It's been almost ten years since we last lived in China, and seven since I last visited. Still, there's something about Chinatowns that always say 'home'.
So, when we travel to Southeast Asian cities we invariably find ourselves in one. It's curiosity, partly - how does Binondo (Manila's Chinatown) compare to Yaowarot (Bangkok's)? How does it compare to China? Sometimes it's the caffeine factor - Chinatown coffee shops often have the best coffee. And there's that matter of feeling at home, like we always did in China, even when living there seemed like a royal pain. When we're overwhelmed by an unfamiliar city it's comforting to spend a couple of hours in an area where everything looks familiar, sounds familiar, and tastes - with variations country to country, of course - familiar. If, when we're wandering, we find authentic versions of our favorite Chinese dishes, so much the better.
Like dao shao mian, 'knife-cut' noodles. Hands down, our favorite Chinese noodle. We stumbled across the dish a year ago at Binondo's Lanzhou La Mien, a little shop dedicated to northern Chinese doughy specialties. A couple of weeks ago we returned. This place does dao shao mian right, down to the bowls of chopped scallions and cilantro, the tin of Sichuan peppercorn-tinged, red-oil la jiao (hot sauce), and the bottles of soy sauce, and black vinegar on every table.
The noodles are cut to order in the tiny kitchen by a sturdy, smiling Lanzhou native. She wields her knife like a pro, shaving strips of dough and, with a slight flick of wrist, sending them flying into a pot of boiling water. Her lump of flour and water (and nothing else save for a bit of salt) is firmer and more elastic than most, making for a noodle with a lovely chew.
The shop serves a few versions of dao shao mian (chicken, beef). We go for the classic, noodles in a bowl of rich pork broth studded with tender pieces of meat and bok choy.
We've asked for it spicy, but of course we add more of that lusty la jiao at the table - drop drop, plop plop. Yeah, we're addicted, all right.
This may be the best bowl of dao shao mian south of the mainland. It's certainly outdoes versions we've eaten in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Phnom Penh.
It's the noodles, and thus the dough, that make or break this dish, and the Lanzhou lass's are beyond reproach, silky-soft yet toothsome, uneven jagged edges grabbing bits of scallion and la jiao en route to mouth.
There are a few other delightful northern specialties on offer here, like shui jiao (boiled dumplings, 15 to an order),
substantial but not-too-thick wrappers enclosing a filling appropriately light on pork and heavy on pungent Chinese chives. Served with shredded ginger in black vinegar, to which we add soy and - of course - la jiao.
The place is not called Lanzhou La Mien for nothing and if you order the specialty (choices include beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and pork chop or rib) you can watch the cook work her magic, turning a lump of dough into a skein of supple pasta with nothing more than a few bounces of the arm and twists of the wrist, through the window that divides the kitchen from the dining room.
Though we didn't opt for la mian this visit, we did enjoy a couple of bowls last year.
If you're a Chinese noodle and/or dumpling-loving Manilan get thyself to Binondo pronto. You don't have to adore la jiao like we do to enjoy the northern specialties at this place.
Lan Xhou La Mien, 819 Benavidez Street, Binondo, Manila.