Even before the 2020 pandemic started to make crowded kitchens a source of concern, the restaurant industry, especially the fast food aspect of it, was embracing robotics and automation. At the same time, some places have gone in the opposite direction by stressing a hand-crafted aspect of their food, even in ways that are somewhat silly (e.g. “hand-dipped” ice cream). At Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House, the hand-crafted origin of its signature product is authentically and meaningfully reflected in the restaurant’s name and menu.
Nan Zhou is found in a small strip mall in the heart of Mesa’s Asian Business District along Dobson Road. Mekong Plaza is directly across the street, and H Mart is around the corner, but this plaza situated in the shadow of the two anchors of the intersection of Dobson and Main is full of unique businesses of its own. The location on the east side of Dobson just south of First Avenue is a quarter mile from the Sycamore/Main light rail station. Unfortunately, no bike rack is found on site. The nearest options beyond a sign post are found at Mekong Plaza and H Mart.
The dining room, currently operating with reduced capacity, is a simple space furnished with dark wood. Booths ring the room with a few tables in the middle. A counter where bills are paid and take-out orders are picked up is at the center of everything in this casual environment. The bilingual Chinese-English menu lists nearly 100 items with the most prominent dishes highlighted with colorful photos. As would be expected, the emphasis is on noodles, but there are plenty of worthwhile appetizers to be enjoyed before or alongside them.
Fried tofu, teriyaki chicken skewers, and vegetarian spring rolls are among the familiar items seen on Chinese restaurant menus everywhere. They’re all well prepared with the kitchen showing its ability to produce textural contrasts between a crunchy, golden exterior and a more tender inner portion. Nan Zhou also makes its own version of a slightly smoky scallion pancake, an easy item to share and snack on while awaiting noodles. Vegetable-based starters include a seaweed salad and cold cucumber slices tossed in a dressing that is a blend of sweet, sour, and spicy.
When it comes time to order the signature item noodles, a few decisions need to be made. First, there’s the choice of whether to have noodle soup, dry noodles, or stir-fried noodles. The last two categories are subtly distinguished with the stir-fry dishes having a bit more sauce than the dry ones. The soups, however, are big bowls full of flavorful broths and meats. The beef noodle soup, a good place to start an exploration of the menu, has a mild but assertive broth, its liquid base accentuated with abundant sprigs of fresh cilantro and slices of green onions.
Among the dry noodle entrees, there are simple yet effective creations like noodles with onion oil peanut sauce. In this format, the noodles are coated with a light layer of flavor, but their own texture and taste shine. More complex creations include cumin lamb dry noodle, an influence from Islamic western regions of China, and hot pepper chicken dry noodle. The latter dish is not as spicy as its name might imply. Instead, it is gently seasoned with large chunks of poblanos but can easily be made more incendiary with the addition of the chili oil provided at every table.
The stir-fry entrees include seafood dishes and long-established American Chinese menu classics such as Singapore rice noodles and beef chow fun. While timeless dishes like these tend to dictate a specific type of noodle, the customer at Nan Zhou has the ability to pair a specific preparation with a chosen type of noodle made behind glass in the restaurant’s kitchen. Rice noodles are an option and probably the best one for the Singapore dish; however, the restaurant’s signature starch is wheat noodles of varying thicknesses and shapes.
The regular noodles come close to an everyday lo mein noodle. The thin ones are closer to spaghetti in diameter. The wide are most like chow fun, and the thick are like ropes. The restaurant staff can usually recommend which size is best matched to a given style of dish, but as a general rule the thinner noodles work better in the soups while the thicker variations are better suited to the dry dishes. One unique option is the shaved noodles. These are sliced from a sheet of dough with each noodle having a serrated edge and irregular size all its own.
While noodles are the obvious and predominant theme here, Nan Zhou also serves perfectly good rice dishes such as sweet and sour pork ribs over rice or seafood fried rice. Vegetable side dishes listed under the category of “chef’s special” include sauteed green beans, Chinese broccoli, or yu choi (also known as choy sum) accessorized with a choice of garlic or oyster sauce. Lettuce, usually thought of as something served raw in a salad or as a garnish, appears in a lightly blanched form with the same choice of sauces as the other greens on the menu.
Nan Zhou has no liquor license or dessert menu, but a selection of sweet drinks along the lines of smoothies and milk tea provides an option that may fulfill both needs. Otherwise, the bakeries and frozen dessert shops of nearby shopping centers are just a short walk away. Hand-made food isn’t automatically better, but neither is automation. At Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House, the idea of hand-crafted noodles is purposefully implemented with impressive results, creating another niche worth exploring amid the storefronts of Mesa’s Asian Business District.
111 S. Dobson Rd., Mesa AZ 85202