TAMPA — The allure of hand-pulled noodles bobbing in steamy bowls of broth on an unseasonably cold Florida day was enough to get me out of the house.
When I got to the restaurant, I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one feeling this way: Tables were packed with diners crowded around large, blue-and-white ceramic bowls filled with piping hot soup. Kids eagerly plucked soup dumplings from steamer baskets while their parents wrapped long strands of noodles around chopsticks. One very busy server darted between tables and the front of the restaurant to greet guests and handle incoming to-go orders.
On cooler days, Lan Zhou Lamen Noodle House fills up fast.
It’s not hard to see why: Hand-pulled noodles, a northeastern Chinese specialty, are the highlight at this Tampa restaurant, which sits inside a strip mall plaza off E Fowler Avenue and N 30th Street near the University of South Florida. The main dish — lamian — literally means “pulled,” or “stretched,” noodles. The traditional method of pulling the noodles traces back to Lanzhou, the capital city of China’s Gansu province, where shops selling the beef or mutton noodle soups are ubiquitous.
Lan Zhou Lamen owner Ying Chen opened his restaurant in March 2020 after noticing there was no place locally to find the Chinese specialty. Chen, 47, is originally from Fujian, a province on the southeastern coast of China, so he didn’t grow up familiar with lamian. But later in life, an interest in the ancient art of hand-pulled noodles led him to pursue a three-month training in Lanzhou, where he learned to love and master the labor-intensive process.
To make the noodles, wheat dough is kneaded, pulled, twisted and stretched into long strands, which are then thrown straight into bowls of hot broth to cook. There are multiple styles of noodles, but to keep things (somewhat) simple, diners have the choice of three different kinds here: flat noodles, which are thinner than pappardelle but wider than a traditional linguine; round noodles, similar to bucatini or a thick spaghetti; and thin, angel hair-like strands.
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There are several different options when it comes to soup choice, too, but all versions sport the same clear broth and classic accoutrements of sliced radishes, cilantro and bright green bok choy. There’s a version with roasted duck, one with seafood and the restaurant’s signature sliced beef medley. But by far the most popular choice is the braised beef version, where tender hunks of meat add additional dimension and flavor to the broth.
On their own, the noodle soups are mild, boasting a clean broth with delicate flavors. Each table in the restaurant features a small ceramic pot filled with a searing crimson chili oil. Spice fans: A spoonful of that will do the trick.
The noodles also find their way out of the soup bowls and into a wok, where they get stir-fried with a medley of vegetables and proteins. (The house version combines them all — shrimp, beef and chicken — into one.) A selection of ma la dishes (sometimes also called mala) fuses the characteristic flavors of the mouth-numbing spice imbued by Sichuan peppercorns and chiles. These plates are slightly spicier than the soups, but not by much. The seafood ma la pot is among the restaurant’s bestsellers and features a jumble of seafood (fish cakes, shrimp and scallops) sauteed with a handful of vegetables including eggplant, mushrooms, lotus root and potatoes.
Though the noodle soups are without question the star of this operation, a small selection of appetizers and chef’s specialties shouldn’t be skipped. These include the seasoned, grilled lamb skewers; melt-in-your-mouth pork and ginger soup dumplings; and a fiery smashed cucumber salad that arrives swimming in a bright vinegar, soy and sesame sauce laced with chiles and finished with a generous handful of crushed peanuts and cilantro.
Chen opened his restaurant right at the onset of the pandemic, so takeout initially formed the backbone of the business. It still makes up a good portion of the orders here — noodle soups travel well, after all. But the dining room at Lan Zhou Lamen, outfitted with cozy booths, is my preferred place to enjoy a winter’s day meal.
If you go
Where: 2716 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. 813-631-8868. lanzhoulamennoodlehouse.com.
Hours: Lunch, dinner 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon-9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $4 to $7; noodle dishes, $9 to $14; chef’s specialties, $18.
Don’t skip: Soup dumplings, Lan Zhou braised beef bowl, cucumber salad.
Details: Cash, credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Some vegetarian options available.