Let’s focus on dan dan mian, the fiery Sichuan noodle street snack that has become so popular worldwide it has morphed into many regional forms. This post kicks off an evergreen discussion of the places and reviews the dish in the San Francisco Bay Area. Good, bad or indifferent, “authentic” or not, please post here about any and all formats when you try them.
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Some of the varying styles that can be found in the Bay Area.
Western style, 2012 – Sichuan House: “The dan dan mian, $8.50, was not as pleasing. The waiter put the bowl in front of me and immediately started mixing things together without asking me, all the while balancing a plate of food for another table on his left arm. The sauce spattered about and I had to ask him to stop. Made with thickish, soft wheat noodles, this version was meat heavy with a load of ground pork. Nice lift of vinegar and a nutty creamy quality from a bit of sesame paste, but lacking in Sichuan peppercorns, chili heat, scallions, or the earthy complexity and salt of preserved vegetables. And the dish was too sweet. The addition of sautéed pea shoots was a surprising and welcome touch. The dish seemed Americanized to me in the extra sugar and absence of traditional flavor elements. This was doubly disappointing since I’d liked Chef Zhang’s version of this dish before.”
Korean style, 2009 – Tong Su Garden: “The dan dan noodles I found plain weird. Hardly any spice at all, this is the first serving of dandan I’ve ever seen that wasn’t stained with red oil. It almost tasted like yellow bean paste or something similarly starchy. Also the noodles were cooked too soft.”
Bay Area style, 2007 – Little Sichuan Express vs. Classic Sichuan
Japanese style, 2004 – Himawari: “William ordered the tan-tan men, $8, a take-off of Sichuan spicy noodles. The gritty textured ground pork topping was slightly sweetened as well as spiced with chilis. The spice level was low-medium and well-balanced. Some bean sprouts completed the picture. The miso soup base was amazingly complex - the menu says that eight kinds of miso go into the soup. This might be the kitchen's strength and I'll definitely order miso ramen the next time I come here. My brother was very happy with this dish.”
Shanghainese style, 2002 – Old Shanghai (closed): “The search for dandan noodles brought me back to try the soupy style that looked so good my first time here. The version here is a big bowl for $6 with thin chewy noodles. The garlicky broth has a hint of sweetness and is slightly thickened. Some red oil floats on top, but it’s not nearly as fiery as a traditional style. I didnt see any peanuts, but theres a background taste of roasted nuts (sesame, peanuts?) and an almost creamy richness on the palate that a spoonful of nut paste in the sauce/soup might lend. Theres also fermented brown bean paste in the mix and red chili sauce. The chopped pork has a chewy texture with bits of fat. The bowl was topped with minced scallions but no cucumbers. Again, the flavor of Sichuan peppercorns was almost nonexistent and the smoky nuance of dried Sichuan chili peppers was also absent. This serving was big enough to satisfy two light eaters people for lunch. A nice meal, but not the dandan noodles of my dreams.”
Chengdu style, 2002 – House of Yu Rong (closed): “I ordered the dan dan noodles and this was everything I’d hoped for. A small bowl of chewy noodles with a little bit of thin almost soupy red chili pepper-flamed sauce with bits of ground pork, tons of minced garlic, abundant Sichuan pepper corns, and chopped scallions - every element in perfect balance. This is my new archetype.”
Discussions of Chengdu, Hong Kong, Taipei, San Francisco, and Boston style dan dan mian.
Home Cooking: Fuchsia Dunlop's 2 versions of Dan Dan Noodles
The photo below is from Spicy Town in Fremont (2009).