During the past year or so, ramen has experienced quite the renaissance in our fair city with shops and pop-ups featuring shio and tonkotsu broth filled with noodles, slices of rosy fish cake and fatty slabs of pork belly springing to life virtually everywhere. But there’s another noodle happing in Philadelphia, not quite as sleek as the ones at these newly minted ramenyas (noodle shops), but one that’s worth investigating, because after all, ramen is made with traditional Chinese-style noodles.
Originating in Lanzhou, a northwestern Chinese province, the process of making la mian, or hand-drawn noodles is one that’s eye-catching to say the least. La mian makers begin with a wheat flour dough that’s kneaded, stretched, slapped, twisted, folded and stretched again until threads of long, ropey noodles emerge. It’s loud, labor intensive and visually arresting and there are a few spots in Chinatown where you can witness the magic firsthand, watching seasoned la mian pros transform a simple mix of flour and water into noodles through a process that’s, well, according to the Yummy Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House (131 N. 10th St.) menu, equal parts art and kung fu.
A relative newcomer on the hand-drawn scene, Yummy Lan Zhou’s serves thin, hand-drawn noodles or raggedy-rustic shaved noodles stir-fried or in soup along with a selection of appetizers that range from the familiar (think crab cheese rangoon, and steamed dumplings) to the more out-there (a cold platter of tangy, oceanic marinated sea vegetables, cucumbers and sesame). The House Special Noodle soup is a bowl of al dente noodles (for lack of proper Chinese terminology for a noodle with stand-up bite) along with three kinds of beef (including tendon and fatty brisket) in an anise-y, cinnamon-y broth that takes you right to the pho parlors of Washington Avenue. The soup gets a bit of green from spinach and cilantro and pickled mustard greens; chile oil, white pepper, sriracha, soy and vinegar sit on the table to add heat and acid. But the real winner at Yummy is the shaved noodles with pork sauce. The chewy, glisteningly lacey and clearly hand-shaved noodles are served over a bed of crisp iceberg and sauced with something best described as Chinese Bolognese — meaty with a hint of sweetness that’s set off by a drizzle of roasted chile oil.
Just around the corner is Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House (1022 Race St.), another hand-drawn haunt. The menu here is fairly similar, tacking on a lofty history of Nan Zhou noodles: “The Sun and Moon Inn, which was established in the early years of the Ching Dynasty, served only officials, gentry and wealthy merchants.”
Apart from a history lesson, Nan Zhou’s menu also boasts cool noodles that aren’t really cool at all. They’re thin, hand-pulled noodles plucked warm from a boiling water bath served with a small bowl of shredded chicken and julienned carrots and celery dressed with a salty-savory peanut sauce.