The Historic Noodles At The Heart of Silicon Valley
An exploration of heat and its hand-stretched vessels.
April 13, 2018 ● 3 min read
Words and photos by Elena Kadvany | Photo illustration by ChefsFeed
The noodles are long, twisted over each other like wide, flat belts with jagged edges. They arrive in a shallow bowl, perched in a pool of oil and heaped with bell pepper, onion, and lamb.
These are biang biang noodles, a ubiquitous street food in China that originated in Xi’an, one of the country’s oldest cities. They’ve come to this quiet California suburb— tucked into the far corner of a strip mall in Silicon Valley alongside a nail spa, laundromat, liquor store, and Brazilian ju-jitsu studio—rewarding locals who fill up the waitlist daily.
A black and white landscape of Xi’an dominates an entire wall of Chang’an Artisan Noodle in Mountain View, California, and a small terra-cotta warrior stands watch at the front door. Inside, Vanessa Chan, a young, lithe first-time restaurateur with bleached blonde hair mixes, kneads and flattens dough in the calm of the morning. In a few hours, it will have morphed into a humble, transportive delicacy.
Chan first learned to make noodles at the age of 11, about a thousand miles northeast of Xi’an, in her native Shenyang, China. She refuses to use packaged noodles; it lacks the subtle flavors imparted by the flour and the personal touch, a crucial element to the noodle-obsessed like her. It’s not something to be sacrificed.
The dough is heavy and elastic as she pulls one end from the other and spins it like a jump rope against the stainless steel counter, each revolution offering up a metal clang that punctuates her rapid-fire Mandarin and more measured English. Biang biang noodles get their name from this sound, and Chan moves rhythmically, stretching, swinging, and slapping until her arms seem disconnected from her body.
When she’s made enough for 25 bowls, her body begs for a break, though this is only the beginning: Chan will return between lunch and dinner service to make another batch. And then, sometimes, another.
Serve biang biang, and they will come: Only four months after opening Chang’an with her husband, Tony—a soft-spoken lawyer by day who works the floor as a server some nights—they draw crowds that rival some of Mountain View’s oldest and most popular Chinese restaurants.
When the doors open for lunch, a flood of tech workers from the nearby Googleplex fills the cozy 15-table dining room, hunched over steaming bowls alongside the odd Stanford student or two. By dinner, there are Asian diners hungry for a taste of home, like Chan is (not only can she direct you to the best new hot pot in Silicon Valley, but she can recount every detail of recent episodes of A Bite of China, a documentary series she watches faithfully.)
Historically, biang biang was a bare-bones dish of the poor and working class. The noodles were topped with simple, cheap ingredients: boiling-hot oil, red chili flakes, and salt. Meat, like the tender lamb that crowns Chan’s version, was strictly an indulgence. The simplicity of the uneven hand-ripped strips of dough, made extra spicy for the cold winters of the Chinese countryside, draws consumers, both curious and nostalgic, stateside.
In the Bay Area, only a handful of places serve biang biang. Many serve the O.G. version with nothing but hot chili oil, while Noodleosophy in San Mateo co-opted it into a fast-casual fusion menu that features a build-your-own biang biang with toppings like beef stew, sizzling garlic, and crispy chicken.
The common thread through the different variations is the searing hot oil that gives the dish its ritualistic kick. Floral, earthy cumin appears in a blend of soy sauce and chili flakes (poured liberally from a Costco-sized plastic bag) as a nod to the historic Middle Eastern influence in Xi’an, which marked the start of the Silk Road. (The city is still home to a large Muslim Quarter, where meat-stuffed pita bread and lamb kebabs mingle with noodles and dumplings.)
If you know to request vinegar to drizzle on top, the acid acts as a savior from the heat of the oil, slicking each noodle with a protective layer. That spice level is a point of contention between Chan and her mother; the latter insists it should be as it's served in Xi'an—numbingly hot—while the former has to contend with Yelp reviewers who prefer to leave with their faces intact.
The noodles require concentration to consume: the one-bite-one-sip dance begins by lifting a heavy tangle with chopsticks, vigorously slurping before they begin to cling to one another and plunge back into the bowl. Then bite off a manageable section, letting the heat snake up into your sinuses and flush your face before surrendering to a sip of water from an icy glass that stays close at hand. Oil splatters tables and lips and speckles napkins with vibrant orange.
The appeal of biang biang is their power to remind us how an uncomplicated dish, presented casually but prepared with tangible devotion, is all we really want. One by one, diners throw their spoons into their bowls as they lean back, victorious.
Condensation fogs the restaurant’s wide windows as a cold, spitting rain coats the cement outside. Chang’an remains a humid cocoon, echoing with metallic thumps that mark the passing of time.