First, go to school in Lanzhou, China for a month. Make noodles every day. In fact, do nothing else but make noodles, all day, every day.
"It's kind of depressing, says Jack Wang, who co-owns the new Jun restaurant in the North Loop with his mother, Jessie Wang. "I don't want people to think it's negative, but all you do is make noodles."
The mother-son team have also owned and operated Szechuan restaurant in Roseville for eight years. Jack grew up in the restaurant world, and has never known another life.
"When I turned 18, I was still working in the restaurant, so I decided I might as well keep doing it."
In spite of a lifetime spent in Chinese restaurants, he still knew very little about traditional hand-pulled noodle making, and his mother wanted him to learn the maneuver, one that was second nature to his grandfather, but wasn't passed on to the next generation. “Information online or anywhere else isn’t good enough. It’s why people go to school,” he says.
So off he went to Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu Province in northwest China where Lanzhou beef noodles are famous. Jack says there are at least three noodle houses on every block, and after a while, he didn’t think of them as “that special.” He says he ate a lot of fried rice.
Well, Jack may not find them special, but I do. I’ve been obsessed with the delicate, incomparable chew of hand-pulled noodles after trying them in New York's Chinatown, and when I heard they’d be serving them at Jun, I raced right over.
Currently, Jun is using a machine to make their fresh noodles, because Jack is the only one in the kitchen trained in the time-consuming method of hand-pulling. He’s a 20-something who grew up in the U.S. after his 10th birthday, and he says he doesn’t think there’s a lot of difference, flavor wise, between the machine and the hand method.
“It’s just tradition,” he says.
Whether or not you agree with him will probably depend on how much of a purist you are. Indeed, the dan dan noodles they’re currently serving, which are made with the noodle machine, are nothing to quibble with. They’re wonderful.
Still, hand-pulled noodles feel like a worthwhile endeavor for the restaurant, and they hope to be serving them on some sort of regular basis by summer, after Jack has a chance to train some of the other staff. For now, he comes in every morning and, before starting his other prep work, practices pulling noodles in order to stay in noodle-making shape.
In the classroom in Lanzhou, he says, the students spent the first week just handling a piece of dough in order to get the feel for what it should be, texturally. Only then were they allowed to try to mix a dough. Laiman (those Lanzhou beef noodles) are made with only three ingredients: flour, water, and an alkaline powder called kansui that Jack describes as the secret to the dough’s elasticity.
“They didn’t give us the alkaline until the last week,” he said, as sort of a lesson in self-sufficiency. “It’s not just about the alkaline. It’s about using the right posture, and getting a feel for the dough."
Then again, he says, “it’s all about he alkaline.” Once they were allowed to use that item, the maneuver felt like a piece of cake. All the same, the training was rigorous. "It's like all Chinese schools. They're pretty hard on us."
While a machine may well do much of the heavy lifting, there’s no denying the mesmerizing beauty of watching someone stretch, twist, and pull the noodles, beginning with an ordinary chunk of dough and ending up with a twisty pile of golden noodles in little more than a few seconds.
Jack begins by eyeballing proportions of all-purpose flour, water, and the alkaline to get a dough consistency he likes. (Jack doesn’t use a recipe, but would prefer Chinese-made flour if he could affordably get it, which he can't.) He then rolls the dough into a fat cigar, taking care to ensure the roll is even on all sides, like a perfect cylinder. If it isn’t, the noodles won’t stretch in even strands, and could eventually break.
Rather than kneading the dough, as in Italian pasta making, Jack twists the mixture to work the gluten in the dough and make for a more elastic product.
Then he starts to stretch, folding a loop over his middle finger with each pull, every pull making a new noodle. I tried, and it’s much more difficult than it looks. Even one finalized portion feels like a triumph.
In Lanzhou, dishes using Lamian are usually served in a beef or mutton-flavored soup, which Jack calls “pretty basic.” As much as we (or is it just me?) might fetishize these noodles, in China they’re a staple meal, served cheaply in either soup or stir-fried, or even cold. When they do get around to serving them at Jun, they’ll pair them with their own recipe for beef stew, which Jack likes a lot better.
Since he can only make about three orders of noodles per batch of dough (the dough has to be made as he goes, it can’t sit or it will become too dry), the time-consuming and labor-intensive nature of the dish is obvious. He'll be training, and by flip-flop weather, you should be able to sink your chopsticks into some.
In the meantime, dive headlong into those machine-made dan dan noodles.
“They taste the same as hand-pulled,” says Jack. “I know because I tried them side by side.”
Jun North Loop
730 N. Washington Ave., Minneapolis