Jiqing Meng, the "Mr. J" behind Mr. J Hand-Pulled Noodle in Ocoee, says he's the only one in the state offering lamian — the scratch-made, hand-pulled squigglers that have bolstered soups in China for centuries. He may very well be right, but by year's end, more than a few hand-pulled noodle joints are poised to open around the city, the notables being Red Panda Noodle (by former Orlando Meats maestros Eliot Hillis and Seth Parker), Bang Bang Noodle Co. (by Top Chef Season 3 winner Hung Huynh) and KungFu Kitchen from famed New York City noodle whiz Peter Song.
But only Meng can lay claim to being from the Land of Hand-Pulled Noodles — Lanzhou. The city in Gansu Province in northwestern China is home to more than a thousand noodle shops, each specializing in Lanzhou beef noodle soup (or beef noodle soup, as they say in Lanzhou). The dish is now a worldwide phenomenon, with the digitally smacked, yanked, twisted, folded, cut and boiled noodles being the star ingredient.
Meng really missed his hometown dish after moving stateside in 2005, so he started making the broth and noodles himself and selling it to interested slurpers online. Meng's concoctions proved so popular that he moved into the old Crab & Wings space on East Silver Star Road late last year and made a conscious decision to work wheat-flour dough for a living.
And Meng isn't the least theatrical about it, either — he doesn't amble about the room twirling, stretching and twisting dough for fawning Instagrammers, nor does he position himself behind the counter wearing a chef's hat demanding an audience pay heed to his skills. No, the man stands behind a curtain in the kitchen, quietly and efficiently doing his thing, which amounts to crafting eight different-sized noodles and a beef broth whose ingredients are a well-guarded secret. All I could glean was that there were anywhere between 20 and 30 herbs, spices and seasonings in that clear beef bone broth, and that it took up to seven hours to make.
The first spoonful of "Mr. J's Hand-Pulled Noodle" ($15.95) yielded a flavor akin to a stellar phò broth laced with chili oil and garnished with cilantro, daikon and garlic leaves. There were about five slices of beef in the mix, along with our choice of flat, or No. 1, noodles. The long, springy ribbons had a wonderfully consistent and strong chew. After they were duly devoured, we sipped that broth like it was oolong tea. By the way, if you're not the most dexterous in handling long-ass noodles with chopsticks, don't wear a nice shirt. (Or ask for a fork. No judgment here.) "Mr. J's Hand-Cut Noodle" ($15.95) was another study in consistency. Each one of the knife-cut noodz were uniform in size, elasticity and texture, comprising the most pleasing of bites.
On previous visits, we tried the thin noodle (No. 2) as well as the triangular noodle (No. 5). No matter the choice of noodle, rest assured that they'll never get soft, soggy or smushy, no matter how long the bouncy buggers sit in that broth. Oh, and the beef in those noodle bowls is all certified halal — I just wished they served a few more slices — so if you're looking to break your fast with soup this Ramadan, Mr. J may be your iftar stop of choice. Lanzhou beef noodle soup was popularized in China by Hui Muslims, in fact, and most Lanzhou noodle houses offer halal meat.
That said, Meng also offers a cabbage and pork yun tun soup ($8.50) with fattened handmade wontons lolling in a clear pork broth. It's not as warming as the beef broth, but a splash of black vinegar did the trick. We also tried the curry beef vermicelli soup ($15.95) with mung bean noodles and fried tofu. The broth was heavy on the turmeric — they use a store-bought curry powder, and not a great one at that — but that didn't dissuade us from finishing the bowl. Same with the stir-fried hand-pulled noodle ($16.95) with zucchini, tomato, onion, and green and red pepper. Meng only uses the small flat noodle (No. 3), thick noodle (No. 7) or thicker noodle (No. 8) for stir-fries — we went with the No. 3, a fine choice, though we faulted the dish for being light on the beef. No biggie.
The fixes are small for a noodle shop with this much upside, and that includes changing the marquee that still reads "Crab & Wings." Or does it? Peeking through the curtain and watching Meng work that dough like a champ, it occurs to me that maybe Meng is pulling a fast one.