Fresh off of our adventure to Nam Phuong in South Philly, we're awakened to the opportunities for cheap, delicious food in our cities dozens (probably hundreds!) of ethnic restaurants. These places aren't out to win awards or garner four bells from Mr. LaBan, but instead are just interested in filling bellies and satisfying souls. However, some of them still get attention from the press, with Nan Zhou recently on the Inquirer's chopping block. The review (two bells) had me intrigued from the start, and was more than enough to have me running to Chinatown the following weekend.
Nan Zhou Noodle House has been in Philly for almost ten years, but recently moved to a new home near the corner of 11th and Race Street. Great for us, as the new space is apparently twice as big as the old spot. However, it's still packed- we waited for about 10 minutes, although this isn't a place people linger. Table turnover is quick, so don't expect to wait long.
The interior is pretty simple, a long rectangular space packed with tables. We sat at a large round table with another group of three- kind of odd, but we've done it before at dim sum, so we weren't too fazed. Tables are ornamented with the necessities: napkins, pots of tea, and the only condiments you may need.
We ordered two small plates to share as appetizers, although the timing of the food is completely erratic, so don't be disappointed if your larger dishes come out first. LaBan made note of the cold shredded potatoes, and we couldn't resist ($3.95). Kind of like a mix between cold shredded hash brown potatoes and a noodle salad, the individual strands maintain their potato flavor while providing a texture similar to the strands of carrot throughout. Soft with a fine film of oil, they reminded me of what I always WANT french fries to taste like the day after they're cooked.
The diced cucumber in sauce ($3.95) sounded familiar- reminding us of Han Dynasty's cold spicy cucumbers with which we have a minor addiction. These had the same cool crunchiness, but with a flavor profile with much less heat and much more garlic. Just as addicting, though.
Apparently when dishes average $5, we feel the need to order many of them-- we also had an order of steamed pork and chive dumplings, which were surprisingly the hands down favorite of the meal for all three of us ($4.75). A generous serving of eight dumplings, these somehow managed to do everything I've always wanted in a dumpling but never seemed to find: maintain a chewy, doughy wrapper without overwhelming the filling, fit at least two large bites of meat into each wrapper (don't you hate when the contents would have trouble filling a teaspoon?), and pack a huge punch of flavor. The ground meat was mixed with bits of green onion and ginger, making the soy sauce accompaniment completely unnecessary.
If Nan Zhou is famous for one thing, it is obviously the noodles. There are two types of noodles: hand drawn- ridiculously long, thin spaghetti-like noodles that are stretched and pulled entirely by hand- or shaved, which.. we didn't try. I know, we're terrible bloggers. LaBan compared them to a pappardelle.. but I imagine it more like spaetzle from the description of how they're made. Someone please clarify if you've tried them!
I ordered the noodles in soup form, which come with any variety of meat you can imagine. The meat quality is definitely not going to be the best, but you're here for the noodles- meat is just adding flavor. The beef brisket soup is not your Jewish mother's soup- the chunks of brisket are fatty with bits of connective tissue hanging on, but it's soft and falls apart in your mouth ($6.50). A few stray vegetables aren't enough to convince you what you're eating is healthy, but the snips of fresh herbs add plenty of fresh flavor to the cooked-for-hours broth.
And then... you dive in and finally get to the noodles. There are seriously at least a pound of noodles in a single bowl-- it's impressive. It's impossible to find where one ends and another begins, and you may even be tempted to use the scissors provided to help dole out a bite to your dining mate.
The noodles are absolutely phenomenal- well, as good as a simple combination of flour and water gets anyway. They are really light and almost airy, but very filling- I made three meals out of this bowl. Just as you can identify fresh pasta at a good Italian restaurant, these are infinitely better than anything from a box.
We veered off the noodle path briefly with an order of fried rice with roast pork (a whopping $7.25). Full of chopped vegetables and tiny bits of pork, it was just fine- but you won't come to Nan Zhou for fried rice.
Our second noodle dish was a stir fry, also with roasted pork ($8.95). Roast pork is always a good idea at Asian restaurants- fatty and flavorful. The dishes at Nan Zhou remain simple- both this and the soup contained everything you'd imagine in a classic Chinese dish, but the fresh noodles elevated each bite beyond your favorite corner China Garden (or Happy Dragon or Golden Palace... Chinese restaurant names could be a whole separate post). Tons of veggies keep things interesting, and again we were able to make multiple meals out of the enormous plate.
Nan Zhou is one of those places that makes me happy to live in such a big, diverse city-- sure, it's "just" Chinese food, you can get that literally anywhere right? But the quality and care that go into the dishes here makes it far more valuable than the crazy cheap prices they charge. Just take care to hit the ATM before you arrive- cash only, although you won't be shelling out any more than $20 for two.
Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House
1022 Race Street