Growing up in a Chinese household, I thought I’d tried every type of Chinese noodle dish. Then, recently, I heard of something called dao xiao mian and realized I have so much more to learn.
Dao xiao mian is also known as Shanxi knife-cut noodles, referring to the province in Northern China east of Beijing where the dish originates, and describing the age-old technique of using a knife to quickly shave wheat noodles off a block of dough into a boiling pot of water. The resulting noodles are fresh, wide and comforting; a perfect base onto which sauces and flavors can cling.
In Oakland, Shanxi knife-cut noodles can be found at Huangcheng Noodle House, the 4-month-old restaurant that opened at the corner of Webster and 8th streets in Chinatown. This food at this simple eatery is prepared by chef Jimmy Huang, who learned to make dao xiao mian while working at his father’s restaurant in Shanxi.
Huang, who came to the United States and worked in a noodle restaurant in Las Vegas before moving to Oakland, says he makes the dough fresh every morning and cuts the noodles as needed throughout lunch and dinner service. He checks the dining room frequently to see how many customers there are, and also to see if people are happy with their meals.
I visited a few times over the last month, getting my fill of a variety of noodle dishes, from the traditional Chongqing street noodles ($8.89) to the popular zha jiang mian (on the menu as noodles with soybean paste, $8.89).
A warning: the photos in Huangcheng Noodle House’s laminated menus can be misleading. The photo of the Chongqing street noodles makes the dish look like a bowl of thin wheat noodles served with a spicy sauce. When the dish arrived at the table, the wide dao xiao mian (similar in appearance to tagliatelle) were served in a bowl of broth. Regardless, I enjoyed it. The spicy soup was subtle and pleasingly numbing in that tingling way that hints of Sichuan peppercorns and chili.
Chef Huang’s dao xiao mian is in every noodle bowl, such as the pickled mustard green and shredded pork ($9.89) and the beef sirloin noodle soup ($9.89), the national dish of Taiwan.
I enjoyed the soup noodle dishes because of their delicate broths, made from pork and beef bones over 24 hours. But the sauced noodle dishes were a bit lacking. The flavor of the pickled mustard green and shredded pork (which again was pictured in the menu looking like a soup dish but was not) was too mild, as was Huang’s version of zha jiang mian, which was also not as hearty as those traditionally made using the pungent black bean sauce.
Huang makes his house chili sauce from his grandfather’s recipe, a secret he guards tightly. The only information he would share is that all the ingredients are fresh. You can try it for yourself at the restaurant, or buy a bottle to take home.
While Huang is from Shanxi, his mother is from Sichuan. He says the menu at the restaurant is a hybrid of Shanxi and Sichuan cuisine, a mix of hot and cold dishes, such as mapo tofu, pig ear with garlic, tea smoked duck and cold chicken with chili sauce.
The last dish, the cold chicken with chili sauce ($8.95), is Huang’s special creation. Cubes of boiled chicken are quickly marinated in the house chili sauce and served on top of a bed of chili-marinated cucumbers. The chicken pieces are tender and easy to eat, with the spicy sauce not overpowering the meat. It’s a must-try dish.
Another dish worth ordering is the starter of shredded potato with hot oil sauce ($4.99). On my first visit, a friend suggested trying it but I pooh-poohed the idea of eating a plate of sliced potatoes and instead went with the more common cucumber with hot oil sauce ($4.99). The cucumbers were nice and crunchy, even though the edges looked a bit smashed.
But on a following visit, my curiosity won me over and I tried the potatoes. I was surprised by the dish, which demonstrates chef Huang’s knife skills of cutting blanched potatoes into julienned strips like shredded green papaya. The thin cuts and refreshing chili oil made the potato taste and feel light. This is a good starter for a group, otherwise, you’ll be eating a whole plate of carbs to yourself before even digging into the noodles.
Service is friendly, with Huang’s wife, Odan Chi, managing the register and take-out orders. The restaurant was quite packed when it first opened, but recently, it has not been as difficult to find a table.
While the dao xiao mian is the obvious attraction, I’d venture to say that Huangcheng should be seen as more than just a noodle house. Standout dishes, like the cold chili chicken, add the spice and variety that make this Chinatown spot worth a visit.
Huangcheng Noodle House is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.