The first time I went to a hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant in China, I was jet-lagged, hungover and 14 hours into my visit. My sister, at the time a Shanghai resident of four years, led the charge down the two stairs and through the throng of slurping locals. We squeezed our way into the far corner of the tiny noodle joint a few blocks south of Xintiandi and ate, hunched between the wall and two strangers. The place smelled like garlic and cigarettes. It also smelled a bit like feet in there if memory serves (full disclosure: it could have been my feet; fuller disclosure: it was almost certainly my feet), but this was a meal unlike any I had ever had. It was a culinary awakening made possible by a China-savvy sister—it would be a while before I would confidently brave the smoky depths of a hole-in-the-wall alone.
My experience is not unique. China is big, China is different from the West, China has different expectations about personal space (among other things), yada yada yada. There's a baffling cultural-disconnect and its presence often means tourists to China never experience a head-to-head battle with a tiny elderly woman for a seat upon which to eat lunch (more full disclosure: they're tough old broads). This is a shame.
Becoming at ease with the chaos of a local eatery is no small task. This is where UnTour breakfast extravaganza last month, and I was delighted to be invited on an Oodles of Noodles tour a few weeks later. After all, I love noodles—why not enjoy oodles of them? More after the jump....UnTourShanghai offers alternative experiences of the city and is run by two expats, Jamie Barys (Chief Eating Officer, leader of the tour in question and hereafter referred to as Colonel Noodles) and Kyle Long (Chief Running Officer and leader of their Shanghai running tours). They walk a thin and rewarding line that oscillates between pushing the uninitiated China visitor out of their comfort zone while simultaneously providing a let-me-hold-your-hand-and-tell-you-it's-going-to-be-okay safety net that leaves their charges staring in wide-eyed wonder at say, the controlled-riot inside a good Shanghai noodle spot.
We began our Oodles of Noodles culinary odyssey at the wildly popular Shanghainese eatery A Niang Mian on Sinan Lu in the former French Concession (Chinese name and cross streets: Ā Niang Miàn, Sīnán Lù jìn Nánchāng Lù; 阿娘面, 思南路近南昌路) in the late morning, after a leisurely stroll from our meeting point in Fuxing Park. Colonel Noodles kindly guided us to our seats before braving the fray of shouting diners to order a few bowls of yellow croaker noodles (huángyú miàn, 黄鱼面). Now, you might be asking what yellow croaker is. I certainly was, and having Googled it, I now know that yellow croaker is just a fancy name for a fish that everyone else calls larimichthys polyactis. That's certainly how I've always known it, but whether you use the erudite yellow croaker label or the colloquial, blue-collar term larimichthys polyactis, one thing is certain: the noodles were delicious.
Our first stop was a raging success, but having arrived just before the lunch sitting (the restaurant opens for breakfast, lunch and dinner but closes its doors in between) it was in some ways misleading as finding a table was no problem. Less-lucky diners were soon hovering around us, waiting to take our seats. There is a level of intrusion inherent in this dining-room-hover that is difficult to overcome and in my time in China, I've found it easier to adapt to being stood over than to do the actual standing.
But stand we did at our next stop, Wèi Xiāng Zhāi (味香斋) on Yàndàng Lù (雁荡路) where we were metaphorically thrown to the peanut-sauce-spattered wolves. We were in the thick of it, but between the calming guidance of Colonel Noodles and the dreamy aroma that filled the room, we persevered. We sidled up beside an old couple while aproned-women shuffled past holding trays of steaming food and I did everything I could not to slobber on bystanders. The couple above whom we stood remained entirely unfazed by our presence, and leisurely ate their peanut sesame noodles (májiàng miàn, 麻酱面). At one point, the woman used her napkin to wipe her beau's face clean. It was adorable, but I would be lying if I were to say that I didn't think about reaching out and taking a bite from their plates. It's pretty much all I thought about while I was standing there, actually. I certainly wasn't thinking about Dadaism and its impact on European interwar discourse.
They eventually finished eating and we descended upon the table with the ferocity of chopstick-wielding vultures. Our noodles were absolutely fantastic, and the peanut-sesame sauce was the perfect amount of spicy. I was struck, as I was on my last UnTour outing, by the realization that I had existed in epicurean ignorance for too long. Needless to say, I will return and eat my fill there again.
We ventured away from what would prove to be the most chaotic and delicious of the day's eateries and headed to our next stop, Dǐng Tè Lē (顶特勒), another down-home example of no-frills eating. I had been to this spot on Huáihǎi Lù (淮海中路) once before, and the restaurant proved to be as popular at lunch as it had on my previous 3am visit. Colonel Noodles ordered spicy pork and preserved vegetable noodles (là ròu xuě cài miàn, 辣肉雪菜面), and noodles with pork and caramelized onions (bái zhī cōng yóu ròu sī bàn miàn, 白汁葱油肉丝拌面). After ordering, we went upstairs to practice our recently-honed hovering skills while our food was prepared.
My palate was much more honed on this second visit. I was better prepared to critique the consistency and flavor of the dishes; I am happy to report that I found the meal satisfying and excellently balanced. The oil-based pork and caramelized onion dish wasn't too heavy on the oil (which can be devastating), and the noodles were downright fine. The broth-based spicy pork noodles were middle-of-the-road delicious, and I would no doubt eat them again, but it was the broth that took home the prize. I'd shower in it, if that weren't such a disgusting idea.
The last hole-in-the-wall spot on our itinerary was Hénán Lāmiàn (河南拉面), a little shop on Fumin Lu (Fùmín Lù, 富民路) that is near my current abode and sees more of my ugly mug than I'm sure they'd like. Though I'm a frequent visitor, I was a-okay with the idea of sitting down to a bowl of scallion noodles (cōng yóu bàn miàn, 葱油拌面) and a plate of bamboo tofu and green peppers (qīng jiāo fǔzhú, 青椒腐竹), and I did this with as much enthusiasm as I always do. It being after the lunch rush, we were able to casually watch them hand-pull noodles before retreating to the second floor to dine in (not so much) style—it's this very lack of style that is so appealing and I always feel good walking up the tiny and precarious staircase.
We emerged into the sunlight with the final destination in our sights. Just a short block to the east sits Noodle Bull (狠牛独创牛肉面馆), a Taiwanese noodle joint renowned for being downright polite in its institutions and presentation (they are also renowned around my apartment for being located within their three block delivery radius). A hole-in-the-wall it is not. Their dishes come in ceramics from Spin, an intimidatingly hip local artisan-pottery outlet, and the inside of the restaurant is modern and clean. No smoking, spitting or hovering allowed.
This isn't lost on Colonel Noodles, and the restaurant is a well chosen and interesting contrast to the previous four. While the setting may be more "sophisticated" or "clean" or "pleasant" than your average noodle spot, after a morning of aggressively-local eating it seemed almost prohibitively sterile. Luckily, when the weather cooperates they offer outdoor tables and we chose to enjoy our beer and knife-cut beef noodles (dāo xiāo hěn niú miàn, 刀削狠牛面) al fresco.
And so ended another successful UnTour: in the warm afternoon sun, over a bowl of noodles and a sweating, cold beer. The UnTour concept is a much needed addition to an industry that is largely clogged with best-of-China hits and second-rate, overpriced food. For any traveler without on-the-ground, local knowledge, a morning or afternoon UnTour is practically a must-do. After all, if not Colonel Noodles, who's going to hold your hand while you plunge into the intimidating and ultimately rewarding world of Chinese food?