|This Old Place Noodle Restaurant 老地方面馆|
When hunting down good, cheap street food in Shanghai, you only need one tool – I’m going to call it the Queue Quotient, and here’s how it works. The length of the queue is usually – and reliably- directly proportional to the quality of the food, (the longer the queue, the higher the quality) and inversely proportional to the price of the food and unfortunately, the establishment’s cleanliness.
When you’re looking for good eats, search for a long queue like this one and try and ignore the Shanghai Food Safety Inspection smiley face looking glumly at you from the wall. I’ve found it to be a completely unreliable indicator of the likelihod you’ll spend the night following your meal in the bathroom.
Case in point is This Old Place Noodle Restaurant (lăo dìfang miàn guăn 老地方面馆) on Xiangyang Lu. Frequently listed on Chinese website Noodle Top Ten lists in Shanghai, along with my favourite noodle joint Ah Niang Noodles, you wouldn’t give its simple drab shopfront a second glance outside of opening hours, but walk past during the brisk lunchtime rush and the queue starting at the tiny shopfront and snaking down the street gives you a pretty good indication of their food’s popularity and safety.
Through the tiny doorway the restaurant is a single low-ceilinged room with four circular formica tables seating eight apiece on miniature plastic stools designed for those tending to the small of bottom. In the minute space between the tables another ten or so customers can cram themselves, crowding the seated diners like seagulls around a newspaper-wrapped piece of fish, waiting for a morsel to drop or a seat to open up. The owners live upstairs, reached via a ceiling trapdoor and an aluminium ladder wedged against the far wall.
The room, plainly decorated with an old television, is managed by an eagle-eyed waitress with an extraordinary memory and the build and demeanour of a hospital matron, who conducts the room like a symphony. Patrons stand up, sit down, swap seats, and generally try to make life confusing for her but she can singlehandedly memorize the entire room, able to recall exactly in what order each customer was seated, takes orders around the room in turn, and delivers forty correct mealsan hour without a single error.
Most customers are here for just one dish – the zhá zhū pǎi miàn 炸猪排面 – noodles with a deep-fried pork chop. Not just any pork chop, this super-special pork chop is dipped in Taikang Spicy Sauce before being deep-fried in a crisp golden batter. The spicy sauce tastes like chili-infused worcestershire – tangy, vinegary, sweet and a little hot. The accompanying noodles come in a light-flavoured broth which you can have with or without a tangle of seaweed.
The crunchy pork chop is a surprisingly good fit for the simply flavoured silky smooth noodles, either as a side dish or mixed into the broth.
I tried another house specialty on the suggestion of a Chinese friend, the huángshàn gān miàn 黄鳝干面or eel noodles. They were incredible – short oily pieces of fried eel and scallions mixed with a deep dark rich peppery sauce atop a bowl of fine, thin wheat noodles. I loved it.
Other house specialties, all noodle dishes, include fried liver noodles and scallion oil noodles .
Through the twelve by twelve inch serving hatch in the dining room is the cramped kitchen, staffed by two female cooks using giant pincer-like chopsticks to swirl noodles, fry pork chops, dip sauces and make bowl after bowl of noodle soup at a cracking pace. I’m not sure how I would be able to keep up with the relentless long queue of hungry customers, but they do so with patience and good grace.
The thing I love most about Lao Difang, other than the wonderful flavours, is that they have resisted all pressure from their customers to enlarge, expand, modernize or franchise. Many complain about their early closing time but as the proprietor says – ‘We need to have a life too! We like to relax in the evenings!’ Well said. Get there for lunch or run the risk of missing out!
This Old Place Noodle Shop
233 Xiangyang Lu near Yongkang Lu Shanghai
Open seven days, last orders 6.30pm but will close earlier if sold out.
More Noodle Adventures in China:
Yunnan – Crossing the Bridge Noodles
Xian – Hand-cut noodles
Xinjiang – Lady Style Noodles
Langzhou – Niu Rou La Mian
Shanghai – Master of Noodles