Leopold Liao can’t get through a single day without hearing the same comment, over and over and over again:
“Why are you spelling it wrong?” says the owner of Reren Lamen & Bar in Chinatown, mimicking his customers. “It’s ramen, not lamen.”
No, it’s lamen, which, as a trusted source on Chinese cooking points out to me, would actually be pronounced “la mian” in Mandarin. The term roughly translates into English as “pulled noodles,” an innocent description that belies the back-breaking work involved. A chef will knead, twist and basically perform rope tricks with dough before stretching it into a cat’s cradle of bouncy strands. The final product should look familiar: Chinese lamen is the forerunner of Japanese ramen.
Here endeth the lesson portion of this week’s column.
Well, not quite: One major difference between lamen and ramen noodles is their freshness. It’s fair to say that most of the crinkly, golden strands at D.C. ramen shops are either imported from Sun Noodle or purchased from a local company. Few ramen houses make their own. Reren’s kitchen makes all its noodles, although by machine, not hand, which explains the uniformity of every strand.
The key to springy, absorbent soup noodles is their use of alkaline salts (such as sodium carbonate) dissolved in purified water, a mixture known as kansui. Liao has created a lamen noodle without a drop of kansui, relying instead on high-gluten, whole-wheat flour, water and egg whites. He’s something of a health nut who avoids chemicals, even such harmless ones as sodium carbonate. (Yes, I checked on that, with no less an authority than Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking.”)
Liao’s noodles are sort of pale and jaundiced, not the straw-colored bands that coil on the bottom of a ramen bowl. Yet as I slurp the strands in my Reren signature lamen, I’m struck by their chewiness, as righteously bouncy as any Japanese noodle. Just as important, these lengths of lamen serve as trusty mules, hauling the ginger-laced broth (with its sweet little sting) to my lips without incident. The broth is equally unconventional, a cloudy liquid built with rich beef and pork bones but tempered with the lighter, more delicate qualities of whole chicken. It’s a welcome break from the hegemony of big buttery tonkotsu broths.
Liao and his wife used to operate Hot People Food, a curiously named truck that served Asian fusion dishes on the streets of Arlington. The couple pushed a goofy, come-hither concept that preyed on (parodied?) human vanity. The truck’s slogan was “hot people eat Hot People Food.” Reren carries on this tradition in an understated fashion: Its logo features two Chinese characters that translate into — you guessed it — “hot people.” The English pronunciation of the characters is — right again! — “reren.”
Only one dish has migrated from truck to table: Formerly known as the Chinese taco, the snack is now called grandma’s style pancake. Whatever you call it, the dish is flat-out delicious, a crusty scallion pancake wrapped around a fire-breathing filling of beef, egg, red peppers and scallions.
Liao, who describes himself as something of a self-taught culinary savant, created the menu at Reren, although he was wise enough to bring on a hired gun to run the kitchen. Chef Kevin Li, a native of Nanjing, has also refined his boss’s dishes. Together, owner and chef make for a solid creative team, save for a handful of poorly executed entrees apparently aimed at weary tourists who can’t wait for a table at Matchbox. Consider this a traveler’s warning: Avoid the limp, listless General Tso’s bourbon chicken and the Alaskan grilled salmon with black bean sauce, a dish so overcooked I couldn’t detect a trace of pink in the fish flesh.
Besides, Liao was raised on noodles in Beijing, not white rice dishes, which may explain why the dry and clumpy grains at Reren are treated like hostages, not family. Liao’s affection is clearly reserved for the lamen and similar dishes, which all rely on the same house-made strands. Use your noodle and stick with the lamen menu.
Liao’s noodles practically turn radioactive as they absorb the stock and chili oil of the “kung fu” bowl, which locks into a hot groove and rides it hard, the James Brown of Chinese soups. The barbecue chicken lamen, by contrast, is a sensitive singer-songwriter, providing a quiet stage with plenty of space for the sweet corn and grilled bird to express themselves. But the most unpredictable act may be the dan dan noodles, a bowl that doesn’t drown its starchy threads in Sichuan oil but features a dark, funky ingredient known as ya cai, or preserved mustard greens. Ya cai is some kind of umami fairy dust, making everything taste better.
Li and his team display a light touch with dough. Their house-made wrappers for the pork dumplings and the willowy bundles submerged in the Shanghai wonton soup are soft and supple, each one concealing a lush filling that illuminates with brief flashes of ginger. The steamed soup dumplings, alas, can’t compete with those at Rockville’s Shanghai Taste, largely because Reren’s dough packets release only a trickle of liquid, making you wonder if the kitchen is under some kind of government-ordered stock restriction.
There is one restriction in place for certain: Reren still doesn’t have its liquor license, which means diners are limited to water, juice, Thai iced tea and other non-alcoholic drinks in this exposed-brick, pop-music-rich environment that cries out for a cocktail, or at least a cold Tsingtao. Liao hopes to launch a full bar later this month when he finally secures a license. In the meantime, you’ll have to satisfy all liquid urges with a bowl of hot lamen, which barely qualifies as a sacrifice. The noodle soups are as heady as anything from a bottle.
817 Seventh St. NW.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Gallery Place, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Appetizers $4-$9; lamen and entrees $10-$18.