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[Eat It]: Liu Dao Men's Dan Dan Mian

An aging rocker does killer Sichuan noodles.
2015-08-25 10:39:27
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.

It’s easy to get to Tibet from Shanghai. You get on Yan’an Lu and go west. At Hongqiao Airport, you pick up the G318 Highway and follow it for the next 4000 kilometers. Eventually you’ll hit Nepal. It’s the longest road in China.

The highway has an allure for middle-aged Chinese guys, according to middle-aged Chinese guy Jia Xianhong. Jia is from Chengdu but has been in Shanghai since 1988. Before he was a middle-aged guy, he was part of Shanghai’s early rock scene, in a bunch of heavy metal bands. Now he owns SUS2, a rock bar on Dingxi Lu that was home base for rock music at one time, but is now a little past its prime. You might call it middle-aged.

Last year Jia flew back to Chengdu to cycle the 318 from Sichuan into Tibet. It took a month. This year his project has been less dramatic: a Sichuan noodle shop, Liu Dao Men. It’s been open for two months. The paths intersect in a 419rmb pot of chicken soup.

While he was out there, Jia picked up a couple of Tibetan soapstone cooking pots. They are heavy and beautiful pieces of kitchenware, made out of high-altitude stone from Motuo county, broken off the mountains and carved from a single piece of rock. There’s chatter on the Chinese internet that the micronutrients in the stone have some health benefits but Jia is too down to earth for that. For him, the remarkable part is how well the pots retain heat, and in fact, soapstone is used as an insulator for electrical components when it’s not being carved into pots or sculptures. The Vikings used to make their cooking pots of out of soapstone too, and for the same reasons: it’s soft enough to carve, doesn’t break when heated, heats up quickly and will keep liquids boiling for several minutes even after taking the pot off the fire. A thousand years after the Vikings made soapstone pots, you can buy the Tibetan version on Taobao (of course) for 2,500rmb.

That price goes part of the way to explaining how a pot of chicken soup ends up costing 65 USD. The rest comes from the two chickens Jia uses to make the soup (a three-year-old hen for the broth, which he discards, and then a one-year-old rooster for the meat) and all of the medicinal roots and shoots that go into it: Tibetan palm ginseng, tianma (a TCM thing) and dried jizong mushrooms from Yunnan. There’s lots of other stuff in the soup to pad it out -- corn, black ear fungus, jujubes -- but Jia is a no-bullshit kind of guy and will tell you those don’t really matter. The broth is the point. You have to reserve two days in advance.

The menu lists this as Motuo Stone Pot Stewed Chicken Noodles but when I had it last week, they were still working out the kinks, and noodles never appeared. That was fine for a couple reasons. First, the stone pot broth is mild. It’s completely unsalted and that’s intentional -- there is salt on the table to DIY -- but I didn’t find that out until later and I was underwhelmed. Anyone who has eaten chicken soup in rural China knows how high the bar is. And while it felt virtuous to pull out a gnarly ginseng root and eat the medicinal ingredients, the flavor is not the point.

I know the China-food-is-medicine thing, I respect it, but I’m just not there. If the cost of flavor is the existence of a Western pharmaceutical-industrial complex, I can accept that. For all those reasons, it was probably better that Liu Dao Men just gave us all bowls of Jia’s dan dan mian instead. (The soup feeds four to six.)

The main impediment to Jia’s Tibetan stonepot chicken soup is that the rest of the menu is just so damn good. I’d say it’s the best dan dan mian in Shanghai, but that’s hyperbole and… fuck it, it’s the Internet. Hyperbole is what the Internet does. So, yes, these are the best dan dan mian in Shanghai.

They come in a tiny bowl -- one order is a single liang of noodles, 50 grams -- that makes tossing and turning them a bitch. But I cannot think of a single other criticism. Liu Dao Men’s dan dan mian are perfect. Jia shakes off that kind of praise, and says it’s pretty much impossible to make bad Sichuan food when you have good ingredients. To that end, he makes his chili oil every day, with two types of chilies (er jing tiao for the red color and chaotian jiao for the spice), insisting that chili oil loses half of its fragrance overnight, and he buys a more tender and slightly more expensive yacai, the preserved vegetable.

I stumbled into Liu Dao Men one afternoon while killing time on Xinhua Lu, waiting for the vet, and was completely taken by surprise at how good the dan dan mian -- everything, really -- was. The broth in the suan la fen had depth, the side order of braised pork offal came in a lemony broth (those little black flower buds from Guizhou do it), and the spicing was -- and I know this sounds stupid and pretentious -- elegant. Too often the measure of good Sichuan cooking is reduced to how spicy it is and how much pain it causes you to eat it, which misses the point. Same with the numbing sensation, the ma. I was so impressed with the way that Jia’s dan dan mian managed to creep up on me, with the ma showing up slowly, after maybe three or four bites, and then at the perfect volume, that I started to doubt myself.

Maybe I was just too hungry or reading too deep into a bowl of noodles. So I went back five times in a week, and every time, the same. I started romanticizing the Chongqing braised chickpea noodles too (wandou zajiangmian), which you should order dry (lose the soup), and don’t look like much on arrival, but turn into a nutty, spicy and creamy dish with a vigorous toss of the chopsticks.

These noodles are superstars, and I can’t not order them when I go, though both the suan la fen and the fatty beef in a clear, sour broth -- also with yacai -- are both worth looking into, as is the tianshui mian, a thick ropy noodle about twice as fat as udon, that’s tossed in a sweetened, fragrant soy sauce and covered in crushed peanuts.

Jia is probably going to read this and laugh. A guy who names his first band Black Thunder doesn’t get misty-eyed about noodles, but he’s got all the details down. His brother has run a gritty noodle shop in Chengdu for 20 years -- the brother sent his son to be the cook at Liu Dao Men -- but Jia knows he’s got to dress things up slightly for Shanghai. Liu Dao Men is nice for a noodle shop.

I tried to bait him into talking shit about other Sichuan restaurants in Shanghai, who cut corners and hide behind spice. I know he agrees but he wasn’t really having it. He might be quiet on that front, but I’m sure if they ever asked, he’d be happy and able to show them the road out of town.