Just as the keys on a piano are the same no matter who pulls up a bench, the components of Lanzhou beef noodle soup are pretty much alike at every shop that specializes in the Chinese dish: a bowl of clear and fragrant broth, a tangle of hand-pulled noodles, half moons of white radish, a sprinkle of greens and a spoonful, or three, of weapons-grade chile oil.
The variations among the tens of thousands of Lanzhou beef noodle shops in China — the number gives you a glimpse into the country’s current obsession with the soup — come from the chefs who learn to manipulate these ingredients into a dish as individual as a fingerprint. These cooks, in other words, do not look at a Lanzhou beef noodle shop and see its limitations. They see a place that allows for endless displays of personal expression. They see in their kitchens what Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner saw when they sat at a piano: not just an instrument but a tool to reveal the melancholy heart of “My Favorite Things” or, on the flip side, its ringing majesty.
Jerry Chan is no jazz master. He’s the proprietor of Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodle, and he has two chefs under his watch inside the minimalist counter-service shop at the Rio shopping center in Gaithersburg. Each chef has his own style, so different from the other that Chan knows instantly, just by touch, which one has made the dough on the counter. Neither chef wanted his name published, so I’ll have to identify them by their seniority and Chinese hometown: The younger man, a native of Wuhan, likes a soft noodle with a light yellow tint. The elder chef, a native of Lanzhou, likes his strands pale and chewy.
Chan’s personnel breakdown, I must admit, came as something of a relief. As a noodle house, Lanzhou had proved itself consistent over numerous bowls, save for one in which the thin, hand-pulled strands looked and tasted as if they were produced by another shop altogether. I distinctly remember the bowl: It was a beef soup, loaded down with numerous cuts, including misshapen hunks that still had fat and connective tissue clinging to them. Compared to the gnarly meats, the yellow noodles were hothouse flowers, soft and retreating. They almost dissolved on contact with the tongue, their ability to ferry flavors seemingly diminished by their ephemeral nature.
These noodles were, for better or worse, the outliers in my experience. At Chan’s place, every bowl, whether soup or stir-fry, comes with your choice of noodle. You can opt for knife-cut or hand-pulled. The latter noodles, if you walk into the shop at the right moment, will require no explanation: You can watch one of the chefs knead, pull, slap, twirl and stretch the dough until he produces strands customized to your preferred thickness. From countertop to boiling water to bowl, the noodles will exit this world as quickly as they entered it. Their life span will be short, slippery and sweet.
Students of Lanzhou beef noodles will tell you that the strands at the bottom of your bowl need to have serious chew. That may be true, but I tend to bristle at such rigid pronouncements, especially around cooking. While I respect their sense of history and their desire for universal standards, I resist such declarations when they fossilize into something that deadens inspiration. I mean, I found things to like about the young chef’s noodles: their color, their delicacy, their flavor. I just wasn’t convinced they served the interests of the other ingredients in the soup.
Do I like the elder’s noodles more? Sure. The chewiness is a pleasure all its own, and each strand acts like a long and winding sponge, soaking up the broth as well as a select, semi-flammable amount of the chile oil that you can dump into the soup at your discretion. I should pause here and pay tribute to Lanzhou’s broth, a faithful replica of the luscious, limpid beef soup developed by the Hui people, the Chinese-speaking ethnic group that adheres to the beliefs and practices of Islam, including its dietary restrictions. Hence, beef broth in a country that worships pork. The broth, like Vietnamese pho, prizes clarity. You’ll find no impurities clouding the soup’s cellophane surface. What you’ll find is a surplus of luxury, an immodest amount of umami goodness somewhat counterbalanced by a star anise sweetness.
If Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodle were actually located in its namesake city — rather than a sprawling U.S. plaza — your beef soup would arrive at the table already ignited with chile oil. But suburban Maryland is not northwest China, and Chan smartly allows diners to customize their broths. Personally, I burned through a few bowls before calculating the right amount of oil to spoon into the broth without obliterating its flavors or turning it into a fire hazard. This is one of those times when I think tradition doesn’t exactly serve a dish well: To eat Lanzhou beef noodles like they do in China is to destroy its very essence and elegance. You might as well paint the Great Wall while you’re at it.
For now, the beef broth will be ladled into every bowl of soup at Lanzhou, no matter your choice of protein (save the seafood), which may be Chan’s way of steering you, consciously or not, toward the traditional beef noodle bowl. But in the name of menu diversity, the kitchen will also whip up a noodle stir-fry or “dry-mixed” dish, although its heart doesn’t always feel into it. The stir-fry with shrimp and knife-cut noodles bordered on the bland, even with a garlic-laced soy sauce to bring it all together. The dry-mixed Chinese roast pork, stained with a dark-and-sweet hoisin sauce, played more to my tastes, its knife-cut noodles so thick and firm they nearly qualified as mock meat.
You may not want to hear this, but I would not skip the appetizers at Lanzhou, even if you fear you might implode at the thought of ordering more dough. The kitchen makes its own wrappers for the dumplings and buns. They’re a little thicker and sturdier than some. The pan-fried ones are also crispier, which makes for a sublime contrast as your teeth crack through the browned base of a dumpling and right into the doughy flesh of its pinched wrapper. But be careful with the pork-and-chive pot stickers: They frequently squirt hot liquid on first bite, like soup dumplings. The liquid is actually the rendered jelly of chilled pork stock, and if you ask me, it’s just as rich and valuable as the beef broth. So, please, if you can help it, don’t waste a drop of it by spraying it across the table.
Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodle
3 Grand Corner Ave., Gaithersburg, Md. 240-403-7486. lanzhounoodlemd.com. Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers, noodle soups, stir-fries and dry-mixed dishes $5.95 to $12.95. Sound check: 64 decibels / Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No steps at the entrance, but one of the heavy double doors is often locked, making it a tight fit for wheelchairs. Limited access between tables; bathrooms are spacious and equipped with handles.