In the land of the tallest, flashiest, fanciest, most expensive – Dubai is ironically sitting silent on one of the biggest records of all time. We have the largest unplanned yet confusingly intricate labyrinth in the world. A maze that so twisted that it leaves GPS systems feeling stupidly incompetent. A set of circular formations with branches and sub-branches and some other geometrically-defiant squiggles that are the shining epitomes of exceptional urban anarchy. The silent holder of this coveted record is none other than International City.
The reason I decided to burn some fuel in International City was because I heard of a Chinese place that focuses on hand-pulled Lan Zhou noodles. It’s a tiny little restaurant nestled into China Cluster Building C-10, which I finally found after my friend guided me to the place. “C-10. Not by C9 or C11. Look for A10.” How intuitive.
A Lan Zhou purist would have made a beeline for the soupy La Mian with beef, but our lunchtime pick for the afternoon was a plate piled high with saucy stir-fry.
The plate arrived with a yarn of tender noodles drenched in salty beef gravy and peppered with fierce red flakes. The soft, tender, slightly doughy bite of the noodles together with chewy nubs of beef, crunchy slivers of marrow and translucent onions made for a dish that fixated my chopsticks until the last strand was gone. There was nothing complicated about it – it was simple, cheap, perfectly seasoned and just the way a no-fuss noodle lunch should be.
The place is bare-bones with benches and stools that prompt slow mouths to leave as soon as they’re done or else risk a butt ache. While most of the diners are Chinese, they thankfully stock two English menus for the occasional outsider – even though the translations were as perplexing as attempting to read Mandarin itself. That said, if you have trouble understanding the ‘Stewed Sheep Miscellaneous’ and ‘Dry Ban Mian’ on the menu, multi-lingual Irfan at the counter will come to your rescue.
You place your order, get a number and then wait for the noodle counter to call you as and when a dish gets ready. They don’t have to come out in any specific order, you might get your snack-worthy fried chicken after you’re already midway through the noodles. This non-conformity to courses might be the reason why the menu is not broken up into traditional courses but rather into obscure categories called Characteristic Dish, Dish with Special Flavour, Principal Food and Noodles. In the chaotic convoluted world that makes up International City, Lan Zhou’s menu fits right in.
The crispy chicken was nothing like the disturbingly smooth, synthetic, bland innards of popcorn chicken at a fast food joint. Strangely, the chicken was bone-in though that didn’t take away from the dish in any way. I happily trekked up the mountain of well-drained fritters, each cloaked with salty, chilli-speckled batter that left me licking my fingers and reaching back for more. They tasted as homemade as a plate of mum’s pakodas, with the addition of sweet sauce, diced peppers and lone bits of crispy batter that had sizzled away from the parent fritter whilst seething in the wok.
The cumin brown rice was exactly what it said it would be – a plate of short-grained stubby rice full of that happy, warming, toasty essence of cumin. You could potentially pair the rice with the clear broth they had served alongside the noodles, or with the chilli oil on the table, or even just on its own. I checked off all of the above, and also ventured into that shameless territory where I mixed up the noodles and the stir-gravy with the rice into one freakishly overdone bite.
Often people ask me how I find places like Lan Zhou (even though many adventurous foodies have already made it to this place far before I’d even heard of it.) This video that I stumbled upon in a Google search was how I found this restaurant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIT28AFQpXI. What did I Google to dredge up this video out of cyberspace? I’ll leave that to your wildest imagination.
[PS. On a totally unrelated note, I’d love your vote for Best Asian Blogger here events.masala.com/awards/user. It might be quite cool to win, especially if mum goes instead of me (I have a food tour on awards night. Oh joy for scheduling snafoos.) If she gets to go up on stage, I’ll have brownie points to redeem for life. New website registrations are a pain, but if you go through it, may you have many blessings, food finds and plates of curried noodles for the rest of time.]
Lan Zhou Noodle Restaurant
China Cluster, Building C-10, International City