Note: This post originally appeared in my other blog in a slightly different form
On my periodic tours of Shanghai, I'm usually on a mission to visit as many different far-flung notable small eats establishments as I can get to, which means very few repeat visits. However, when I reviewed my notes for my April stay last year, I found (not surprisingly to me) that I had visited one restaurant no less than 10 times in the space of a month. This restaurant happened to be a noodle shop of the "Lanzhou La Mian" stripe, Lanzhou Zheng Zong Niu Rou La Mian (兰州正宗牛肉拉面), roughly translated as "Authentic Lanzhou Hand-pulled Beef Noodles."
Why so many visits to this shop? For starters, it was just steps from the apartment hotel I stayed in. It was also open early and late (7:00 AM to 4:00 AM), was extremely inexpensive, and its products were tasty and filling. Thus, if it were raining (which it often was), if I were late getting around and famished, or just too plumb lazy to go further, it was there; but most of all, I had come to love the noodles from this shop from my previous visit in October 2008.
Shanghai has some 250 "Lanzhou La Mian" styled restaurants, judging from the listings in dianping.com. About 50 of these, like the one across from my hotel, are "official" Lanzhou La Mian Shops, with identical names, identical signage, identical menus, identical prices and more or less the same modus operandi: although there is a kitchen at the back of the shop, the noodles are made when ordered at a work table at the front of the shop, and passed, when finished, through a sliding window into a large pot of boiling water on stove set up outside. After all, who wants large pots of boiling water inside an un-air conditioned restaurant in a Shanghai summer?
In addition to the beef noodles, Lanzhou La Mian establishments will also offer lamb (but no pork, being Muslim and halal) noodles. In addition to pulled noodles they will have knife-shaved noodles (刀削面), lamb or beef pao mo (泡 馍), or hand-torn steamed bread in soup, and other non-noodle and non-soup foods characteristic of the Lanzhou region. Despite this fairly extensive menu, the hand pulled beef noodles are always the main attraction, but don't go for them because you are a beef-eater. The thin beef slices, along with generous sprigs of cilantro are little more than garnish for the fresher-than-fresh noodles in a skillfully complex broth. A "small" bowl (enough for a hearty lunch) will set you back 4 yuan (about 60 cents), while a dinner-sized bowl if 5 yuan (about 75 cents).
It's notable that although the name and the origin of the specialty noodles come from Lanzhou, Gansu province, more often than not the Lanzhou La Mian restaurants are operated by Hui nationality Muslims from neighboring Qinghai Province. The history (and science) behind Lanzhou La Mian, and the development and popularization of today's bowl of beef hand-pulled noodle soup by one Ma Bao Zi in the early 20th Century, are fascinating subjects that will be touched on in a subsequent post.