famed for its vinegar, and that’s enough for us.
Address: 101 Zhenping Lu, near Zhongshan Bei Lu
Telephone: +86 21 5291 2385
Menu: Chinese & English