There's a Chinese saying that in order to get the best of everything in life, one should "be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, and die in Liuzhou." Suzhou, supposedly, has the most beautiful people; Hangzhou claims to have the prettiest scenery; Guangzhou has a reputation for the best food; and Liuzhou has lush forests, which produce the ideal cedar wood for making coffins.
Things have changed since that proverb was written. Liuzhou, a city in the Guanxi province, was known for its wooden coffins for centuries. But laws restricting burials in some areas of China, combined with skyrocketing prices of burials due to limited land space, have resulted in higher rates of cremation and lower rates of burials.
Nowadays, people from all over China are flocking to Liuzhou for a different reason: to get a taste of the real-deal luosifen, or river snail soup.
Luosifen has been a popular street food in Liuzhou for decades. But in recent years, word about luosifen has spread, buoyed after making an appearance on the Chinese documentary TV show A Bite of China and after several Chinese actors and musicians discussed on social media trying luosifen for the first time. Today, instant versions of luosifen are produced by the thousands every day and available in China and the United States. There's even a museum in Liuzhou dedicated to luosifen.
While instant luosifen has skyrocketed in popularity, there still aren't many places in the East Bay to get your hands on a bowl of the real stuff. But four months ago, Feng Lan Ruan, who is originally from Liuzhou, opened R' Noodles in Oakland Chinatown.
The restaurant takes its name from the first letter of her family name. Ruan learned to make luosifen from her family and owned a casual, street-food-style luosifen restaurant in Liuzhou for 40 years before coming to Oakland. Ruan's niece, Beili Huang, who works at R' Noodles, said that although they haven't come across many customers from Liuzhou, they've had plenty of curious customers who heard about luosifen on social media and want to try it for the first time.
R' Noodles doesn't bill itself as a restaurant that specializes in luosifen, but on its pared-down menu, river snail noodle soup is prominently listed as No. 1 on the list of noodle soups. That, and the fact that someone at nearly every table in the aesthetically pleasing, tropical plant-themed restaurant is slurping a bowl of river snail soup, hints at the restaurant's true specialty.
It was my first time trying luosifen, and unaware of its viral status on social media at the time, I had no idea what to expect. What arrived was a colorful, inviting bowl of noodle soup with a reddish-brown, slightly opaque broth filled with a mélange of toppings that provided a symphony of textures and tastes. Stalks of barely-cooked yu choy added fresh, verdant flavor; salted, skin-on roasted peanuts provided crunch and toasty, umami notes; pickled turnips brought crispness and tangy flavor; wood ear mushrooms had a more subtle al dente texture, with a hint of earthy flavor; tofu skin added delicate flavor and texture; half an egg added heft; and squares of fried tofu soaked up the broth like sponges, bursting with each bite.
Notably, luosifen typically doesn't contain any actual river snail meat. That's the case at R' Noodles, too. Instead, Huang said, the snails are used to flavor the broth, which is also made with pork bones and pickled bamboo. The broth, as far as I'm concerned, is what makes the soup so special: It was simultaneously spicy, pungent, earthy, sour, and funky, while allowing the flavor of all the toppings to shine through. The silky, slippery round rice noodles, just a little thicker than spaghetti, were a welcome reprieve from the robust flavors while adding another dimension of texture. Huang said her aunt makes the fresh noodles in the shop using a machine once or twice a day, depending on customer demand.
Luosifen might not be up everyone's alley. In fact, I suspect that its assertive flavors and fragrances might be part of the reason it's gotten so popular on social media, kind of like stinky tofu or durian. If you're looking for a milder flavor profile, go for the Guilin-style rice noodles, a specialty of the nearby Guangxi city of Guilin. It came with the same luxuriously textured noodles, yu choy, and salty, crisp peanuts as the luosifen. House-pickled, delightfully tangy long beans, and two types of sliced pork (both roasted and fried) created a satisfying balance of rich, savory flavors with acidic crunch. Underneath the noodles was a salty, aromatic dark sauce made with beef and pork bones and Chinese herbs that Ruan simmers for an entire day. It stood in sharp contrast to the mellow, clear pork bone broth that was served on the side.
Other dishes, like a combo plate of rainbow potatoes, sliced beef, broccoli, and bone broth, or the rainbow-colored steamed dumplings made with natural dyes from carrots, spinach, and papaya, were visually appealing yet bland in flavor. Some details seemed a little off — the potatoes were slightly undercooked, and the dumpling skin was thicker than I would've liked. Huang said the beef and potatoes will be taken off the menu soon in favor of more Liuzhou-style dishes. Housemade vegetarian noodles are in the works, as are three-color noodles, fried taro with tofu, and eggshells delicately stuffed with sticky rice.
The beef brisket noodle soup was well-executed but a bit lacking in flavor, so I added a little of the housemade hot sauce provided at the table. Pickled turnips added sour, tangy crunch, while fresh chiles packed a surprising amount of heat. Huang recommends that diners exercise caution with the hot sauce — she sees many customers adding copious amounts, thinking it'll have the same mild heat as the hot sauce you'll find at Cantonese restaurants. But she said Guanxi natives prefer their food a little spicier. "It's nothing for me," she smiled. You'll want to order a cold, housemade soy milk, made with just the right amount of sweetness, to help tame the heat.