You could walk past the shoddy exterior of Henan Lamian every day without giving it a second glance, but the noodle shop hidden within is worth a double take. In our six years of eating there whenever the craving strikes (and it inevitably does, several times a week), this hole in the wall has become our local mainstay, providing cheap and consistently good noodles around the clock.
The waiters, cooks and busboys at this tiny restaurant are a group of distantly related twentysomethings, the youngest members of the friendly Li family. Together, they uprooted their lives in Xuchang in Henan province, becoming just another regiment in the migratory march towards China’s more prosperous coastal regions. Like most other migrants, they carried with them the hopes of striking it rich and sending enough money home to their families to make a difference. As cousins, nieces and nephews in Xuchang turn 18, they, too, come to Shanghai and don an apron. The birth of a baby girl two years ago brought new life into the fold, but once she started eating solid food and toddling around the restaurant, the little one was sent back to Xuchang to be raised by her grandparents.
The dozen or so Li family members work in 12-hour shifts, taking turns pulling and slicing noodles to order or wok-frying vegetable dishes for the hectic lunch crowds in a kitchen the size of a matchbox. The lamian (拉面, pulled noodle) station takes up most of the right-hand side of the kitchen, with a small surface for rolling and manipulating mounds of dough into silky, identical strands and boiling vats of water ready for the last throw of the noodle-puller. Four of the family members can execute this task, but the boss has been doing it since he was 15. Now 22, he pulls the noodles with grace, usually with a sly smile peeking out from beneath a wispy mustache that never manages to grow more than 10 hairs at any given time. Beside him, his grinning cousin chops and slices vegetables for stir-frying.
Over the years, they’ve tried to spruce up the restaurant, making small improvements to the interior. Plastic curtains were replaced with glass doors, insulating the family and their customers from the chill of winter and the scorch of summer. Upstairs in the second-floor dining room, they added red tablecloths, but these lasted less than a month, the victims of messy noodle slurpers. Thankfully, despite these attempts at improving the aesthetics, the quality of the food has not changed a bit.
The best item on the menu is the scallion noodles (葱油拌面, cōngyóu bànmiàn), a dry noodle dish in a deceptively simple sauce of scallion-infused oil and soy sauce that belies the complex flavors of this home-style meal. The freshly pulled noodles are cooked in just 20 seconds, then blanched in cold water before being tossed together, still slightly warm, with the sauce and topped with a strip of caramelized scallion, a leftover garnish from the oil infusion process. We recommend mixing a splash of vinegar and a dollop of smoky chili sauce into these slippery noodles before devouring them.
While the noodles are the top attraction, the bamboo tofu dish (青椒腐竹, qīngjiāofǔzhú) is also not to be missed. Stir-fried with chunks of green pepper and dried red chilies, this dish has earned the nickname “The Converter.” Oh, you don’t like tofu? Think again. The bites of rehydrated crumpled tofu skin taste more like an exotic cheese than the edible byproducts of soybean milk. The green peppers add a fresh crunch, and the chilies a slow heat, but don’t actually eat them – they’re only there to impart their smoky, spicy flavors.
Once you’ve stuffed yourself silly, head back down the dangerously narrow, steep stairwell and pay your bill. That’ll be RMB 13 ($2). Now you’re part of the family!