Morning, Noon or Night: Lanzhou lamian Noodles in Beijing
“Thwack, thwack” when you hear this noise reverberating out of a small, hutong noodle shop, you know you’re most likely in for a good eats experience. Lamian, hand-pulled noodles, are a staple throughout northwestern China, where they are eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The variety that comes from Lanzhou, provincial capital of Gansu Province, are by far the most famous across China and are always a good treat.
Lanzhou’s hand-pulled noodles are a very simple dish. Thin noodles are boiled quickly and added to a bowl of fragrant beef soup that has been simmering for hours and then a few pieces of cubed or thinly sliced beef, as well as white radish, are added to the bowl. Some cilantro is added at the last minute and the bowl is quickly brought out, steam still coming off the soup.
Most places will offer lamb noodles as well, though don't expect pork as these places are typically run by Hui Muslims. Customers are able to add vinegar and chili oil as per their tastes, but those are the only additions. When done well, the five ingredients combine into an excellent dish. Even a passable version of the freshly prepared noodles and long cooked soup can still be enjoyable.
These noodle spots tend to be family-owned hole-in-the-walls located in hutongs within the Second Ring Road, or clustered around college campuses and other areas where people are looking for cheap eats. Although many restaurants use the Lanzhou name, they are actually often owned by residents of Qinghai. Hualong county, a Hui autonomous region, is one of the poorer areas of northwestern China, previously famous for gun running. The county government was looking for a way to earn its people money, and their decision was to teach the locals to make hand-pulled noodles. The government also helped with restaurant start up costs.
As a result people from Hualong have spread out all over China, opening hand-pulled noodle restaurants under the more famous Lanzhou name. When you see signs for “authentic Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles” (兰州正宗拉面), you will in fact be eating at a Hualong restaurant, but the noodles will still be good. They’ll also be very cheap – most bowls set you back less than RMB 10 and are perfect any time of day.
For a slightly more expensive bowl or for those seeking the real “real” thing, two restaurants with connections to Lanzhou’s government are worth considering.
The Lanzhou Hotel’s Restaurant, part of the city’s representative office in Beijing, knows a thing or two about this dish.
Another great choice is Beijing Yanlan Restaurant, which is certified by the city government for serving up authentic Lanzhou noodles (and is proud of it). Located in the western shadow of Jinshan behind the Forbidden City, a bowl of liamian here goes for RMB 12 but is one of the best versions I’ve had in Beijing. Plus, they offer the rare option of choosing between the traditional spaghetti thin noodles or slightly thicker noodles.
Their menu also includes a variety of unusual Lanzhou dishes that you won’t often find on Beijing menus. I’m looking forward to a repeat visit to sample more of the menu and, of course, have another bowl of their noodles.
The popularity (and deliciousness) of these noodles has led to a number of local fast food chains trying to capitalize. Malan, Mahua and Guo Qiang all offer fast food versions of the noodles, but no shortcuts are taken – the noodles are all still hand-pulled and made to order. While they aren’t as good as the small, family owned spots (the problem usually being not enough care going into the soup), they’re okay in a pinch and can be found all over the city.
Whether it’s for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it’s always a good time for a bowl of healthy, cheap hand-pulled noodles.