Handmade Chinese noodles are enchanting. They’re prized for their jue jin 嚼勁, or al dente, texture and beloved because they are the staple of Northern China. All the provinces in the upper hemisphere of the Middle Kingdom do noodles because wheat, not rice, is the main carb.
Noodles, or mian 麵, are consumed year-round in those regions but no other province makes them as well as Shanxi, known to have over 1000 different types of pasta. Noodle making is so integral to local culture that one’s fate is nearly dependent upon it. "In Shanxi, if you don’t know how to make noodles, no one will marry you," Joe Tao says.
In Shanxi, if you don’t know how to make noodles, no one will marry you
Tao is the owner of Laoxi Noodle House, the newest handmade dough shop in the San Gabriel Valley. They opened up in a petit strip mall in Arcadia, ironically right next to Arcadia’s oldest pasta joint — Alex Di Peppe’s. There are no hard feelings though; Tao says that their Italian counterpart will often send over customers.
Laoxi means old west, which is a nickname for the Shanxi province of China where the dishes from the restaurant originate. They opened in September and sling out roughly a dozen different varieties of mian. Tao and his wife, Ellen Li, are both from Shanxi and opened up Laoxi, "because we couldn’t find a noodle restaurant that reminded us of home."
Wife’s Special Noodle with Fried Pork, Helao-Style (老婆小炒肉河撈麵)
There’s a wonderful love story behind this mian: Tao and Li were university classmates with a completely platonic relationship until one day, Li cooked this dish for Tao. "I knew I wanted to marry her then," Tao reflects. "I thought about how great it would be if I could eat this dish everyday." During their courtship period up until the first couple years of their marriage, he did just that. Today, they have a child together. It’s easy to see why Tao fell in love.
The dish, served with chunks of bok choy, has three toppings: pork belly, tomato and egg, and ground pork coated with fermented soy. It’s all spooned over helao 河撈 noodles — which are made from pushing dough through a press directly over a pot of boiling water. The mian comes out uniformly round and smooth — with a texture similar to Japan’s udon.
House Special Fried Noodle with Fried Boiled Pork, Daoxiao-Style (過油肉炒刀削)
Daoxiao 刀削 refers to knife-shaved, which is the technique used to make these thick, belt-like noodles with slightly rough edges. One hand holds a chunk of dough; the other takes a knife and slices pieces off. But the noodles aren’t the highlight here. The raison d'être of the dish is the topping — the guoyou 過油 pork. "Guoyou pork originated from the Ming Dynasty," Li says. "It was a dish that only rich people could afford because the cut of pork used in the dish is expensive."
It’s chopped chunks of pork loin, sautéed with copious oil, wood ear mushrooms, traditional aromatics like garlic, ginger, and scallions plus a lot of vinegar. The pork loin is known for its tenderness and works well over the chewy noodles. The watermark of Shanxi cooking is black vinegar and Laoxi coats most of their dishes in it. "It’s good for the body and helps with digestion," Li says. "It also balances out the heaviness of the noodles."
Buckwheat Noodle in Lamb Soup, Mao Er’duo-Style (羊湯蕎麵貓耳朵)
Mao erduo 貓耳朵, or cat’s ear noodle, is similar to Italy’s orecchiette; it folds in on itself and is shaped by the subtle press of the thumb. The mao erduo here is made with buckwheat flour, which has a cooling, or yin characteristic, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy. Therefore, it is only natural that it is seasoned with cubes of lamb, which has heating, or yang proprieties. "This way, the dish is balanced," Li says. It’s served in a hearty, thick soup with wood-ear mushrooms, white button mushrooms and glass noodles.
Hun Yuan Cold Jelly (渾源涼粉)
These cold jelly noodles, aka liangfen涼粉 is named after the county it originated from in Shanxi, and is very similar to Sichuan’s signature liangfen noodles except that instead of mung bean flour, Shanxi’s version is made out of potato flour. "Potatoes are abundant in Shanxi and they grow in the mountains," Li says.
The jelly is steamed and cut the day of, then doused in homemade chili oil, sesame sauce, peanut and thin slices of cucumber. "We have to make this fresh everyday. It only lasts for four hours before the texture is compromised," Tao says. The jelly is thick and has a resistance, like biting into thick pasta. It soaks up all the sauces well and the cucumber offers a welcome respite to the heaviness of the sesame and chili. The main difference between Shanxi’s liangfen and Sichuan’s? Shanxi’s has a heavier sesame sauce ratio.
Lao Xi’er Fried Vegetables Mixed With Flour, Bo Lan Zi (老西兒撥爛子)
This is a deceptive dish. At first glance, it looks like sautéed cabbage. Upon closer inspection, you might even think it’s just ripped pieces of dough. Taste it, and you’ll swear it's potato. It’s none of the above. Bolan zi is peeled slices of potato coated with flour so that when it is boiled, it maintains a noodle-y texture. The nickname for this dish among locals is shanhua lanman 山花烂漫, or blooming mountain flowers. "The dish has carrots, wood-ear, onions and eggs," Li says. "It’s very colorful, like a flower field."
"Most people in Shanxi know how make at least five to seven different types of noodles," Tao explains. Not all Shanxi noodles are made the same. Some are knife-shaved, others are hand-rolled; some are peeled off from a bundle of dough, others are pinched and ripped off. The variations are just as, perhaps even more, diverse as pasta is in Italy. Shanxi just doesn’t get enough credit on an international scale, though perhaps with more places like Laoxi Noodle House, the region will start to get more attention here in LA's San Gabriel Valley.
Laoxi Noodle House is located at 600 E Live Oak Ave, Arcadia, CA 91006; 626-348-2290. Closed on Mondays.