Up until recently, Lanzhou was only famous for two things: the worst air pollution in all of China, and hand pulled beef noodles (lamian 拉面). Since the air quality in this city has miraculously improved in recent years, Lanzhou’s reputation now solely hinges on its thousands of restaurants selling hand pulled beef noodles.
Thankfully, Lanzhou Lamian is so, so, so DELICIOUS.
At every Lamian shop, Bricks of dough are lined up in the open kitchen, and as customers line up at the counter, they yell out the type of noodle they want- from nearly floss-thin noodles, all the way to belt-wide, flat ribbons of noodles.
The noodle master will quickly knead, stretch, fold over, and repeat his noodle crafting until the desired width and shape is created (several times during the process, he will smack the noodles against the table to even out the strands. making a melodic *thwack* noise again and again)
Then the noodles are dropped in boiling water for several minutes before being plucked out, and quickly covered in a boiling fatty broth of beef bone and turnip. Enormous vats of chili oil and parsley/ scallions are placed on the counter for the diners to customize the noodles for extra taste.
Officially there are only seven types of hand pulled noodle, but like McDonalds and its algae-green Shamrock Shake, there are additional off-menu noodles that are rarely ordered but still worth trying.
I ate through nine bowls of Lamian through the past month (and, for the sake of consistency- all at the same restaurant) to figure out one of life’s greatest mysteries: which noodle is the best?
From worst to best…
Yi Wo Si
This is the thinnest noodle possible (like vermicelli), and it’s so flimsy the strand tears apart when I use my chopsticks to pick up the noodle. My shirt was covered in blotches of red oil from all the dropped noodles. The noodle has no texture and is too soft for my liking, with a mushy/ baby food consistency.
The next thinnest noodle (think fedelini), also difficult to finish. I felt like I was eating a never-ending bowl of noodles, since there was so much noodle surface-area to devour.
This is a thin, flat fettucine style noodle. It has a nice bite to it, but it’s not quite wide enough for a flat noodle to be satisfying
Tied: Er Xi / San Xi
These are the thicker spaghetti type of noodles, and to the untrained eye (ie. mine) I could not discern the difference between the two. They pick up the soup nicely, and I enjoyed these to a degree.
This is the massive, belt wide noodle and I believe it comes served as one giant, single noodle! There’s a very specific way to order this (like a total BOSS!) allegedly, you can’t make eye contact with the guy behind the counter; instead you look down at the floor and say “da kuan!” as indifferently as possible out of the corner of your mouth. Of course I started laughing half way through. But the noodles were still awesome
Er Zhu Zi
This is the thickest spaghetti style noodle, sort of like bigoli. It has a *great* bite to it that you don’t get from the thinner noodles. The only downside is, the few noodle strands are quickly devoured and you’re left with a lot of soup.
This is the gold standard, the spaghetti of the noodles. It is the most commonly ordered of the bunch by Lanzhou people, and you get the nice bite and chew that you couldn’t from thinner noodles, but it still picks up the soup nicely so by the time you finish the noodles, the soup is pretty much done too. Excellent choice!
This is my personal favorite- its sort of a pappardelle style noodle- wider than the fettucine style jiu-ye noodle, but not of ridiculous proportion like the da kuan. A bowl of lamian with kuan noodles is PERFECT. The thickness and rippled texture is ideal for slurping down an entire bowl of Lanzhou beef noodles!
Disclaimer: All opinions shared in this blog are the author’s own, and do not represent the views of any outside organization, including but not limited to the United States Government and the Peace Corps.