Underground Gourmet: The Best Noodles
Note: This post is one of a series on finding the best hidden delicacies in Chengdu called Underground Gourmet.
Are noodles a meal or a snack? Should one have them for lunch only, or is breakfast ok? Can they qualify as dinner-material? Some people might debate these questions while slurping away, but I find that noodles can be eaten anytime, anywhere for any reason whatsoever. I’ll make up a reason, I love noodles so much.
The good thing is, here in the country with more noodles per capita than any other in the world, every little town has its own special recipe and the locals believe that their recipe is the most delicious in China. I have heard, I swear, at least 100 different people from 1000 different localities tell me their hometown noodles are “famous”. Usually I had to strain to hear them because the sucking sound of noodles down my throat was too loud to hear anything.
There is no such thing as a guide to noodles in Chengdu. Anyone who says they wrote the guide should be beaten. What I have below is a small list that includes a few special spots that serve up delicious noodles. I might have to come back to this essay and revise it. In fact, I can’t wait to come back to this essay and revise it …
Big Uncle’s Noodle Cart
Start out from Xin Nan Men Bus Station and head toward Sichuan University. When you get to Zhi Min Road look to your left and you’ll see a little alley: 15 Middle Street. A year ago, one of Chengdu’s most infamous musicians, Li Dai Guo, moved onto this street and his little apartment became a flophouse for a variety of friends, fans and hangers-on. This group of broke, young creatives were lucky to find a cheap noodle cart that parked down 15 Middle Street every day. They called the cart and its owner “Big Uncle’s Noodles”.
Every morning round 10am, Big Uncle pushes his creaky, glass-enclosed cart filled with steaming bowls of noodle sauce over to the little alley’s main apartment complex gate. Usually carts like his can’t park close to a residential compound, but Big Uncle obviously is close with the guards. He pulls out his gas-powered stove, lights it, and sets up shop for the day.
The cart shuts down at 2pm on most days, but often the customers determine closing time. Once Big Uncle has sold all of his noodles, he closes shop and, if business is particularly good, you can head over there at noon and still not get a bite. Once the cart is closed for business, Big Uncle strolls into the complex and plays a bit of mahjiong. Somedays it seems he tosses the last few portions just to get to the tables a bit early.
There are only three types of sauce: Za Jiang (meaty sauce), Pai Gu (ribs) and Niu Rou (beef). He also sells cold noodles in the summer. The tastiest is by far the Za Jiang: a scoop of meaty goodness dropped into brimming bowl of thick round gungun (棍棍) noodles. Poking out from in between the noodles are leafy pakchoi greens. After you finish your bowl, the soup is thick and still retains an aromatic meat sauce flavor. 4 yuan per bowl. If you want more pakchoi, you can get a scoop for free, but business is so brisk that Big Uncle will scowl at you and grumble, “why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
Name in Chinese: 十五中街大叔面摊
Xiao Jia He’s Homestyle Noodles
This noodle shop has quite a name in Chengdu. They still use the old “State-owned” style that (almost) died out in the late 1980s: first buy a ticket, sit down and wait for your noodles. They only have two types of sauce, Crispy Meat and Za Jiang. You can choose to have a spicy red or hearty broth soup. Their fat, chewy noodles are the shop’s specialty. They also sell sauce by the pound for those customers too impatient to wait for their noodles and who would rather go home and make their own bowls — 30 to 40 yuan per pound. People pay without a murmur, which speaks for the high quality of their sauce.
The price here is a bit steep, compared with other spots. Although you’ll only spend 2 or 3 yuan for a small portion (一两) and 6 yuan for medium (二两) the portions are very small. Medium here is equivalent to a small portion in other spots. So if you want to eat your full you might have to spend upwards of 10 yuan (for noodles!)<
Name in Chinese: 肖家河家常面总店肖家河北街8号
Granny Jin’s Palm-Style Noodles
I like to start at Xiao Jia He’s Homestyle noodles and enjoy a small portion for flavor, then cross the road and get a bowl of Granny Jin’s Palm-Style noodles.
Some people call like to call this style of noodles “blanket noodles.” Granny Jin cuts out a palm sized slab of dough, shapes it into a rough square shape, and boils it in a pot with yellow bean sprouts that melt in your mouth. Toss these in a bowl with your favorite meat sauce and you are guaranteed to be full and smiling.
Name in Chinese: 金婆婆手掌面
Master Huang’s Sliced Noodles
The Master has a shop near the back gate of Shi Fan University’s East Campus, on Ban Bian Street.
This isn’t your normal sliced noodle shop, with some knife-wielding young tough guy shucking dough into a boiling pot. These noodles are the work of a Master. Each noodle is sliced according to strict measurements and proportions: the same width, length and thickness. An incredible feat given the speed with which the dough gets shucked.
In order to properly accompany his perfectly sliced noodles, the Master demands that his pokchoi is sliced to match. When the noodles and the pokchoi hit the pot, they soften together and become one. Both are then expertly lifted from the pot and dropped silently into a bowl of meat sauce. The Many become One; the One becomes Many.
Although most people recommend the Sliced Noodles with Beef in a Spicy Red Sauce, both the red sauce and the white sauce have their own special characteristics. The Beef sauce here (red or white) cannot be compared with other beef sauces. Although I have tried many times to recollect my thoughts and feelings while eating a bowl here, in order to clearly describe the taste to you, the Reader, I always find myself slipping into the One-ness of the bowl. I can’t remember if its like Mao’s favorite Red Sauce Beef, or more like Hui Style Beef Noodles. Or neither. Does it matter?
Master Huang has evidently grown rich off of his Superior Sliced Noodles, because he now has a small country style hotel nearby, where you can spend a day in the sun drinking tea with the Master and discussing the Tao of noodles and meat sauce.
Name in Chinese: 黄大师刀削面 Address: 龙泉驿区洪河镇大面街半边街中段黄大师爱心酒店
Tobacco Pouch Alley 8 Treasure Porridge
From Bean, a local noodle fanatic:
“Sweetwater Noodles are embedded in my childhood memory. I ate these noodles regularly until I was about 10 years old, then suddenly, sweetwater noodles disappeard and no one knew where they had gone. Of course, the standard “Chengdu Snack Shop” had them for sale, but they were nothing like the noodles of my childhood. I held on to my memories for more than ten years, until I finally realized that this little shop near the back gate of Xin Hua Park, where I been eating Hot Pot-flavored Beef and Potato Strips since 1993, also sold Sweetwater Noodles.
The old folks say that Sweetwater Noodles should adhere to the “1 bowl, 3 noodles” rule. The finger-thick noodles of this shop steeped in their just-right sweet sauce took me right back to the early 1990s. They don’t use sugar – that’s for charlatan shops – and they don’t try and stuff the bowl, like some places do because they can’t get the thickness of the noodle right. 8 Treasures knows full well that the best part of Sweetwater Noodles is sipping the sauce after slurping down the noodles.
When I was little, I always felt that a bowl of these noodles was a tragic waste: there was always so much sauce left over after eating the noodles and even though the noodles were (and are) very thick, they never really filled me up. Back then, I wanted to order another bowl, but I felt that a well-mannered child would never do that. Now that I’m grown, I don’t think about it, I just order another.
Name in Chinese: 烟袋巷八宝粥 Address: 新华公园后门
What’s your opinion? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment. You can also read the next entry in the series, about the most mouthwatering dumplings in Chengdu!