I don’t know if it’s a cost-
savings plan or just the ideal temperature at which to slap, twist and knead the dough that will eventually be pulled into the long, absorbent strands for my entree. All I know is that I can’t order a noodle soup fast enough. During the winter months at Zhang’s, your bowl serves as lunch — and your personal tabletop radiator.
Zhang’s sits at the northern end of four consecutive shops along Baltimore Avenue, each specializing in a particular noodle dish. At the southern end, there is Northwest Chinese Food, Liaoning native Hua Wang’s remembrance of things past, including the translucent liang pi noodles paired with vegetables, tofu, chile oil and inky Shaanxi vinegar, a combination that has been burned permanently into my memory. Between Zhang’s and Northwest Chinese, there are a pair of relative old-timers: Pho Thom, a middling mash-up of Thai and Vietnamese, and Ivy Noodles. The latter is rightfully known for its Chinese-style ramen, a clear, pho-like broth that conceals slices of beef, a seasoned egg, fat dumplings and housemade noodles that almost melt in your mouth.
Zhang’s, on the other hand, is part of a small crop of Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle soup shops that have taken root in the area. I first encountered this style of beef noodle soup — the choice of protein aligns the dish with the Chinese-Muslim ethnic minority, the Hui, who created it — at Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodle in Gaithersburg. As with Vietnamese pho, the broth prizes clarity. The surface is a window not just into the ingredients that lounge in the bowl but also into the soul of the chef, who must have the patience to slowly, methodically coax flavors into existence from only a handful of bones, meat, spices and aromatics.
The broth at Zhang’s doesn’t seem to conform to this norm. Opaque and rich with collagen, its surface sparkling with droplets of oil, the broth here aims for comfort, not clarity. It’s a warm wool blanket on a cold winter’s day. It’s a cup of hot chocolate as you sit on the couch, mesmerized by the sound of logs crackling and popping in the hearth. It’s so unlike the broth at Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodle that you half-wonder if something was lost in translation from China to College Park.
Zhang’s takes its name from Zeng Rui Zhang, the man who stands at the counter and pulls your noodles to order. He and his wife, Lucy Zhang, are the proprietors. He oversees the kitchen. She takes care of customers in the spare, whitewashed dining room, often in that black parka zipped up to her neck, a pink ball cap perched on her head. The couple hail from Fujian province in southeastern China. They lived in New York for years before uprooting their lives and starting over with their noodle shop.
One brisk afternoon, I struck up a conversation with the Zhangs, with the help of an employee who served as interpreter. But even with assistance, our talk revealed little usable information, the words between us often floating off into space, half-heard and little understood. I did learn that Zeng Rui Zhang takes an unorthodox approach to his broth: He simmers pork and chicken bones for hours, with a little beef. I tried to inquire about the spices and aromatics used to perfume his broth, but I made no progress. I even pulled up a photo of star anise on my phone, but the chef just shook his head. The sweetness that I tasted apparently had nothing to do with those star-shaped pods and their soft rush of licorice.
After multiple visits and halting conversations around the table, I’ve come to a semi-informed conclusion that Zhang’s is the chef’s personalized take on Lanzhou noodle shops, ostensibly more informed by the trend than by the tradition. You can’t argue with his logic: China is almost drowning in Lanzhou beef noodle soup these days. The country has tens of thousands of shops and has set up schools to help export the concept. Yet Zhang’s signature bowl goes for baroque compared with the Lanzhou standard: not just with his multispecies broth, but also with the ingredients submerged in the liquid, including tripe, beef, pickled greens, romaine leaves and more (all of which can be set afire with the chile oil available on the table).
Are the hand-pulled noodles good and chewy and absorbent? Are Zhang’s bowls robust and satisfying, whether they feature roast duck, beef offal or chicken katsu? Yes and yes and yes. Are the bowls just like what you would find at a Lanzhou beef noodle shop in China? I don’t know about that.
The best way to enjoy Zhang’s, I decided, is to relax into its free-form approach. I opted not to get hung up on whether the shop wanders from its stated foodways. As such, I was free to marvel at the scallion pancakes, impossibly thin and elastic, as if the triangles were made with tapioca skins. I could savor every drop of the house dipping sauce, sharp with Shaanxi black vinegar, as I dunked and redunked my pork, shrimp and chive dumplings in the syrupy condiment. I could scrap the marrow from the femur bones in my pork calf soup, luxuriating in its offal richness. I could even appreciate the fierce ambient heat of the dan dan noodles, an impeccably faithful version of the dish, especially for a shop dedicated to Lanzhou, not Sichuan, noodles.
If you go
7313H Baltimore Ave., College Park, 240-770-7383.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: College Park-U of Md., with a 0.6-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4.25 to $10.99 for appetizers, soups and dumplings; $6.75 to $12.95 for noodle soups, stir-fries and fried rice.