Chef Zeng Feng Zhang runs one of the best restaurant magic shows in Philadelphia - even if few know his name.
He's the Fuzhounese fellow who, for the better part of a decade, stood behind glass at the back of a tiny Chinatown nook whirling thick ropes of floury dough - looping, stretching, counter-smacking, and weaving them into an ever finer loom - until suddenly he held in his hands a fistful of the most delicate golden noodle strands.
"Dragon Whiskers" are what these "la mian" noodles are called in Beijing. And the on-demand theatrics of each bundle being stretched to order for a soup or stir-fry, plus the stunning value of such handcraft at about $4 to $6 a bowl, helped make his Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House one of Chinatown's most worthy and unique draws.
Nan Zhou's move last year to a larger space a block west on Race Street was most certainly the reward for many noodles well-stretched. Zhang and his wife and co-owner, Yan Yun "Stephanie" Chen, have expanded their menu and upgraded to 80 bustling seats now, more than twice the number of their previous tiny walk-up nook (now the Happy Noodle Bar). And the long room, with its granite tabletops, blue aurora-lit inset ceiling, and generic black-and-white photo posters (strangely, of European cities), is sleek enough by Chinatown standards.
But it's missing some of the old nook's drama: Zhang's dough acrobatics are no longer front and center. One now has to squint through a window behind the often harried cashiers to see that dough being kneaded and twirled, or the flying confetti of "shaved" noodles being chipped rapid-fire off a lump of dough into a cauldron of broth.
But the magic here that matters most - the inimitable spring of those noodle nests coiling in brothy bowls of soup or beneath crumbly spoonfuls of "soy sauce pork" - remains very much intact as one of the city's knockout flavor values, the entire menu under $10. (There is now a similarly named Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House on 10th Street, whose "L" is technically a more accurate spelling referring to the northwest Chinese city of Lanzhou, where these noodles originated centuries ago. I find its dishes, though, to have far less finesse.)
I love both of Zhang's noodle shapes, whether the hand-drawn noodles that look like elastic spaghetti, or the ribbonlike shaved noodles, appealingly irregular, with one side thick and chewy, the other a gossamer frill.
Those sturdy shaved noodles are excellent for the hearty but oddly named soy sauce pork, the signature dish here that's something like an Asian cross between Bolognese and chili, its gingery, ground-pork stew seasoned with soy and fermented beans. (Then again, if you prefer spaghetti to pappardelle beneath your meat sauce, go hand-drawn.) But for soups, I prefer the longer strands, though definitely do take advantage of the scissors they make available to snip especially lengthy strands when spooning out portions between multiple bowls.
What to add to your bowl depends on your mood, as the base broth is the same for all, a crystalline brew steeped from beef bones and whole chickens, with an undertow of star anise and ginger, plus the herbaceousness of scattered fresh cilantro and the subtle funk of crunchy pickled cabbage.
My surprise favorite was the soup with "house-special" meatballs, tender orbs of gingery pork lightened with egg and cornstarch. The classic seafood pot was also excellent, the shrimp tender, the clams, scallops, and fish ball surprisingly fresh and delicate.
The meaty choices are rustic and usually more gristle and bone than meat, like the bland lamb, which we could have missed, or the duck, which I liked mostly because the tawny skin enriched the whole broth with a sweet sheen of roasted-bird goodness. The ox sparerib soup is ideal for the bone-averse, its briskety meat tender from a pre-braise in sweet Asian barbecue sauce. Another unusual but satisfying option was the "chicken chop," which brings a plain bowl of noodle soup alongside a plate of crisply seared chicken thigh whose spice crust is vivid with cumin and garlic.
Avoid the soup listed on the menu with regular meatballs, which are really just big wontons. Opt for the regular wonton soup, which brings tiny pinches of meat wrapped in folds of noodle so sheer, they look like little ghosts floating through the bowl.
An expanded menu, though, is the unexpected plus of Nan Zhou's big expansion. In particular, don't miss the surprisingly exotic chicken dumplings (fried is better than steamed), whose minced poultry fillings are flared with curry and rich coconut milk.
My biggest surprise, though, was the assortment of appetizers drawn from other regions of China. For vegetable starters, the shredded sea kelp tastes like snappy cold green noodles ignited with fresh garlic heat and sesame oil. Crunchy batons of raw turnip doused in sweet soy and vinegar are piled high with shriveled little fuzzy brown preserved plums that are as flavorful as they are ugly. The shredded potatoes are as addictive as they are a curious find in Chinatown, the cool, white, crunchy spud laces sparked with hot chile oil. Even more unusual, though, was the "gong" vegetable, a pickled green reminiscent of cactus in texture, but with a crunch so resonant, it rang in the back of my head like a bell.
There were also hot grilled lamb sticks worth trying, the skewers of tender meat touched with a vivid Sichuan spice and cumin punch. Sichuan is also the inspiration behind Nan Zhou's aromatic mixed platter, an assortment of finely shaved cold meats - pig ear, beef tendon, and "marinated beef" - glazed in the numbing orange shine of chile oil. Best eaten with a good BYO beer, these almost-translucent slices made my lips buzz as I savored the snap of a perfect pig ear, the firmer chew of a tendon, and the more familiar, meatier chew of the beef.
You can follow these palate-teasers with one of Nan Zhou's new noodle stir-fries, especially the shaved noodles tossed with tender littleneck clams; or the house special stir-fried rice filled with sweet morsels of roast pork, veggies, and tender curls of sweet fresh shrimp.
But what do I really crave after all these satisfyingly savory and noodle-wrapped delights? A cleansing plate of steaming-hot snow pea tips, so delicately crunchy and gloriously green, there's surely magic in making them so. Chef Zhang may be more hidden now in the back of his larger new space. But he's still got plenty of kitchen magic.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan will resume his Tuesday online chats on April 2.