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[Eat It]: Biang Biang Mian

Trekking out to the east side for some hearty noodles from the west of China. Noodles with a name almost no one knows how to write ...
Sep 25, 2014 | 12:22 Thu
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.

I've been spending so much time in Western restaurants lately that I realized something: I've grown complacent and bored. Even the local fare hasn't done much to excite me lately. Just a lot of style and little substance. So I thought I'd get out of my comfort zone and do some exploring in Pudong. Yeah. I know. I shuddered at the thought too. But it bore some good fruit last week. And this week I've found a place that actually does decent Xi'an cuisine, a tiny noodle shop on Dongchang Lu called Qishan Saozi Mian.

This is Qishan's namesake dish, Saozi Mian (臊子面).

If you've done your homework on your hanzi, you're already wondering about the name. The word "sao" (臊) has a lot of definitions—few of them you would ever want to think about when you're eating. The most common meaning is the stench of piss, piss from a fox, piss from a skunk, or, presumably piss from a human. It can also mean "rank," "rancid," "fetid," and, inexplicably, way at the bottom of the list is "bashful."

None are adequate descriptors for this dish. It's a hot and sour soup loaded with hand-pulled noodles, potatoes, carrots, green beans, dried tofu, and chopped chives. It's pretty damn delicious, a far cry from skunk or fox spray, I reckon. That said, I would be as polite as possible to anyone serving me a dish with the word "piss" already in the name. You don't need to be giving anyone any ideas.

Piss noodles might be what Qishan wants to be known for, but I find this next dish a much more compelling reason to make the trek out to Pudong.

This is the famous Sha'anxi dish and bane of all Chinese calligraphers, Biang Biang Mian. I'm not kidding about that last bit. The hanzi character for "biáng" is composed of 58 strokes. This is what it looks like.

And it has to be written twice! It's not a character many people in China likely commit to memory. Even those schooled in traditional characters don't bother with it.

I guess it's like the Chinese equivalent of a word like "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis," which, in case you were wondering, is a lung disease caused by inhaling particulate matter. Someone had the good sense to abridge that word to "silicosis." Similarly, you'll often see restaurants replace the character for "biáng" with a phonetic approximation that doesn't quite capture the meaning, like "冰" (bing), which means ice. Qishan, however, does it old school. The character, in all 58 of its strokes, appears on the menu. It looks like a printing error.

Is it authentic? Honestly, I don't know. I haven't been to Xi'an in almost eight years. But I do know this: the restaurant is staffed almost entirely by Xi'an natives. My guess is they're probably have a reverence toward the recipe. If nothing else, this bowl of noodles also gets the stamp of approval of a Xi'anren who is a close friend to SmartShanghai. That counts for something, right? But ultimately the "authenticity" argument is boring. The most important question we should be asking is, "Does it taste good?" And the answer is "Yes." It's a big bowl of broad, belt-like, hand-pulled noodles—like Italian papardelle, but thicker, springier and starchier.

The noodles are topped with mix of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, ground stewed pork, pretty much all the veg they put in the Saozi Mian, and the X factor: spicy chili oil. Once it arrives at the table, get your foodporn Instagramming bullshit over with ASAP and start stirring the ingredients up. You need spread that oil and broth around, getting it in between all of the noodles. Wait too long, and the whole thing will fuse into one gigantic Gordian knot that you'll never be able to untangle with your chopsticks.

Qishan also does a find job of Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍), that famous hamburger with Chinese characteristics.

Like the noodles, the bun is done in house by hand. They stuff it with tender chunks of braised pork. It's rich and salty. The fat seeps into the bun. With each bite collagen coats the mouth. It's still no contest for my favorite Rou Jia Mo in town, but it's in the running.

Naturally, that very same braised pork is also great on noodles. Qishan's La Zhi Rou Ban Mian (腊汁肉拌面) is worth ordering if you seek something a little simpler.

What you see is what you get: big, thick biang biang noodles, chunks of braised pork, and a few generous ladlings of the braising liquid. Simple, hearty, stick-to-your-ribs goodness.

And finally, to wash it all down, two staples of Xi'an refreshment: Han Station and Bing Feng.

The former is pineapple-flavored beer. Imagine dissolving a white Lifesaver candy in bottle of Tsingtao and you'll get a close approximation of how it tastes. The latter, is Xi'an's answer to Orange Fanta. Order both. They go surprisingly well with the noodles.

For a listing of Qishan Saozi Mian click here