Consider this a reminder that a pile of carbs is infinitely satisfying — and perhaps none more so than dan dan noodles, a spicy Sichuan dish traditionally served as street food. The name, writes Fuchsia Dunlop in her 2008 memoir "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper," refers to the way the snack was sold by street vendors from a bamboo rod that rested on their shoulders (the verb "dan" means to carry on a shoulder pole). In the United States, you'll find it in nearly any restaurant serving foods of the southwestern Chinese province. The electric dish is composed of wheat noodles coated in a garnet sauce of chile-flecked oil, topped with minced meat and — ideally, though in American restaurants, not always — finely chopped preserved mustard greens (ya cai, a specialty of the Sichuan city Yibin). The full effect produces that numbing and hot flavor (ma la) perhaps most ascribed to Sichuan cooking, and a harmonic, warming feeling that you'll not soon forget.
Preserved mustard greens add an admirable umami note to noodles. But you might find your bowl also served with something fresh and crunchy such as baby bok choy or bean sprouts, or something savory like a hard-boiled egg.
The wheat noodles are not too thick and not too thin, explains Bob Liu, owner of Bob's Shanghai 66 in Rockville, and are cooked just until they're mostly tender but retain a satisfying chew.
Minced beef or pork is common, but some restaurants, such as Great Wall Szechuan House in Washington, opt for chicken. (Diners often can request that no meat be added at all.)
It packs an oily punch with dried red chiles, but is balanced with sesame paste and soy sauce. The addictive, lip-numbing zing comes from the piquant, floral Sichuan pepper, a member of the citrus family.
You can find dan dan noodles in a number of restaurants in the area (not to mention the country). Our favorites are in Rockville at Bob's Shanghai 66 (305 N. Washington St., 301-251-6652); in Annandale at A&J Restaurant (4316 Markham St., 703-813-8181); and in the District at Great Wall Szechuan House (1527 14th St. NW, 202-797-8888) and Panda Gourmet (2700 New York Ave. NE, 202-534-1620).
More Anatomy of a Dish from Food: