It seems that any city of some culture and history would have a specific dish (or dishes!) for which the city is known. For New York, that would be pizza. Philly, the cheese steak. Boston, the clam chowder. Cincinnati (my home in the US), the Cincinnati chili. For Hefei, I would personally give that honor to niuroumian, beef noodle soup.
Like perhaps all the foods I will talk about in this blog, niuroumian is not a glorious or extravagant dish. It’s probably not even invented in Hefei – after all, versions of it have appeared all over China, with the western city of Lanzhou claiming to have invented an especially famous form of it (the Lanzhou lamian, or hand-pulled noodles, which I will talk about sometime later), and many consider it (or, rather, a form of it) the national dish of Taiwan. It is a humble, everyday kind of food, the kind that you’d walk into a small restaurant on the side of the street after a long day of work or school, order a bowl, sit down at a greasy table, have it served almost immediately because there’s always a pot filled with the beef soup base boiling away, snap apart the chopsticks, slurp it down in 5 minutes, pay the 1.5 or 2 yuan, and walk out less than 20 minutes after you entered. It’s convenient, it’s cheap, it’s delicious, and it’s filling – no wonder it is ubiquitous throughout the city of Hefei.
My mother’s favorite niuroumian restaurants, 007 and Xiaoyoutian, are both downtown, and we would only go there if we were going there shopping. To be honest, I never had much of a memory of either restaurant’s niuroumian; my favorite place was near our home and didn’t even have a name, or at least, I never learned its actual name – I always called it “daqiao dixia neijia“, or, “that restaurant under the Big Bridge”, which is what I called the city’s first elevated interchange, the Wulidun Interchange, built in 1995.
It was a 10 minute walk from home, and it was where we frequented either on the way home from work and school on a weekday, or for dinner if we stayed in on a weekend. The niuroumian there was the same as what was served at pretty much every other niuroumian restaurant of the city: a big bowl of flat, thick, wide noodles, filled to the brim with a long-simmered beef broth of a glistening reddish brown hue from the dominant chilis and soy sauce, accompanied by a chorus of other seasonings and spices ranging from star anise to cinnamon to cloves to fennel to ginger to garlic, topped with 5-6 big pieces of beef of an unknown cut but meltingly tender from hours of braising, and served with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro and/or green onions (both of which I avoided as a kid). We’d sit at one of those really low tables they set up on the sidewalks, sit on these low wooden stools, and slurp down our bowls of meaty and spicy noodles as traffic roared overhead on the Wulidun Interchange and cyclists rang driiiiing-driiiiiing all around us, without a care in the world.
Thinking back, what made that specific restaurant memorable to me wasn’t the niuroumian per se – it was rather how it made me feel: smack in the middle of the newly-built interchange and all the construction that’s happening around it, in the midst of the busy evening rush hour traffic and the torrents of people on foot and bikes trying to get home, it was a sanctuary, a place where my mom and I could sit on the sidewalks, enjoy a quick, delicious, and filling meal, and disregard the hubbub all around us. Besides, the middle-aged couple who owned the place were nice – I’m pretty sure they remembered us, because, when I’m not in the mood for niuroumian, I would often get their wonton soup (more on wontons sometime later) with an additional ladle of the beef broth and a piece or two of the beef, and I did this so often that they’d add the beef without me asking later, all for no additional cost (beef was and still is quite expensive in China). It was a nice feeling to be there – amidst the chaos of late-90s China, it was a place where everything felt right.
Sadly, the Restaurant under the Bridge closed down shortly before we left China in 2002, and with it, went the last good niuroumian place in Hefei in my heart. Even my mom’s favorite places, 007 and Xiaoyoutian, no longer serve any beef noodle soup that would fulfill our desire to relive the late 90s: whenever we are back in Hefei, my mom would make a pilgrimage to both of them, only to come back bitterly disappointed that “nothing tastes the same” (she was so discouraged that, on her most recent trip to Hefei a couple of years ago, she didn’t even bother going to either place, though they are both still open). Despite the raving reviews that both places still get on various Chinese restaurant review sites, the niuroumian of my childhood will, perhaps, simply remain a mere memory of the past.