From a certain angle, beef tendon kind of resembles uncooked bacon. So if the word “tendon” gives you pause but you take this advice and try it anyway (and you really, really should, given Nan Zhou’s preparation), try using the striations of white and pale pink as a visual aid to get you over the mental hurdle of that first bite. But once you will your fingers to pinch the chopsticks shut and carry that tangle of tendon to your lips, you’re in for a treat—a nutty, surprisingly satisfying mouthful whose whisper of garlic is winning on its own and stunning when awakened by a drag through soy sauce.
Finding new food experiences in our increasingly globalized world is difficult, and the quest to do so often leads right to the heart of our most vexing and emotionally fraught issues with food: Texture and perception.
Americans, in general, tend to be lovers of the lean and, historically, we haven’t done terribly well with the ropy chew of gristly sinew or the gelatinous wobble of cooked cartilage. How else can you explain the widely held love for filet mignon, a relatively bland cut of cow whose main allure is its tender texture? Some cultural predispositions are worth recognizing and getting over, and Nan Zhou (a recurring choice in our Philly food blogger roundup) is an ideal place to start.
So while the flavor of that beef tendon is easy to love, its cartilaginous texture is likely to be more difficult. But just as a new song becomes familiar after a few rotations on the radio, so too does the sensation of chewing an unfamiliar part of an otherwise commonplace animal, and you can focus on what matters most—how it tastes.
Pig ears, listed as spicy but really quite mild, are another non-noodle highlight at this fabulous noodle house. They’re also (at least to fans of head cheese or country pâté) surprisingly familiar: Soft but not squishy, a mixture of sweet and funky, and, as with the tendon, topped with chopped garlic. These thin treats packed a flavor punch far greater than their diminutive size implied, and were compulsively snackable, their cool temperature an excellent foil for a shallow puddle of chile oil.
The third component of the “aromatic mixed platter” (an appetizer with more than enough food for a table of four hungry people) was both the most familiar and the biggest letdown. Not that the marinated sliced beef was bland—it’s just that, in the shadow of the other two, it had a hard time drawing attention to itself.
At its core, though, Nan Zhou is a noodle house—any meal there should focus on the true beating heart of the place. I mean that semi-literally: The constant thump-thump, thump-thump of Chef Zeng Feng Zheng smacking dough against his work surface in the partially open kitchen abutting the dining room is a visceral (and aural) indication of what Nan Zhou is all about.
The fruits of his labors are stunning: Hand-drawn noodles of miraculous springiness, chewy strands that absorb the perfect amount of broth while maintaining their own hearty flavor. This is the Platonic ideal of pasta.
Although all soups on the menu are winners if you focus on the noodles, some are better than others. Ox tail noodle soup disappointed with its gray, tough little fists of meat, and one-dimensional fish balls tasted too similar to crab stick. But meatball noodle soup is a must: Tender, two-bite orbs of finely chopped pork and vegetables in a muslin-thin wonton wrapper, its slippery sensation against the tongue setting the meatiness of the balls off with ringing clarity. Both fish balls and meatballs are brought in, though the latter is as successful as anything typically made in-house elsewhere. Greens—spinach, scallions, sour pickle, cilantro—brighten up all the soups beautifully. As for that broth, the chef would only divulge that it’s made with lots of chicken, beef and pig bones, meat and seasoning. Beyond that, apparently, just eat and enjoy.
Noodle with pork soy sauce is just that—ground pork, soy glistening with a slick of fat and those shimmering, slippery noodles: Elemental and exquisite. Noodles with peanut sauce are stickier, more rib- and teeth-coating (peanut butter does that), and one of the best versions of the standards I’ve tasted. Again, simplicity is no liability when the key component (in this case, those miraculous noodles) is this good.
They’re worth more than an aside, but also make sure to order one or two dishes with the shaved noodles, which, while not quite as stunning as their pulled siblings, nonetheless stand out among Chinatown’s other top-quality offerings.
Nan Zhou, then, is all about the food—has been since opening back in 2003. The atmosphere of this tiny space is as straightforward as restaurants come—Chinese-language movies and shows on the television up above, staff often to be found eating at the table next to the register, though happy to get up and prepare your meal when the time comes—and servers seem perpetually anxious to get your order in. But once they do, the table is yours to slurp and gnaw away, blissfully unaware of little else but the procession of food and experience heading toward your table, crowding out everything but the supremely satisfying experience of the meal you’re enjoying right at that moment. It’s the essence and excitement of food—why we go out in the first place.
Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House
927 Race St.
Cuisine: Authentic, comforting and noodle-centric.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11am-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10pm.
Prices: $2-$8.75—and it’s possible to fill your belly for well under $10 per person.
Atmosphere: Be friendly to your table-neighbor, they’ll be right near you.
Service: Rushed, but friendly.
Food: Soul-satisfying on several levels.