Dao Noodle, Melbourne

Where: Dao Noodle, 397 Little Lonsdale Street Melbourne

What: A Chinese noodle shop that sits in that perfect middle-ground between no-frills and fancy

Who: Cauliflower Rice’s Biggest Fangirl, Host with the Most, Pork Chop

Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach

Despite the plethora of restaurants that exist in the city, I always struggle to think of a mid-tier dining option – somewhere not so fancy that I internally wince when the bill arrives, but with a warm and inviting décor. Dao Noodle nails the brief.

Dao xiao mian – knife-cut noodles, a speciality of the Shanxi province – is the name of the game here. Melburnians are by now familiar with the hand-stretched noodles found at Biang Biang (of Shaanxi fame) as well as Master Lanzhou Noodle Bar and Bowltiful Noodle (both of Gansu renown). But Shanxi’s knife-cut dao xiao mian is something entirely different.

Known interchangeably as knife-shaved, pared noodles or peeled noodles, dao xiao mian is made by a person holding a thick block of dough at an angle with one hand, and using a sharp cleaver to shave the noodles directly into a pot of boiling water with their other hand. A professional chef is said to be able to produce more than 200 shaved strands of noodles in less than a minute – “the method of making them is an art form that takes years of practice,” writes a recipe developer in Food52. The resulting noodles are ribbon-shaped, fairly thick and chewy.

“Unlike most ‘wavy’ noodles, the ruffled, irregular edges of these noodles actually affect the texture: the outer-edge ruffles go soft while the inner section retains more chew, for an intriguing dual-texture mouthfeel,” writes The Mala Market, a retailer of dao xiao mian.  

Speaking to the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Dao Noodle owners Sharon Xu and Dong Ming Wang – who hail from Taiyuan, Shanxi – said they opened Dao Noodle to introduce the flavours and techniques of their hometown’s cuisine to Melbourne.

“Shanxi is the most famous place for noodles in China,” says Xu. “We put our heart into the food – we want our customers to taste real food, not chemicals. Many people think Chinese food is oily, salty and spicy. One of our favourite comments from our customers is ‘your food is so clean’.”

(On that note, it would be really great if people could stop reducing multifaceted cuisines into the narrow prism of their outdated, ill-defined, faultily constructed ideas of what a cuisine is!!)

I first visited Dao Noodle with Cauliflower Rice’s Biggest Fangirl (the name says it all) and Host with the Most, who loves nothing more than cooking for her loved ones. We’d just attended an event at the Wheeler Centre, and Dao Noodle was within walking distance. Dao Noodle’s menu is divided into appetisers, dumplings and buns, and noodles with the choice of add-on toppings like braised five-spice egg, marinated tofu and leafy greens.

For our entrees, we ordered the sour and spicy shredded potato ($5.20) and homemade pan-fried vegetarian dumplings ($13.80). Tudou si is a Chinese stir-fried shredded potatoes dish that originates from the Sichuan province. Topically, the flash-fried slivers of potato are tinged a light red from Sichuan peppercorns, dried chillies and/or chilli oil, but Dao Noodle’s version was lighter and less spicy.

The vegetarian dumplings were a highlight and Host with the Most’s favourite dish of the night. A far cry from homogenous parcels of boiled spinach, which was my first exposure to vegetarian dumplings when I moved to Melbourne in 2007, Dao’s vegetarian dumplings were joined together by a crisp potsticker lacing and had a multitude of flavours and textures (we asked what was in them, but alas I do not remember, hence this slightly vague description!).

I ordered the dao xiao mian (DXM on the menu) with Shanxi traditional pork ($15.80) and a braised five-spice egg ($2.50). Dao xiao mian are “usually coated with rich meat sauces or enjoyed in stir-fries and broths in order to accentuate their starchy and elastic texture,” writes Taste Atlas, and that was typified in this dish. The hand-cut noodles arrived in a light broth of fragrant ground pork steeped in the undertones of chilli oil, soy and Shaoxing wine that clung to the ragged edges of the noodles, which had a pleasant bite to them, while the spiced egg added some heft and creaminess to the dish (I can never go past a hard-boiled egg). This generously proportioned bowl of noodles did defeat me in that towards the end, my bloat levels were sadly impeding my enjoyment of them.

Host with the Most ordered the tomato & eggplant dao xiao mian ($15.80) with a side of leafy greens ($3.00) for some additional vegetation. The noodles were heavier than she expected, though she noted it was purely a matter of personal preference – her favourite noodles are thin ramen-style noodles.

To enjoy the best of both worlds, Cauliflower Rice’s Biggest Fangirl ordered the dao xiao mian with a sauce combination of Shanxi traditional pork and tomato and eggplant ($15.80). She loved it.

Portions are generous at Dao Noodle, so keep in mind that entrees may touch the sides of your stomach a little too much for you to comfortably finish your main. My first visit to Dao Noodle was a five-bloat time – rare these days, but nevertheless still possible! I’ve discovered throughout the years that wheat is a big irritant for me, even more so than onion and garlic, and this meal was teeming with it. What didn’t help was running for my tram after while nursing a high-bloat situation, but the pain subsided enough for me to visit a second time with Pork Chop.

Pork Chop, whose favourite phrase is ‘carrying on like a pork chop’ even if her diet itself mostly tends towards vegetarianism, accompanied me on my second visit to Dao Noodle. Having tried Dao’s traditional meat sauce the first time, I opted for the dao xiao mian with chicken gravy, sliced pork, woodear and yuba ($17.80), which was recommended to me by Virgo Twin (who appears in this review of Udom House).

This dish reminded me of the Malaysian Chinese dish hor fun, where rice noodles are blanketed in a thick, viscous egg gravy except these noodles were hand-cut dao xiao mian and they were bathed in chicken gravy, adding an extra savoury note. I loved the textural contrasts in this dish, from the chewy noodles to the stretchy, pleasantly rubbery yuba (dried tofu skin) to the jelly-like, bouncy woodear mushroom with its ear-like folds. The yuba and woodear as well as the shiitake mushrooms and daylily used were perfect vessels for absorbing and holding pockets of flavour from the chicken gravy.

The noodles came with a spring onion sauce on the side, which I added liberally to my bowl, and I also helped myself to a few spoonful’s of Dao’s housemade chilli oil garnished with toasted sesame seeds, the perfect blend of savouriness and spice.

Pork Chop ordered the sauce combination of Shanxi traditional pork and tomato and egg. She loved it and commented that the Shanxi traditional pork tasted like an Asian bolognese.

For entrees, we ordered the same pan-fried vegetarian dumplings (sublime as usual) and for a lighter counterpart, the light and zingy marinated cucumber ($5.20).

This time, I only ended my meal with only one bloat, which goes to show that bloat scores are entirely arbitrary and contingent on a multitude of factors, some of which have nothing to do with the meal (think sleep, hormones, stress levels, the list goes on). I love Dao Noodle and will be sure to return, hopefully for an even lower bloat score the third time around.

Dao Noodle is open Monday to Saturday from 11am to 3pm and 5pm to 9pm.

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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