What do you think of when you hear the words "Chinese food?" If you're American, it's probably fusion dishes popular in this country, like General Tso's chicken or beef and broccoli. But visualizing Chinese food as a whole is more complicated if you're thinking outside the take-out box. After all, it's a country of 23 provinces and five autonomous regions, each with its own cuisine.
In the U.S., most of the food we know is adapted from southern China's Guangdong and Hunan regions. It's a rare treat to sample foods of the north in Houston, so when we find a place that does, we can't help but shout it from the mountaintop. Niu Yi Zui Lamen opened in the same plaza as H-Mart on Bellaire Boulevard last year, serving a tiny menu. The succinct list of dishes hails from the Shaanxi and Gansu regions of northern China.
One side of the bill of fare is given over entirely to Lanzhou-style beef noodles, a soup filled with hand-pulled noodles. As at nearby Kuen Noodle House and Strings Noodle, there is a picture window that reveals the activity of the pasta-pullers in the kitchen. Diners can choose from among eight different thicknesses, from the equivalent of thin spaghetti to pappardelle.
But it's summer and on my recent visit, I wasn't craving soup. In fact, I was most excited about a sandwich. I hadn't seen a rou jia mo in Houston since Dun Huang Plaza's Xi'an Noodles closed. And their version of the ancient rice bread sandwich was an unusual one. The one at Niu Yi Zui is a more classic representation of the crackly bun, a bit like a rice-flour arepa. I got mine stuffed with chopped pork, which was a tad dry despite some drippings, and laid on a bed of finely chopped cilantro and jalapeños, ready to be stuffed into the sandwich.
But I couldn't leave without trying some noodles. I ordered the thickest version of the oil splash noodles. The fat "da kuan" (or very wide) strands were presented simply with just oil, a chile powder concoction and scallions to dress them. Black vinegar and chile oil sitting on the table proved to be handy to amp up the savory but subtle flavor. The beef on top was plentiful and braised to ideal tenderness, as were the chunks of bok choy beneath.
A sandwich and noodles? Admittedly overkill, but every once in a while, life calls for a carbo load. And next time I'm craving flour more than one way, I'll know where to go.