Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson

In a non-descript building on a street that could be anywhere, neighbourhood regulars stop in for a familiar meal at Beijing Noodle House. There’s nothing flashy about the restaurant: there’s barely any decoration, save for the obligatory Chinese restaurant fish tank at the entrance. There’s nothing flashy about the crowd either, its patrons generally comprised of Chinese families that have arrived years ago, with none of the more contemporary, Givenchy-clad l’enfant terribles that crowd the newer, hotter restaurants of the Lower Mainland.

Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson

What brings these regulars here? It’s a taste of home for them. The menu, pages deep, runs a broad gamut across Chinese cuisines. Despite its name, Beijing Noodle House offers a mish-mash of plates from northern China, Shanghai, Sichuan and as if completely unavoidable, a few Cantonese items thrown in for good measure.  It’s a real smorgasbord, a mixed identity, which speaks as much about being an immigrant family Chinese restaurant as it does about the cuisine it offers.

The families that eat here seemingly have their habitual favorites. The best of them are the noodle dishes, which every table has ordered. The Zha Jiang Mian (pictured below, bottom left), labelled on the menu as the more English friendly “noodles with soy bean paste, Beijing-style,” as many earlier Chinese restaurants were wont to do) is a visual delight: thoroughly mix the paste, fresh cucumbers, sprouts and soy beans with its bed of toothsome wheat noodles, and it becomes a refreshing gustatory delight as well.

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Photo Credit: Joe Chan

The dan dan noodles (pictured above, top left) are almost as revelatory: the version here differs from many other restaurants, a reminder that this popular dish has as many variations as it does fans. Beijing Noodle House provides theirs sans soup and in the same mix-it-yourself format as their Zha Jiang Mian. It was rich and deep, and without excessive liquid that would have diluted the flavours. If they had added just a bit more spice, Sichuan peppercorn or otherwise, it could well have been my favorite version in town.

Boiled Beijing-style dumplings dot every table here as well, reflective of the restaurant’s name. They’re ubiquitous in the city that I remember visiting from years past, before the star architects, nouveau riche and rampant pollution arrived (well, the pollution was always there). The options here are vast: eight choices are featured on the menu (a white board in the corner of the restaurant – sorry, Chinese characters only) denote what has been made fresh that day), and a separate page in the menu proffers them frozen to take home.  Beijing Noodle House presents these dumplings as a comfort food, here in the restaurant and on your family table at home. If the wrappers had more rebellious chewiness to them, I could have embraced that sentimentality too.

Beijing Noodle House - 2

Photo Credit: Joe Chan

The unrealized potential of the dumplings was disappointing, particularly when the restaurant chose to focus on too many other items without perfecting any one of them. For example, take its xiao long bao (XLB): they’re average (the wrappers are light, the soup too sparing), and not particularly memorable. Ditto with the pancake stuffed with egg, chive, and dried shrimp, whose flavours can be provoking (particularly with the dried shrimp), but ultimately theirs is undercooked and doughy. The dough drop soup, whose name cannot begin to describe how fulfilling to the soul this dish could be, is as vexing as the dumplings: the dough drops, wisps of chewy bites filling the bowl like swirls in marble, is ultimately hampered by a broth that’s thin in comparison. The novelty of the stir-fried shredded pancake, Beijing-style (natch), could have been memorable too, its thin strips of chewy dough existing in a nether region beyond noodle or brown sugar rice cakes, but stir-fried in a manner reminiscent of when one stir-fries the last of the leftovers for the sake of survival, not enjoyment. Try, instead, the lamb “burger” (a satisfactory English translation has yet to exist), a delicate flatbread  housing cumin-spiced lamb slices, in which Beijing Noodle House has found balance, nuance, and their stride.

These shortcomings however, have yet to deter the regular crowd. There are still smiles aplenty here, as families gather for their meal at Beijing Noodle House, just as they will the next week, the next month, and so on.  It’s comfort that brings these people back, because even if there’s not too much that stands out, there’s enough good food to help them remember home, as it was, and enough to build a familiarity for home, as it now is.