If you've ever eaten street food in Chengdu, Szechuan, you will know what I'm talking about: those bowls of white noodles, innocently decorated on top with peanut powder, scallions, and the staple of Szechuan cuisine -- Szechuan peppercorn powder. Stirring it up a little with your chopsticks, however, reveals the firey red goodness hiding underneath the noodles, the addition of which completes the dish.
I am, of course, talking about dan dan noodles, perhaps the most famous of all Szechuan street food, and certainly the dish that convinced me, at first bite, that Szechuan cuisine is really that -- a cuisine, not just a regional style, and that Chengdu is a food lover's paradise.
Alas, my trip to Chengdu last year lasted a shabby 3 days, and included only 3 tastings of the heavenly noodle. I have been missing it ever since.
This afternoon, however, I had the good fortune of eating in the J&L Food Court, at 41-82 Main St., Flushing, and found the perfect bowl of dan dan noodles that tastes exactly like they make it in Chengdu.
I'll start with the noodles -- they were not too thick, about the thickness of the Lanzhou hand-drawn noodles I recently had at Super Taste (in Manhattan's Chinatown). I did not ask, but my guess is there were not hand-drawn, as they were less chewy than they were, how should I describe it, doughy/floury. By which I mean more like the Northerner's type of noodles, with that satisfying substantialness that warms a Northern girl's heart when you bite into it, despite the relative thinness of the noodles (I generally prefer thicker or wider flour noodles). They were perfectly cooked -- not undercooked but not overcooked and lifeless, as the noodles sometimes are at the otherwise decent King 5.
The noodles were topped with a mixture of what I believe to be peanut powder, Szechuan pepper power, and minced ya-cai (a kind of pickled vegetable that is very typical in Szechuan cuisine, often seen on the Szechuan string beans dish, if the place is authentic). They also threw in some spinach, which was blanched along with the noodles.
The bottom of the dish was spicy, but not overpoweringly so. And by that I don't mean it wasn't spicy -- I like spicy -- I mean that, when mixed together with the noodles and the toppings, you get a very balanced, very complex flavor in your mouth. Your tongue tingles, but does not burn. A fragrance covers your taste buds, and the textures -- the doughiness of the noodles, the chuckiness of the ya cai, the smoothiness of the red chili oil, and the almost undetectable graininess of the peanut powder -- work together like magic. One bite, and you think you've gone back to Chengdu.
The humble stall sells not just the famous dan dan noodles, but indeed most, if not all, of the Chengdu street food standards: fu qi fei pian (spicy beef organs), ma la niu jin (spicy beef tendons), ma la tu ding (spicy diced rabbit), suan la fen (hot and sour mung bean noodles), zhong shuei jiau (Zhong's spicy dumplings), long chau shou (Long's spicy wontons), etc. The stall also makes its own Szechuan-style sausages, 1 link for $3, which I plan to try on my next visit.
It may not have the ambience and cleanliness of Spicy and Tasty, but the food is darn good. I'd say the dan dan noodles is better than S&T, as I had recently sampled this dish at the much-adored establishment, and had felt impressed, but was not transported to Chengdu as I was today. I guess you have to have the crowded alleyway environment to replicate the pinnacle of street food.
Where to find it:
Szechuan Chengdu Xiao Chi
In the J&L food court (41-82 Main St., Flushing, between Sanford and Maple)
Go all the way to the back (just past the Muslim place to your left with the yellow sign), and it's where the alleyway turns left. If you find yourself at the hand-drawn noodle/lamb soup stall, you've gone too far.
There is, unfortunately, no English on the sign hanging over the stall, not much English spoken by proprietors, nor, at least while I was there, any non-Chinese people in the food court other than my eating companion, who was very conspicuously caucasian (which explains why the lady sitting next to us stared at the spicy noodles in front of him with surprised curiosity). To aid fellow chowhounds in stall-identification, here's a picture of the sign/menu hanging overhead:
And here are our best shots of the unforgettable dan dan noodles -- it was hard to stop eating and take any pictures, when such yumminess stares you in the face. As a result, the photo quality is not great... but leaves much to the imagination:
Noodles, before mixing: