Category Archives: Food

The Language of Noodles (Linguistic Notes on Understanding Chongqing Xiaomian)

I like noodles in an amateur, casual sort of way. Brother Lamp, whom I wrote about in my recent article “Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive,” is in a different category. He’s obsessed. He’s crazy about them. He’s so infatuated that an outside observer might categorize his relationship to noodles as a sickness.

The term “noodle obsessive” is an awkward translation: it captures some, but not all of this passion. This is a translation issue: in Chinese, Lamp is a 面痴 (mianchi).

The first character, mian 面, means noodles. The second character, chi 痴, means infatuation; it is literally translated as “silly or idiotic; crazy about something; insane or mad.” The character can be broken down into two parts: the outer section 疒, which represents an illness of some kind; and the inner part zhi 知, which means to know and provides the overall sound of the word (zhi —> chi). To be a 痴 is to be an obsessive, sure, but it is a level above and beyond. It is not just crazy about something in the way that we are all crazy about something, but literally crazy, linguistically more similar to a disease than a love.

Brother Lamp’s preferred noodle, Chongqing xiaomian, is itself confusing. It means “little noodle,” yet its distinct importance comes from the fact that it is not, in fact, little. Walk down any street in China and you will see stores selling all kinds of local snacks, or xiaochi 小吃 — little eats. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and Chongqing’s neighbor to the northwest, is a hotbed of world-famous xiaochi, including dan dan mian 担担面. (Dan 担 means to carry on your shoulder; the name dan dan mian comes from the Sichuanese street vendors who carry it on a pole on their shoulders to sell it).

Some versions of Chongqing xiaomian, bursting with Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil, taste indistinguishable from Sichuan-style dan dan mian. Many people who are not Brother Lamp consider the differences to be marginal; yet to a true mianchi there is a key distinction: dan dan mian is a snack (xiaochi), while xiaomian is a staple food (zhushi).

Historically, xiaomian was served in portions of 150 grams, or three liang, a Chinese unit of measure equivalent to 50 grams. Dan dan mian, meanwhile, was only two liang. A two-liang bowl, Brother Lamp says, leaves you hungry for more; it is merely a snack. A three-liang bowl of noodles — and I will attest to this fact, having eaten far too many three-liang bowls of noodles — will leave you full. Extraordinarily, painfully full.

This linguistic difference is irrelevant in modern society, obliterated by consumer choice. At any xiaomian stall, you can order two or three liang bowls; at some, like Zhu Lin Beef Noodles, you can order a mere one liang. Yet during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, when food was rationed and resources limited, the difference between a two liang bowl and a three liang bowl meant something more.

To Lamp, the difference matters. After all, his identity depends on it. 

The Complete Farragut North Lunch Guide

Every season, new hires and interns flood my office; when midday rolls around, they wander around like newborn ducklings without a mother, marveling at the plethora of lunch options with their mouths agape and eyes wide open. I worry about them, as they are in constant danger of being run over by a well-dressed lawyer double-fisting an iPhone and a blackberry and swinging a Chop’t salad around like a machete.

Now, nobody asked me for my opinion of the lunch scene in and around Farragut North. But never fear: I always come through. Here is Josh’s Complete Farragut North Lunch Guide. Use the map below, click to go to the full map, or look at the tables below for full reviews. Clicking on the circles reveals the restaurant review.

[mapbox layers=’’ api=” options=” lat=’38.90449704978695′ lon=’–77.04241′ z=’17’ width=’600′ height=’450′]

The rating system is done on three metrics: qualitative assessment, price, and level of fullness. Tier One candidates are delicious, well-priced, and give you a ton of food. Tier Two candidates are good but not great, overpriced but not egregiously so, and give you a good amount of food. Tier Three candidates are mediocre, overpriced, and sometimes leave you wanting more food. Tier Four restaurants are not good. 

It is also important to note that Farragut Square, like other downtown corporate office neighborhoods in DC, faces a metastasizing blight: second-order food-gentrification, in which a variety of delicious and more “authentic” lunch restaurants that rich yuppies enjoy are being pushed out by chains of more expensive lunch restaurants that busier, less-interesting rich yuppies like. Sandwich chains are like an invasive plant species, eating up everything until all that’s left are overpriced sandwiches and it’s too late to turn back.

Comments and questions welcome. Responses not guaranteed. Thanks to Alex Holt for inspiring the map and adding reviews.

Name Price Fullness Review
Greek Deli Not Too Overpriced Stuffed to the Gills The sound of Kostas plopping spoonfuls of artichoke special onto your plate is literally the sound of an Angel getting its wings, flying too close to the sun, and then falling back to earth into a tub of Avgolemono. Plus, you’re his friend. Kostas has so many friends. I’m jealous.
The Well-Dressed Burrito Not Too Overpriced Stuffed to the Gills DC has the worst Mexican food of any city I’ve ever been to. The burritos at Well Dressed are not very good, but everything else is outstanding. It’s the most food-per-dollar you can get anywhere. Go on Wednesdays and Fridays for the Empanadas. Don’t get the burritos. Go any day for the special salads or the chicken and cheese enchiladas. Still don’t get the burritos. Did I mention not to get the burritos?
Suki Asia Not Too Overpriced Full Nobody ever goes to Suki Asia with me, and frankly it’s very depressing. But the food is good. The Tofu-Don special with Miso Soup is one of my go-to lunches (it was better before they raised the price, but oh well) and the Udon is the best I’ve had around these parts. I like watching the sushi guy make sushi; I’ve never seen him smile. Frankly, it’s also depressing. My only complaint about Suki Asia is that the door opens the wrong way and makes entering and exiting awkward.
House of Kabob Not Too Overpriced Stuffed to the Gills Having to use a tray reminds me of high school, but in a good way. The buffet spread at House of Kabob is impressive, with staples like tandoori chicken (good), chickpeas and beans (good), and saag potato (passable). The samosas are excellent, but the weird fried orange things that come in the same tray are highly underwhelming. I think that “House of Kabob” is an overstatement. If anything, it’s much more of a studio apartment of Kabob.
Szechuan Pavilion Overpriced (but it’s fancier) Full Szechuan Pavilion has good Chinese food. That in and of itself is impressive in DC. This is more of a fancy place than other lunch spots, as it has white tablecloths (any form of tablecloth is usually too fancy for me). A good place to go to have a sit down meal, but it is always crowded. This is good for their business but immensely frustrating for me.

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