On a warm Sunday afternoon in Highland Park, Robert Lee was standing behind a small counter attached to a makeshift cooking station. He took out a tennis-ball-sized knob of dough, flattened it, and raised his arms, pulling the dough taut between them. He twirled the band of dough so that it hit the counter in a rapid-fire pattern — slap, slap, SLAP, SLAP — then stretched it out further still, until it was a four-foot-long strip, two inches wide and a little thicker than an index card. Finally, he split the dough in half lengthwise and piled the resulting noodles into a pot of boiling water.
That’s just one part of making biang biang mian, the popular hand-pulled noodle dish from the city of Xi’an in China’s Shaanxi province. Named for the onomatopoeia of the dough slapping the board during the pulling process, the dense noodles excel at soaking up rich broth or clinging to a dry spice seasoning flecked with red chili and glistening with a sauce of oil, vinegar, and soy.
Lee opened Bang Bang Noodles on this dusty, gum-laden sidewalk in front of a hardware store on York Boulevard seven months ago to little fanfare. But now, some three dozen people were waiting in line, some for more than an hour, mesmerized by his movements — even pedestrians passing by couldn’t avoid turning their heads. “Oh my god, I can’t wait until I finish the last bowl,” Lee said quietly to his cashier.
While Lee might be cooking some of the most exciting Chinese food in the city, Bang Bang Noodles largely owes its newfound fanbase to Instagram, where images of the thick, saucy noodles have netted the cart some six thousand devoted followers. Lee says that he’s done nothing else in terms of marketing, yet every week he seems to gain hundreds of new fans on the social media platform. “I never used social media before,” he said. “I just like connecting with people. I love it when people have a good time. It’s just my thing.”
Lee — often wearing a backwards trucker hat, his arms decorated with tattoos, and sporting a neat mustache — just turned 40, but he only recently started making biang biang mian. “When I was growing up, people would mix up Taiwanese and other Northern Chinese foods,” Lee said. “I want to express my cooking with another kind of Chinese region. I want to be focused on Xi’an. It took me until this age to focus on this region. Now I want to share that discovery with other people, to show a whole other side of Chinese food.”
Bang Bang Noodle’s menu is dead simple. Pick either dry noodles or noodles in broth ($12 an order) with a choice of protein: beef, lamb, wood ear and shiitake mushrooms, or seitan. Though Lee initially just served the traditional protein choices of beef or lamb, he wanted to offer vegan options that were still true to the region, but appreciated in a neighborhood like Highland Park. “You still get the flavor profile of black vinegar, Sichuan chili, and cumin,” he says.
Lee says he can make up to five or six dozen orders of noodles per service, sometimes more depending on the day. He frequently sells out, forcing him to close prior to the announced time, which means anyone who wants to try Bang Bang Noodle will have to come as early as possible — and still expect to wait. Some people have waited anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours; on a recent Sunday, so many customers showed up that Lee essentially sold out before even opening up.
Lee found his way into the kitchen about nine years ago, at the two-Michelin star Melisse in Santa Monica. He went on to work at the now-closed Hatfield’s, then continued to chase fine dining, cooking at the renowned molecular gastronomy destination Martin Berasategui in Spain’s Basque region, as well as Korean fine dining establishment Jungsik and Aquavit in New York City. “I worked with different pastas and noodles, but this is the one I connected with,” he said of biang biang mian. “I think it’s one of those things that was missing in LA. It’s also something I could do every day, and something I could eat every day.”
Cooking a regionally specific Chinese dish was important to Lee on a personal level too. “As a single mother, my mom didn’t have a lot to give. Food was one of the emotional connections we had growing up. We always had the best food,” he said. “If you find something you have an emotional connection with, why not share it?”
After paying his dues for years without any wider recognition — or even attaining a title like chef de cuisine — Lee wanted to put his experience to work in a neighborhood that he felt would appreciate what he had to offer. “I thought, ‘What can I do to steal from the rich and give to the poor?’ In other countries, royalty will eat certain street food because it’s that good. It speaks to a lot of people.”
Despite the long lines, Lee makes it a point to stop what he’s doing, look at his customers, thank them, beg for forgiveness for the long wait, and finally ask them how it was. “You’re the show,” he said of what it takes to make it doing street food. “If you’re trying to do a ‘restaurant’ on the street, you’re not doing street food. Street food is the real thing to do.”
With the showmanship and intense honesty of Lee’s cooking, from the humble setup to the tiring task of pulling each noodle to order, Bang Bang Noodle has become one of LA’s most talked-about street food spots in a matter of months — but that’s only the beginning for Lee. “I want to make sure momentum continues. You gotta catch the buzz. If not, it’s going to go away. If an opportunity comes, you shouldn’t let it pass. If you hesitate, it’s like a blink of your eye, that little door could close right away.”
Bang Bang Noodles cooks at either 5040 York Blvd or 5537 N. Figueroa in front of Kindness and Mischief coffee depending on the day. He starts at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until noodles sell out, typically within 90 minutes to two hours. On Friday the shop opens at 11 a.m. and on Sunday at noon.