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Back on the Trail of The Best Beef Noodles in Lanzhou 兰州最好吃的牛肉拉面

I’m on a mission: to find the best hand-pulled beef noodles (niurou lamian 牛肉拉面) in Lanzhou.

Actually, hang it – in all of China, but Lanzhou is the obvious place to start – I mean, it’s the home of niurou lamian, the world famous noodle soup dish with the heady aromatic broth, mind-blowing la jiao chili paste, coriander, and fine slices of beef, so full of spice and flavour it will satisfy you every day for a year.

As long-time readers of this blog will know, finding the best of anything is no easy feat, and I have previously tried and failed to find Lanzhou’s best lamian, but you know, I’m no quitter. I’m back again to give it another shot.

Lanzhou is a sprawling big, busy, dirty city, the capital of staggeringly beautiful Gansu Province, home to the thousands of Hui Muslims with whom this dish is synonymous, and also home to thousands of lamian restaurants. It also happens to be on the ancient Silk Road, where our route westward to Kashgar is taking us.

 Luckily, after our last trip to Lanzhou (and on the advice of several people since) I knew that the best noodles in the city were reportedly at Mazilu Niurou Mian, so with empty bellies and a raging hunger we jumped in a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the closest Mazilu restaurant.

‘Really?’ he said, looking crestfallen. ‘It’s just over there!’ pointing to the other side of the huge intersection where we had flagged him down.

‘I thought it was near the White Temple…’ I said.

‘There is one there too’ he replied, nodding.

‘Just how many Mazilu restaurants are there?’ I asked.

‘Fifteen!’

‘Well, just take us to the best one. Or…um…the original one.’ Original is always good, in my books. The taxi driver, by now mistaking me for someoe who could actually speak Chinese, reverted to a broad local dialect as he continued.

‘Well, the original one is by …..(unintelligible address) and there’s also a good one right next to…(another unintelligible location). Which one do you want?

‘Let’s just go to wherever you think has the best lamian‘ I said, by now acutely aware that we had circled a whole block without deciding on a destination.

‘Well, if you want the best, and you want my opinion, then we’ll go straight to Wumule. It’s a laozihao

Just like crack cocaine those words are. Crack cocaine. The best lamian. Laozihao.

Laozihao 老字号 means ‘time-honoured brand’ and for a Chinese foodie it’s the equivalent of the German wurst shop that’s been making sausages the exact same wonderful way for 110 years, or the artisanal cheesemaker who learned to make the best chevre from a traditional recipe. Laozihao denotes quality and a definite pride in food-making, usually with a long and distinguished history.

‘So what are we waiting for?’ I said to the driver. ‘Go!!’

我正在执行一项任务:找到兰州最好吃的牛肉拉面。这项任务可不简单,我还没开始就已经筋疲力尽失败了。兰州有数千家拉面店,但是我们上次去兰州的时候得知,最好吃的牛肉拉面在马自禄牛肉面。我们跳上一辆出租车,告诉司机我们要去最近的牛肉面店。
你确定吗?它就在那里!"他说着指向宾馆环形大路口的另一边。

我说:"我觉得应该在白庙附近。"

"那里也有一家。"

"一共有多少家?"我问道。

"十五家。"他回答。
好吧,带我们去最好的那家。或者去最老的那家。"
"好的,最老的那家靠近(听不懂的地址),还有一家比较好的靠近(另一个听不懂的地址)"
"我们就去你觉得最好的拉面店。"
"好吧,如果你们想去最好的店,那么我们就去吾穆勒蓬灰。它是一家老字号。
就像诸如可卡因那般有吸引力的字眼,老字号就是最好的拉面。
我们还等什么?出发!



We drove westwards along the very high and fast-flowing Yellow River for half an hour away from Lanzhou’s centre and towards its western outskirts before pulling up alongside a nondescript building with floor to ceiling glass windows fronting the street. 

‘Here it is!’ the driver said, and deposited us on the footpath just as a stream of Hui Muslims, white caps in place, came out of the front door. Their surprise at seeing us was obvious, but they also seemed delighted that we had made our way to their far-away lamian restaurant.

Inside, the restaurant was light and airy and had all the signs of a great place to eat: queues for the cashier, queues for noodles, queues for tables, and crowds of happy-looking diners leaving through clouds of steam billowing from the kitchen. 

我们沿着奔腾的黄河一路向西行驶了半个小时,远离了兰州市中心到达城市的西郊一座拥有落地窗户的难以形容的大楼。"我们到了。就这里。"
我们在回民的众目睽睽下跳下出租车,白色的小毡帽涌出大厅。显然他们惊讶于我们的好奇,但也很开心我们找到了他们地处偏远的拉面店。
饭店里面既明亮又通风,所有的一切都表明这是个用餐的好地方:等待买单的队伍,等待面条的队伍,等候空桌的队伍,还有兴高采烈的食客们,在离开时从厨房冒出的蒸汽中穿梭而过的身影。我们一边站在柜台前摩肩接踵的人群中,一边试图弄懂菜单。有位老态龙钟的老人负责收银,他的儿子则负责点单。




I was swept along on a human tide towards the front counter, battling the crowds of people and at the same time trying to decipher the blackboard menu before it was my turn to order. 

All I could make out under pressure was:

Noodles – small, medium, large 6, 8, 10 yuan 面条小碗,中碗,大碗,分别是6元,8元,10元。
Small dishes – 2 yuan 小菜-2
Cold roast beef – 58 per jin 冷切牛肉每斤58

And then all of a sudden, I was next. Behind the counter was a 180 year old man manning the cash register, and his younger and sprightlier son taking orders.

‘Hey!’ said the son with a big smile. ‘What will you be having?’ and without drawing breath he went on to say ‘How about four bowls of noodles and 200g of beef? Done?’ Done.

‘Beef over there!’ he said, pointing to a heavy-set woman off to one side with a huge cleaver in her hand.

‘Noodles that way!’ he beamed, pointing to the lengthening queue at the noodle kitchen.

‘Small dishes behind me!’ he said, pointing over his shoulder to the separate kitchen for pickles and vegetable dishes. 

"嘿!你们吃什么?"儿子满脸灿烂地说到,然后紧接着又说:"四碗面加四两牛肉,怎么样?"

就这么办。

"牛肉在那边取!"他指着一个拿着切肉刀的敦实的妇女说道。
"面条在那边拿!"他满脸笑容地指向面条厨房处的长长的队伍。
小菜在我身后那里拿!"他边说边指着后面专做咸菜和蔬菜的厨房。我们在托盘上装满牛肉,萝卜干,黄瓜和豆角后,耐心地在面条柜台等我们的面。




My hand filled with several small white tickets, one for each component of my lamian meal. For the best lamian you can’t just dump everything in a big soup bowl, you have your spicy noodle soup accompanied by dainty plates of side dishes with pleasing, contrasting tastes and textures designed to offset the searing heat of the noodles. Noodles, beef slices, cold dishes and pickles.

But not in that order….no point in first collecting a huge steaming bowl of scalding-hot noodles only to carry them around the restaurant while you collect assorted sides from the ‘small dishes’ counter and ‘beef’ counter. No, no, no.

Roast beef first, sliced with that huge and heavy cleaver into wafer thin slices, weighed on old-fashioned scales and tipped onto a small plate.

Next: small dishes – a smorgasbord of small plates filled with a variety of spiced pickles, vegetables or finely sliced liver, all served cold. I filled our tray with sides of fuchsia-pink radish dressed with garlic, vinegar and coriander, and crunchy cold cucumber with chili and sesame oil.

Lastly – time to nab a table, leaving the small dishes there alone, and join the snaking queue at the window of the noodle kitchen right in the restaurant’s centre.

Regular customers call out their orders from way back in the line – ‘extra thick noodles!’ ‘more lajiao!’ ‘no coriander!’

老食客在后面的队伍中大声喊:"面粗一点!""辣椒多一点!""不要香菜!"


Inside the kitchen the noodle-pullers, three on one side of the central cooktop and four on the other, work in steamy conditions at a fierce pace pulling noodles, while the last cook in line ladles boiling hot broth into bowls with spoons of radish, scallions, lajiao and lastly hot noodles added at lightning speed.

I took my bowl, swimming with chili oil and smelling incredible.

I took my seat and prepared to sweat, just like the diners all around me.

The first mouthful of smooth soft noodles went down easily until the chili suddenly hit me. I began to sweat. My nose ran. My cheeks flushed. I kept eating.

Those noodles were excellent – full of flavour, rich and oily, the broth savoury and aromatic.
All around me noodles were being slurped, sipped, and sucked down noisily with great satisfaction. Trickles of sweat poured from faces on all sides. I crunched on my side dishes to relieve the heat.

Between mouthfuls of hot soup I noticed a large gold plaque on the wall: 

‘Lanzhou Best Niurou Lamian: 2012’ 


So that was it – the odyssey was over and I had finally found Lanzhou’s best lamian.  What a relief….at least until next year, when the lamian committee will assign a new title. Oh well, looks like another trip back to Lanzhou is on the cards. Anyone care to join me in August 2013?


厨房里面,七位拉面师傅正紧张有序地工作着,同时用长柄勺将热腾腾的肉汤舀进装有几小勺萝卜干,香葱,辣椒和热气腾腾的面条的碗里。
我拿到了飘着红辣椒油的面条,香气扑鼻。

我们找到了座位,做好了大汗淋漓的准备,四周座无虚席。

我吸食了一大口面条,很爽滑直到辣椒后劲突然上来了。我开始流汗,鼻子也通了,脸颊绯红。
但面条真的超棒满口香郁醇厚爽滑,肉汤口感十足,香气四溢。
周围的人都在淅沥呼噜地吸面,喝汤。
我抬头看到墙上有块匾:2012年度兰州最佳牛肉拉面。就是它我终于找到了兰州最好地拉面。虽然有些偏远,但执着的美食家们总会发现它,有时你为了找到最好的食物得走得更远些。

Wumule Penhui Beef Noodles
2012 Winners of Lanzhou’s Best Lamian 
吾穆勒蓬灰牛肉面 

七里河区北滨河西路2168号(近黄河水岸怡园黄河楼)
1268 Bei Huang He Zhong Lu, Lanzhou

Ph 13919893333