Anatomy of a Dish: Dan Dan Mian at Joe’s Noodle House

The dan dan mian at Joe's Noodle House is a faithful evocation of a Chengdu snack shop. Photograph by Chris Leaman.
The dan dan mian at Joe's Noodle House is a faithful evocation of a Chengdu snack shop. Photograph by Chris Leaman.

There’s a reason so many Chinese immigrants endure long waits to get into the cramped quarters of Joe’s Noodle House (1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-5518). It’s because eating at this Rockville hole in the wall is like a trip to a Chengdu snack shop—from the brush painting of Emei Shan on the wall to the menu of Szechuan classics, including one glorious street-food staple, dan dan mian, pasta with hot meat sauce.

Sold in China as a xiaochi, or “snack”—legend has it that the dish was named after vendors who carried buckets of noodles and sauce via bamboo shoulder poles called dan—the noodles are dressed with a spicy, garlicky sauce and topped with bits of savory ground pork.

Joe’s chef, Yen-Chu Lai, who hails from China’s Jiangxi province, a southern state that borders Hunan—“That’s hard-core hot,” he says—relies on a house-made hongyou, or red oil. A secret blend of chilies and spices is simmered in vegetable oil for four to five hours until the mixture is fragrant. When an order for a bowl of dan dan comes into the kitchen, Chef Lai spoons a bit of the oil, blended with a shot of soy sauce and chopped garlic, into a bowl and adds a dash of Szechuan peppercorn oil, which imparts a gentle, tingly quality. A nest of reheated noodles comes next followed by a couple of spoonfuls of his ground-pork mixture—it’s combined with sugar and stir-fried with yacai, a pickled mustard green—and a sprinkle of green onions.

The result? A dish that neatly balances the five flavors essential to Szechuan cooking—salty, sour, sweet, spicy, and numbing. At just $4.50, it provides a flavorful flight to Chengdu.

This article appeared in the January, 2009 issue of the Washingtonian. 

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