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Does Lanzhou La Mian Need An Image Makeover? These Places Disagree

More adventures in the world of pulled noodles.
Last updated: 2019-11-19
Photos: Brandon McGhee
It’s an ongoing question why, as all kinds of other dumplings and snacks have been dressed up and marketed anew, Lanzhou la mian remains a down-market holdout in Shanghai. It’s not like that in Lanzhou, where a number of chains with more professional management and décor vie for a share of the city’s huge noodle market. Xibu Niuda asks the question: Does Lanzhou la mian need an image makeover?

The shop (and, one suspects, aspirational chain) was founded by a Lanzhou native living in Shanghai, tired of the inauthenticity of noodle shops in Shanghai. And he’s right. Many hand-pulled noodle shops in Shanghai are low-rent operations, run by one or two families, often from Qinghai, who lack the technical skills that are ubiquitous in Gansu. I know a thing or two about it.

Xibu Niuda, opened in late 2018, attempts to correct that imbalance, starting from the choice of noodle itself. In Lanzhou and the rest of Gansu, you don’t just order a bowl of noodles. First, you order your noodle width, from a range of choices (there are nine traditional thicknesses) that vary from noodles thin enough to pass through the eye of a needle (the 1mm maoxi) to others as wide as a belt (the 50mm da kuan). Every Lanzhou native has a preference.

This is probably the most interesting and the most unique part of Xibu Niuda, and one they stake a lot of marketing capital on. The paper placemats lay out a flowchart meant to arrive at your preferred thickness of noodle by deducing your personality traits. If you can’t decide, or just want to see 8/9 of the full range, they do a 118rmb set with eight small bowls, one of each thickness, that’s probably enough for two to three people to finish. It’s an impressive display of noodle prowess — for Shanghai. At noodle school in Lanzhou, every student is tested on their ability to pull to specific thickness, tested by calipers.

Xibu Niuda isn’t the only place in Shanghai to do this. After trying out their set, I went to check back in with an old favorite, a restaurant many noodle-heads will tell you is the closest to authentic Lanzhou la mian as you’ll find in Shanghai: Dun Huang Lou. Sure enough, the glass display counter in front of the cashier displays a handful of different noodle thicknesses to choose from, including the uncommon sanling, three ridged, triangle-shaped noodle. (Xibu Niuda also has this but calls it buckwheat ridge, or qiaomai ling.)

Dun Huang Lou has been going for many years in Shanghai, propped up in reputation, if not business, from its association with the Gansu Provincial Government Offices, which are just opposite. Next door, there’s a special Gansu province shop selling expensive rarities like cordyceps, deer antler and fresh wolfberries.

Inside, it’s controlled chaos, with seats at shared tables rapidly filling up and clearing out as people slurp down noodles, dig into plates of sliced beef tossed in chili oil and coriander, and throw a few lamb skewers in for good measure (not a combo you’d see in Gansu, where la mian is for breakfast and skewers are a late-night snack, but what the hell; America is filled with Thai-Sushi combo restaurants).

So who has the edge, the modern mall-based version or the more down-to-earth people-filler with government backing?

In Xibu Niuda’s favor, they use the proper green turnip you’d find in the northwest, edged a bright zucchini color, and their sliced beef shank (niu jianzi) is moister and more flavorful, a better representation than 99% of la mian shops in Shanghai, where the beef is as dry as sawdust and as old as sand. They have a bright mural on the wall with guys pulling dough, and a good, smoky suan mei tang plum drink. The nutty chili sauce, with sesame seeds, is the proper oily kind, the kind that will float on top of your soup, staining it crimson, not the dry paste that will sink into the noodles.

Not in their favor:

1. The type of scan-the-table WeChat-based menus.

2. It’s in a mall.

Dun Huang Lou wins points for authenticity, and especially for the fact that most of the staff, including all of the kitchen guys, are Hui. La mian is traditionally a Hui food, and though you’ll find plenty of Han Chinese making noodles even in Lanzhou, well… I’m not sure what to say.

This is a tricky question of identity politics and I am neither Han nor Hui, so I will stay out of it. My opinion is simple and naïve.

I’ve spoken to many noodle-makers in Lanzhou both Han and Hui, and never heard of any obvious resentment. The school I went to was Han-owned and run, training thousands of other Han to make Hui noodles. I think it just comes down to, my favorite places to eat noodles in Lanzhou are, for whatever reason, run by crews of young Hui guys, and so Dun Huang Lou reminds me of those times.

But their beef is a little dry and they use white turnips. The oily chili sauce is right.

Xibu Niuda and Dun Huang Lou both have their charms, and they are both several steps above your average la mian hole-in-the-wall. They bring all of us a step closer to having beef noodles in Shanghai that start to resemble what people in Lanzhou take for granted, and if dressing up the environment and sticking them in a mall is what the owner needs to do to pay for all of this, then I’m all for it.