Chicago seems like it’s luxuriating in a golden age of pasta. From Monteverde’s Sarah Grueneberg to Daisies’ Joe Frillman to Cameron Grant at Osteria Langhe, the number of chefs operating at the peak of eccellenza is astonishing. And yet is it really that impressive when you consider that the Chinese were eating noodles long before anyone else—and that, in terms of the vast universe of Asian noodle dishes, Chicago is years behind cities like Los Angeles, Vancouver, or Toronto? Sure, we’re lucky to have the hand-pulled lagman at Jibek Jolu, the fresh black jia jiang mian at Great Sea, the knife-shaved dao xiao mian at Slurp Slurp, and even the mutant “Belt noodle Yibin-style” at Bixi Beer. But compared to Italian-style noodle slingers, the city’s heroes of Asian pasta are fewer and less well-known.
Yet allow me to introduce you to one. Richard Zhou is a 53-year-old veteran chef who has worked all over the city cooking all kinds of foods in all kinds of kitchens, from the Peninsula to Old Town’s Kamahachi to Evanston’s Koi, and at a series of anonymous food-service gigs.
A graduate of the former Cooking and Hospitality Institute, for the last five years he’s sold dumplings, noodles, and the Xi’an-style “hamburger” rou jia mo for takeaway on the outskirts of Chinatown in the erstwhile Richwell Market (now Win Sing Supermarket) with his mind on something bigger. Last month he and his wife, Cynthia Guo, opened a stall in the basement food court of the Richland Center mall, the great incubator of Chinese restaurants that’s hatched Snack Planet, the late Lao Pi BBQ, Kylin Teppanyaki, and Qing Xiang Yuan Dumpling. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big step, unless you look at the success of the latter, now banging out their magnificent soup-dumpling variant guan tang jiao zi in a spiffy street-level brick-and-mortar space upstairs.
Zhou has big plans for Shan Shaan Taste, and he plans to execute them cooking the food of his home Shaanxi province in northwestern China, whose capital city, Xi’an, gives its name to so many of its signature foods. You might be familiar with some if you’ve eaten at New York City’s Xi’an Famous Foods, which itself began in a basement food court but exploded into a 13-unit minichain after Anthony Bourdain lost his mind scarfing down its chile-and-cumin-licked lamb rou jia mo on a 2008 episode of No Reservations.
Chicago’s sole other specialist in this regional cuisine—which features lots of lamb and wheat-flour noodles and bread—is Xi’an Cuisine on Cermak, popular for its paomo: lamb soup, thick with torn shreds of flatbread and biang biang mian, ribbony hand-stretched noodles deployed in various soups and stir-fries. They’re much less known for another major regional noodle specialty.
That specialty is called liangpi, cold skin noodles or, as Zhou calls them, “cold ribbon noodle salad Xi’an-style,” a dish of such stark textural contrasts and assertive, electric seasoning that you wonder why it’s not in regular rotation all over Chinatown. The reason may be its labor intensivity—making them is a lot slower and less sexy than whipping out a batch of hand-pulled noodles like a marionettist.
Richard Zhou is a specialist in liangpi, and he’s been making them since he was a boy in his hometown, Taiyuan, where he sold them on the street.
These noodles, which are slicker, snappier, and shinier than hand-pulled noodles, take days to make. First Zhou submerges the well-rested dough in water and begins kneading. As the water gradually turns milky with the extracted starch in the flour, what’s left in his hands is the gnarly gluten, which he tears into shreds and steams until they build up the structure of chunky sponge nuggets. Meanwhile the starch is settling to the bottom of the water. After 12 hours, Zhou gently pours off much of the surface liquid, until he’s close to the thin deposit of starch settled at the bottom, which he steams until it sets.
He then folds it over upon itself, slices it into half-inch ribbons, and chills them. When an order comes in, he piles them in a plastic dish, adds the gluten and a tangle of shredded raw cucumber, and lashes it all with sour black vinegar, raw garlic, sesame seeds, soy sauce, and a chile oil spiked with ten spices and herbs that he cooks at a gradually increasing temperature for an hour. Altogether the flavors are so assertive you might not realize it’s vegan—unless you order it as a combo, which comes with an egg, hard-boiled in a five-spice-spiked blend of jasmine and oolong tea.
Zhou offers his noodles in nine variations, one stir-fried and served hot, another served cold with warm sesame sauce, another extraspicy, and another tossed with sesame noodles. One is served as a combo with red-braised pig feet, two others with rou jia mo, griddled flatbread sandwiching fatty chopped pork belly or thinly sliced cumin-braised beef shank.
Zhou also serves solo portions of these meaty braised off bits, including pork stomach, liver, or ears, or Signature 18 Flavor Chicken— a whole or half syrup-glazed bird, air-dried, then deep-fried, then braised for four hours in five-spice powder and medicinal herbs, a recipe he learned from his father. He’s also added another noodle dish, dao xiao mian, knife-cut pappardelle-like noodles (which he admits using a machine to make) swimming in beef soup with chunks of supertender braised beef.
If you’ve taken on too much spice or too many carbs, he also offers his house-made Beijing-style yogurt, which is sweet, thin, and drinkable. But for now Shan Shaan Taste is a restaurant of the best kind, a specialist that does one thing really, really well.
I asked Zhou if he planned to add more to his menu—paomo is coming—but he thought I meant something else. Perhaps looking toward New York, he replied, “I want to start a chain.”