Life is like a box of noodles ... You take all the dry bits and you rehydrate them week after week, trying your best to spice them up with love and a little sauce.
And then there are the times, in those special moments, that all of the noodles taste fresh like they were made just for you. Suddenly the world fits together and you realize, deep down, how much you really love noodles and how important they are to you in the world of grain-based dishes.
This has been one of those weeks.
I've spent the past several days eating at Chinese restaurants old and new, chronicling what I'll call the biggest trend of the year: fresh noodles. 🍜Tucsonans can't get enough of them, and several new restaurants have opened this year to prove it. We've come to a point in Tucson culinary history where you can actually attract more customers by branching out from the chicken chow meins of traditional American-Cantonese fare.
You'll see it in the east side Cantonese joint China Bamboo, which recently debuted a new menu with dishes like Sichuan water-boiled fish the porky Saozi noodle soup from Northeastern China. And you'll see it in Fatman Kitchen, which everyone still seems to be talking about.
While many of these new and improved menus feature interesting dishes from underrepresented regions of mainland China, this article dives deep into the noodle section of the menu: specifically wheat flour noodles. (I've yet to see any restaurant advertising their own rice noodles, but any information on that would be very welcome!) Popular in Northern China, wheat flour noodles can soak up spicy soups, serve as a base for fermented bean paste or stand on their own in a subtle oily glaze. Here are some of my favorites.
🏆 MY TOP 3:
The restaurant that introduced Tucson to Biang Biang noodles ... the fat belts of chewy wheat flour that demand to be eaten on their own. The noodles may remind you of Italian lasagna, but they are firmly from the Shaanxi province of China where they were traditionally eaten as poorman's country food.
It makes sense: You don't really need much other than chile oil to make this dish shine. But oh man, it's a special occasion when these things come out. Fatman Kitchen also does a separate variety of absurdly long and thin wheat flour noodles that are bathed in a lavish spicy beef broth. Definite contender for the best beef soup in town, in my opinion. Read more about Fatman Kitchen.
Tucson's regional Chinese boom has mostly been happening in midtown, but now the east side is getting a little piece of the action. China Bamboo feels like your regular suburban Chinese restaurant, with a dark cavernous vibe and a menu of fried rice and mu shu pork. But now it's touting a separate page of homemade noodle dishes like the springy dandan noodles in a thick chile broth. It really feels like you're eating spaghetti, except for the fact that the noodles are longer than your arm.
The main star of the show though is China Bamboo's take on the aforementioned Biang Biang, which they call the oil spill noodles. Unlike Fatman Kitchen, China Bamboo dresses theirs with a little bit of broccoli. And our bowl was packed really tight so that you had to work to pull out the doughy belts of goodness. I'd drive all the way to Mount Lemmon though if I could have another bite of those.
I'd be in big trouble if I didn't put these folks in the top three, because I really do go here once a week. Thanks to that lovely woman who says she watches me in the bathtub and insisted I eat some of her Jajianmyun ... I can now say that I've had every noodle dish on the menu. I still think you should get the Sichuan spicy beef, if you can handle that numbing peppercorn of course. (If you can't, try again! You'll get used to it. 🥴)
This dish has gone head to head with several other beef noodle soups around town, and this is my verdict: The broth may be slightly more flavorful elsewhere, but Noodleholics has the best homemade wheat noodles in town, hands down. They are scraggly and jagged and thick and yummy. (But definitely not gummy.) They cling to that spicy broth, so that when you slurp, each noodle gives you a little sizzle.
OTHER AWESOME SPOTS TO TRY HOMEMADE NOODLES:
This new shop in the Tucson Mall area has a distinct Noodleholics vibe, with a clean minimalist aesthetic and a small menu of spicy noodle dishes and soups. (Mian Sichuan is not to be confused with Mian Sushi, which closed this year.) I recently enjoyed a bowl of their volcano noodle soup, a spicy Sichuan beef broth that was topped with salad greens a melted swab of American cheese. The noodles here were thinner but still very good.
Kung Fu Noodle
Most of these places are new, but Kung Fu Noodle has been doing the fresh noodle thing since 2013. Their spicy beef noodle soup is the favorite of my friend Pops Yucupicio, who has been eating his way through Tucson's Chinese noodle soups in his personal quest to find the best beef noodle soup. He took me to Kung Fu Noodle this week and I have to say, the soup was tasty but I just loved the peppery beef udon stir fry that we got on the side. The udon noodles aren't made here, but the dish was perfectly executed.
Panda House is my go-to in the campus area for spicy Sichuan food. (It's pretty close to my house and they stay open until 9:30 on the weekdays.) I can't leave there without getting the tinfoil masterpiece that is the beggar's chicken or Panda House's take on water-boiled fish, simply called "pick fish." But they also make their own wheat noodles and put them in hearty soups like the mustard noodles with pork. They're on the thinner side, but very good.
China Pasta House
China Pasta House is a hidden gem for lunch if you're in the campus area. The restaurant is owned by Erxing Zhuang and Wen Cai who are both originally from the border city of Dandong in Northeastern China. Their noodles are heartier and have a puffy texture to them almost like udon. I enjoy their dry dishes, like the pork and fermented soybean noodles also known as zha jiang mian. Read more about China Pasta House.
Jewel's Noodle Kitchen
Located in the same Speedway shopping center at Brother's Noodles, this new restaurant has a homey vibe that reminded me of China Pasta House. It's owned by Ronghua Zhu who hails from Beijing. She's created a menu of Northern Chinese specialties like dumplings and unbelievably tasty homemade meat pies known as Bing. Her housemade noodles are also very good, but the broth in the beef noodle soup was a little mild for me. I'd like to go back and try another noodle selection.
After a week of eating noodles in spicy beef broth, this gentle shrimp soup was quite a relief. On its face, Brother's Noodles is an approachable takeout joint with Cantonese-American hallmarks like fried rice and kung pao chicken. But this noodle soup was expertly done with perfectly chewy noodles and plump shrimps floating about. For an appetizer, don't miss the deep-fried delights they call Golden Tofu. They're crispy on the outside, soft on the inside: just like my soul.