LanZhou Ramen’s chef continues noodle magic, even without an audience

Among the dishes available for takeout from LanZhao Ramen are sausage fried rice and a stir-fry of hand-pulled noodles with shrimp. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
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Among the dishes available for takeout from LanZhao Ramen are sausage fried rice and a stir-fry of hand-pulled noodles with shrimp. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Theatricality always has been a trademark of chef Fu Li Zhang.

Performing behind a window that looks into the kitchen of the 3-year-old LanZhou Ramen on Buford Highway, the China native pulls noodles by hand, or cuts them with a knife into pots of boiling water, then uses them to concoct the delicious soups and stir-fries Atlantans love to slurp and twirl.

At Yunnan Crossing Bridge Rice Noodle in Duluth — open since November as the second restaurant from Zhang and his wife, Rachel Yuan — the showmanship happens right in front of you. Servers scurry from kitchen to table with pots of boiling hot broth and an array of ingredients, which they dump in and cook in the crossing-the-bridge style that originated in Yunnan province.

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ATLANTA 2019 - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gets an inside look at how different restaurants present noodles. Sachiyo Nakato Takahara owner of Nakato Japanese Restaurant along with Fu Li Zhang owner of LanZhou Ramen and Bruce Logue, chef-owner, BoccaLupo all share a little bit about noodles. (Tyson Horne, tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Or, at least, they used to: After watching the COVID-19 nightmare play out in their homeland, Zhang and Yuan decided to close both restaurants temporarily on March 14, send their employees home, and wait it out. “If one person gets infected, it will affect the whole restaurant, and then it will affect everybody, and all their families,” said Frank Zheng, the Crossing Bridge manager, who started out at LanZhou and serves as a company spokesman and interpreter.

On May 16, LanZhou and Crossing Bridge reopened for takeout only. Zheng isn’t sure when customers will be allowed inside again. A lot of people have asked for dine-in, but the restaurants are “just not there yet,” he said, voicing concern over Georgia’s fluctuating COVID-19 data.

The takeout box at LanZhou Ramen has doors, inside and out, for passing food to waiting customers. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
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The takeout box at LanZhou Ramen has doors, inside and out, for passing food to waiting customers. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

In a candid conversation, he painted a portrait of a once-prosperous family-owned business now challenged by a public-health crisis. When it comes to takeout, LanZhou holds a considerable advantage over Crossing Bridge. The Doraville establishment is a media darling with a solid reputation and devoted clientele. Crossing Bridge, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer on a busy stretch of Pleasant Hill Road, still trying to prove itself in a community saturated with Asian-food alternatives. Sales at Crossing Bridge are down 80 percent from the pre-pandemic peak; plus, the rent is significantly higher than on Buford Highway.

This takeout order from Lan Zhou Ramen on Buford Highway includes (clockwise from top) Shanghai-style pork buns; hand-pulled noodles with shrimp; sausage fried rice, chive pancakes and stewed meatball hand-pulled noodle soup. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
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This takeout order from Lan Zhou Ramen on Buford Highway includes (clockwise from top) Shanghai-style pork buns; hand-pulled noodles with shrimp; sausage fried rice, chive pancakes and stewed meatball hand-pulled noodle soup. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Zheng said Crossing Bridge reached out to its landlord to “request a discount,” but never heard back. “If Crossing Bridge continues this way for another two to three months, four months maximum, I guess probably we have to shut it down,” he said.

Let’s hope it never comes to that, but the situation is a reminder of the fragility of Atlanta’s immigrant-owned restaurants, on Buford and beyond.

Exterior of LanZhou Ramen on Buford Highway in Doraville. Contributed by Wendell Brock
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Exterior of LanZhou Ramen on Buford Highway in Doraville. Contributed by Wendell Brock

As for staffing, the restaurants laid off most of their approximately 40 employees in March. They currently are operating with skeleton crews: four at Crossing Bridge and five at LanZhou, including the chef and Zheng. The chef is super-cautious about exposing workers to the virus. All the current crew, except Zheng, lives with the chef and his wife, rarely venturing beyond the restaurants except for once-a-week grocery shopping, Zheng said.

LanZhou Ramen offers hand-stretched noodles with stewed meatballs. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
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LanZhou Ramen offers hand-stretched noodles with stewed meatballs. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

To further seal themselves from the public, both restaurants have installed stationary wood-and-plexiglass boxes with doors on either side for transferring food to customers waiting outside.

Should you visit LanZhou, peek through the front window, and you’ll spy the chef at work: bending, stretching and twisting blobs of dough into tender noodles — for now, a performer in search of an audience.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

LANZHOU RAMEN

Menu: hasn't changed

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: chive pancakes, Shanghai pork buns, sausage fried rice, shrimp stir-fried hand-pulled noodles, stewed meatball hand-pulled noodle soup. Keep in mind that stir-fries travel better than noodle soups, though LanZhou does package the broth and noodles separately. The soup could have used a brief reheating, but the noodles were dreamily tender, and, man, those big fluffy lion's head meatballs! The shrimp stir-fry was tasty and scarfable at room temp. Chive pancakes can be a little chewy if not eaten right away. Loved the buns.

Service options: call for pickup; order via Grubhub for pickup or delivery; delivery via Chowbus, an Asian food delivery platform

Safety protocols: follows CDC and state guidelines.

Address, phone: 5231 Buford Highway NE, Doraville; 678-691-2175

Hours: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily.

Website: lanzhouramenatlanta.com

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