Just because something is listed the same on the menu doesn’t mean that you’ll be getting exactly the same thing. We’ve seen this with Vietnamese bun bo Hue and with Malaysian laksa, for instance. We’re continuing our virtual journey by visiting three different restaurants representing various regions in China to explore three different takes on dan dan noodles, although there are many more variations.

To further complicate matters, the dish is also sometimes listed as dan dan mian, dan dan men, tan tan noodles or some other variation. What I learned very quickly is that there isn’t just one “traditional” version of the dish and they can all be quite different from one another. It also may or may not be a surprise that two out of the three restaurants listed here were also named among our favourite hole-in-the-wall eats in Richmond.

Szechuan Delicious

Szechuan Delicious, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Perhaps the best place to start our journey is at the beginning. Dan dan noodles originate from the Sichuan region of China, an area largely known for its spicy cuisine. Located in the humble Time Square strip mall across from Richmond Centre, Szechuan Delicious (6610 Number 3 Road) is similarly known for its humble and delectable fare. “Szechuan” is simply another way to transliterate “Sichuan” from the Chinese.

Szechuan Delicious, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

The Tan Tan Noodles ($5.95) here might not look like much, but if you’re anything like me, they’ll leave your mouth on fire and begging for more. These were by far the spiciest of the three restaurants highlighted, focusing mostly on the chili oil based sauce. The thin white noodles were topped with scallions, crispy soybeans, and garlic. If you only eat off the top, you’ll taste some rather bland noodles.

Szechuan Delicious, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Mix it all together and you’ll have a rich and complex combination of satisfying heat. The noodles are slightly overcooked while still providing a satisfying chew. As we were eating our lunch, I noticed one of the staff cutting up a massive bowl of dried chili peppers. They don’t mess around here.

If you’re a fan of spicy food, you’ll find a lot to like at Szechuan Delicious.

Shanghai Goodies

Shanghai Goodies, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Making our way over to arguably the most cosmopolitan and commerce-oriented city in China, we find Shanghai Goodies (#136 – 4231 Hazelbridge Way) in the Parker Place food court. Finding a table can be a bit of a challenge during the busy lunch rush, so plan your visit accordingly.

Shanghai Goodies, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

The Tan Tan Noodle ($4.75) at Shanghai Goodies was the cheapest of the bunch and took on an entirely different approach from that of Szechuan Delicious. Instead of focusing on garlic, soybeans and chili oil, the bowl here featured a peanut sauce mixed with what tasted like a sweet chili sauce. It was nowhere near as spicy, offering more of a nutty sweetness. The spinach and chopped peanuts on top were also a notable departure.

Shanghai Goodies, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

While the noodles themselves are similar in shape and consistency, they were much more clumpy. Despite a greater amount of “soup” in the bottom, it was more difficult to separate the noodles for ease of eating.

If you’re looking for a sweeter and lighter take on dan dan noodles, Shanghai Goodies could be the choice for you.

Xi’An Cuisine

Xi'An Cuisine, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

We conclude our journey at the food court of the Richmond Public Market where we find Xi’An Cuisine (#2370 – 8260 Westminster Highway). The eatery is well known for its hand-pulled noodles and this extends through to the dan dan noodles as well.

You just won’t find “dan dan noodles” or even “tan tan noodles” on the menu. Look to the printed menu on the side wall for Noodles in Spicy Peanut Sauce ($8.00). That’s much more descriptive for the uninitiated but may not be immediately obvious if you’re looking for “dan dan” or “tan tan.”

Xi'An Cuisine, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

The most expensive bowl of noodles in this roundup also happened to be the largest. Served in a large soup bowl, like how my mom serves traditional Cantonese soup at home, the dan dan noodles at Xi’An Cuisine are doused in plenty of sauce. Despite the reddish colour, the sauce wasn’t particularly spicy at all; it was more like a thinned out peanut butter.

Xi'An Cuisine, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Instead of including just one type of noodle, the bowl contained three types of noodles: one thinner like the rest, a larger round noodle similar in shape to udon, and a flatter noodle with a bit of a crinkle to it. The textural element and mouth feel are different for all three noodles, even though they likely contain the same ingredients. I suspect the reason for the inconsistent size of the noodles is because of the hand-pulled aspect we’ve come to know and love from Xi’An Cuisine.

If you prefer a larger portion and prioritize the quality of the noodles, Xi’An Cuisine is a solid option to consider.

More Than Just Peanuts

Szechuan Delicious, Image Credit: Michael Kwan

Image Credit: Michael Kwan

At first, I was under the impression that “dan dan noodles” always meant dry noodles in a sweet peanut sauce, sometimes with minced pork and usually topped with scallions. These are the “dan dan noodles” of my childhood, from a time when “Chinese food” in Metro Vancouver usually reflected the Hong Kong and Cantonese roots of the people in the area. That has changed significantly in the last several years and, as my editor put it, I was “in for an education.”

Just as you can enjoy innumerable interpretations of “barbecue” from nearly every corner of the globe, you can order a bowl of “dan dan noodles” at a “Chinese” restaurant and never be completely certain what you’re getting unless you’ve ordered it there before. And that’s half the fun, really.