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Can We Finish Shanghai's Biggest Bowl of Noodles?

Hand-pulling our love for Lanzhou La Mian to the absolute breaking point.
2020-07-01 11:58:26
"Offbeat" is a column about stuff to look at or do in Shanghai that's interesting or weird (relatively, of course), that doesn't fit anywhere else.
Lanzhou la mian is the most consistently great thing you can eat in China. Doesn't matter what third-tier backwater you find yourself in after misjudging your connecting train to Kunming, the characters 兰州牛肉面 shine through dust and smog like a neon beacon.

There's no corporate giant that can collapse and deprive you of Lanzhou la mian. It's not a fad. The formula of beef, noodles, turnips, and soup has remained basically the same for like a hundred years. We did an article in November last year on whether or not la mian needed a makeover, and the answer was basically "no."

Xigu Chenji Beef Noodles up in Hongkou doesn't agree. For this mid-sized eatery a block from Lu Xun Park, Lanzhou la mian isn't hot enough. It isn't internet hot enough. If you want something to go viral on the internet, you either make a normal thing very small or you make a normal thing very, very big. Like, big enough to baptize a newborn. Making la mian as good as Mazilu is hard, but making a bowl of noodles that could sink the Yamato, it turns out, has a viral quality of its own.

On the menu it's just called the "big beef bowl" (niu da wan/牛大碗), but the staff call it the "wanghong la mian" because of course that's what it's called. Since I'm an attention-starved millennial and my job description became "buffoon" when I wasn't looking, I volunteered to go.

It costs 98rmb and you get it by scanning a QR code on the table and selecting it from an array of other, normal-sized foods like lamb skewers and such. They have options for spice and extra spring onions and, cool feature, they let you choose what thickness noodles you want! That's a nice touch — it's usually "thick" or "thin" if you have a choice at all. I went with er xi (二细) because that's what the office noodle school dropout told me to get.

The staff kept asking if I was ordering it for myself. Yes. Yes, I know it's for four people. Why yes, I am from the media, how did you know. Why are you laughing.

Pictures online don't really prepare you for the size of the bowl. It's brought out by a single waiter who has to balance it on his pelvis like he's carrying an atlas stone. He thunks it down in front of you with a full soup ladle, double-plus size chopsticks, a pair of scissors and a look that says "good luck, idiot."

What is the strategy here, exactly? Do you drink the broth first, so that you have a clearer idea of what lurks in the brackish depths and can keep the finish line in sight? Or do you chow through as much noodle as you can before your brain starts receiving the signal to STOP? I opt to just go at it like a gazelle at a watering hole who senses the crocodiles approaching.

Things start off well. Hey, it's la mian, it's great! The broth is hot and nourishing, the noodles are fresh and just the right level of chewy, and the beef chunks in this bathtub are a thiiiiicc three or four millimeters in cross-section. Chunky, chunky beef. There's even a layer of chili oil floating on the top, a sign of quality.

Ten minutes in and I'm still going strong. Some staff are idly watching from the sidelines. At 5pm on a Monday, I'm the only one doing this to myself.

It's a lot of noodle, though. It really is. Just for fun and for the photo, I try lifting a string of noodles to the full extent of my arm, like Thor lifting the World Serpent, and find it doesn't, uh, it doesn't seem to end.

I have made a mistake. In the deep, the noodle kraken stirs.

I'm seventeen minutes in. The broth is starting to cool, the noodles are becoming clumped and gluggy. The staff have stopped disguising their morbid fascination.

No one forced me to do this. I volunteered out of some weird sense of duty. The person who brought this wanghongery to my attention was like, "hey, this is what SmartShanghai used to do! This what SmartShanghai is known for!"

Is this valuable lifestyle content? Is this something you, the reader, desperately needed to know about? A svelte KOL might get a hundred thousand views for this but does anyone really need to watch a pudgy thirty-something dude try to consume enough noodles for four people in a single sitting?

Click away. It's fine. I forgive you. Your view has been registered. I must go on alone.

Twenty-five minutes in and I'm sweating profusely. Like my body is trying to make space for more broth by ejecting it directly from my pores. I yearn for a waiter to walk past so that I can momentarily feel a hint of breeze. What is happening to my body! Am I more soup than man? Are my insides made of noodle?

Oh. Oh god. Okay. I'm good. I'm good.

I have a sip of Xinjiang's finest Wusu beer to give my tastebuds a respite from the cilantro and the noodle. I wrestle a Gordian knot down to a more manageable size with the scissors they provide, but that makes the lukewarm mass on the end of my chopsticks seem even more tangled and futile. How much more of this stuff could there possibly be?

If this is meant for four people, then I've eaten enough for two, two-and-a-half at best, and I'm ready to just sink beneath the surface and let the chili oil erase my shame. This bowl is not a bowl. It is a dread Stargate to the infinite Noodle Realm.

I tap out. I'm done. Forty minutes, with most of the last ten spent dry-heaving, is all I can manage.

One of the floor staff comes over. I think he's trying to comfort me when he tells me that it's free if you finish in fifteen minutes. It doesn't help. I ask him if anyone has managed it.

He said one had. Who was this titanic noodle hoover?

A tiny Shanghainese wanghong KOL, he said.

I'm not going to try again at another date. There's no board for my name to go on if I succeed, no trophy to cement my legacy as noodle master. The most bitter failures are the ones where you only fail yourself.

I ask for the rest to go. I need a memento from the bowl that finally cured me of my love for la mian.

Now where are my hundred thousand views...


Xigu Chenji Beef Noodles (西固陈记牛肉面) is at 277 Shanyin Lu, near Sisong Lu / 山阴路277号, 近四送路.