The rivalry between Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks is one of the most well-publicized culinary conflicts in the industry. Gastrotourists from around the world flock to Philadelphia to stand in line, often for hours, for a chance to try a bit of chopped steak lathered in cheese whiz.
Frankly, I think it’s entirely unexciting, an old, tired battle that doesn’t lend itself to unique storytelling. The real tale of two eateries, I believe, lies in another part of the city – Chinatown. Here, a war rages… one that will not be fought with cheese whiz, but with spicy chili oil. I’m speaking, of course, of the rivalry between Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House and Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House. In fact, it was so intriguing that I had to jump on a Megabus for two hours to get in the middle of the action myself.
Just one block away from each other, these two hand drawn noodle houses, the only ones in the city, share nearly everything in common, not the least of which are their names – Lan Zhou and Nan Zhou. Their unique art comes from the city of Lanzhou, China (score one for Lan Zhou, who must have grabbed the name first) in Northwest China, and dates back either 160 years or 200 years, depending on which restaurant’s menu you believe.
Both share identical food offerings, redefining to the term ‘brotherly love’ once again, and each has its own squad of loyal patrons who aren’t afraid to dirty up the Foursquare ‘tips’ section of their enemy. Over the course of two days, I dined at both in a quest to find out which spot had the better noodles (and dumplings, of course).
1. Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House
As a New Yorker who has spent a ton of time in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I’ve come to expect a few things when I eat at a Chinese restaurant. Call me spoiled, but the most important of these is complimentary hot tea. The initial feelings of shock and worry that hit me when I realized that Lan Zhou wouldn’t be giving me a pot were hard to get over. But I shook it off, and after a quick sweep of the relatively short, straightforward menu, I settled on an order of pork and chive fried dumplings ($4.75) and a plate of shaved noodles with beef tendon ($6.95).
The food arrived remarkably fast – in seconds, it seemed. The dumplings, though fried a bit longer than I’m used to, were high quality and delicious. But it was the shaved noodles that really shone here. They recalled Xi’An’s hand-pulled noodles in Chinatown, though Lan Zhou’s chefs had ‘shaved’ them into shorter pieces, making them exponentially easier to manage than Xi’An’s mile-long monstrosities. The beef tendon was fatty, chewy, and perfectly suited for the dish. With a bit of spicy chili oil and a dash of Sriracha, it was hard to believe Nan Zhou could possibly equate.
2. Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House
After 24 hours of much needed digestion, it was time to head to its rival, Nan Zhou, on Race street. I learned through the group sitting next to me that they had just recently relocated and expanded. Apparently, their new digs were monumentally impressive compared to its last location, and were a lot bigger than Lan Zhou’s. When I sat down, the friendly and familiar scent of hot tea hit me immediately, and a pot arrived at my table seconds later (+1 for Nan Zhou). After pouring over the restaurant’s menu, an identical twin to Lan Zhou’s, I once again settled on fried pork and chive dumplings ($5.00), and added an order of shredded pork with shaved noodles ($8.95).
After 15 or 20 minutes of unsettled impatience, my food finally arrived, and to be frank, Nan Zhou blew Lan Zhou out of the water. The pork dish was gargantuan, easily two to three times the size of Lan Zhou’s. The shaved noodles were thicker and more chewy, and had been cooked in a spicier chili oil. The dumplings were larger, too, and were fried much more skillfully. I consider myself an incredibly impressive eater, but I was barely able to take down half the plate before I was too full to move or talk. Nan Zhou had won me over.
My time in Philadelphia’s Chinatown far exceeded my expectations. I wrongfully expected to find a poor imitation, a shell of the Manhattan neighborhood I love so much. After spending two days in the middle of a noodle war, however, my respect for the city (and its Asian-influenced neighborhood) has blossomed into an all-out love affair, and I can’t wait to go back (minus the wailing child on Megabus next time, please). If you make it to Philadelphia, give both of these restaurants a shot. You may very well find yourself on the other side of the fence.