Community Survey: Dan Dan Noodles (Simplified: 担担面 Traditional: 擔擔麵 Pinyin: dàndànmiàn)
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.
* * * * *
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).
In September I stopped by Golden Bowl in Albany for the first time in a long time to find it desserted at peak lunch hour. A glance at the menu showed dandanmian at $5, a clue that this might be the snack size that I prefer.
The small bowl of intensely seasoned noodles packed a wallop of flavor and did not disappoint.
Topped with a mince of fatty-ish, gristly, gritty pork and scallions to be stirred in to blend with the red chile oil-based saucing.
A bit of creamy sesame paste rounded out the sauce flavor and texture, plenty of garlic and Sichuan peppercorns, and as can be seen in this photo, bits of preserved vegetables.
One of the best versions I’ve had in many a moon. Very satisfying.
My favorite is also Z&Y, though they can be inconsistent. At its best, Z&Y's dan dan mien is oily rather than watery; spicy (both heat and numbing); and not overwhelmed by raw garlic. The worst versions of dan dan mien I've had elsewhere have been watery/soupy (a matter of preference, perhaps, but not mine), overshadowed by raw garlic or raw scallion, or too sweet.
Most of my dan dan mien intake is now at home. With chili oil on hand, it's a very fast and easy home prep, with latitude to experiment with the balance of flavors. I start with Fuchsia Dunlop's second recipe, use pork instead of beef, and add an almost imperceptible touch of sugar and chinkiang vinegar. I underboil the noodles slightly and prefer West Coast Noodle's "vegetarian" noodle -- which is thinner than the Shanghai noodle but thicker than most dan dan mien noodles. When I remember, I add peanuts, but by the time I've assembled the bowls I'm too excited to eat and forget about the peanuts.
Z&Y used to be near my office, but I'm now just South of Market during the day. I'd love a great nearby dan dan mien lunch option. Any finds?
re: david kaplan
Was going to ask if you'd been to M Y China yet to try the dan dan noodles . . . but looks not your cup of tea based on this description from "hyperbowler".
re: Melanie Wong
I've tried three versions, all basically similar, in the last week:
• Z&Y: decent, I suppose. Balanced and flavorful. But too much sesame for my taste.
• Sichuan Fusion (Pacific East Mall/Richmond): Similar to above, less sauce, a bit less sesame...but the noodles were almost mushy...not acceptable.
• Happy Golden Bowl (El Cerrito): Perfect, chewy noodles, still sesame flavored, but overall balanced...not quite "ma la" enough for my taste...next time I'm gonna ask for more heat and numbing flavors, no sesame...let's see what happens...that could be perfection!
Guess we have to wait for China Village to open again...soon, it looks like, but not soon enough!
Thanks for your work on this, Melanie. I've had those soupy Dan Dan in Vancouver, and though they can be tasty, are somehow not right in my book. But maybe that is some regional variation from Sichuan? I'm still partial to the style I've found in NYC/Flushing. If I can find photos, I'll post....
Please do post to the Dish of the Month thread too, as will I.
DDM was not one of my go-to dishes at China Village, but it may have changed in style since my earlier go's at it. I'm excited that it will be reopening, and couldn't imagine a discussion thread about dandan mian or any other Sichuan specialty without including an example from CV.
re: Melanie Wong
Here's the recipe adapted from the DDM I disliked at M.Y. China. It "uses thin dried noodles in a traditional sweet but potent dan dan sauce."
Granted there's no one recipe for DDM, but this version, which has a staggering 26 components to measure out, is far from any version I've encountered in person or in decent cookbooks.
Some interesting quirks of this 4 servings dish:
6 Tbs. of sugar, no Sichuan peppercorns, shredded carrot and cucumber, only 1 tsp. of "Sichuan pickled vegetable" for 8 oz. of ground pork, 2 Tbs. "chili sauce" whatever that is (I think she means "chili garlic sauce" but see common usage http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/844052 )
re: Melanie Wong
Nah, those ingredients seems to pretty much match what I ate. They may have tweaked the proportions---- the version I ate was undersauced and didn't have a large quantity of meat. I hadn't noticed the large amount of sugar.
One problem with M.Y. China's dish is that it lacks a potent source of umami beyond meat and soy sauce. Ya cai or broth do the trick nicely in other recipes, and I would imagine oyster sauce, as suggested in Cooks Illustrated's DDM recipe, would work nicely as well.
Agree that Z & Y can be variable but they are almost always excellent. We had them at Z & Y on Saturday and they were fantastic: the noodles were perfectly cooked and toothsome, they had the perfect texture, the sauce was savory with a good balance of umami and spicy chili and numbing Sichuan peppercorn flavor.
I'm a fan of the Dan Dan Mian at Golden Bowl as well. It's certainly the best version I've had locally. But my alltime favorite is my homemade version from Land of Plenty, the Xie Laoban version.