For William Lim Do, making hand-pulled noodles is as much a search for identity as a culinary act.
When the San Francisco chef attended a noodle school in Lanzhou, China, his classmates called him “laowai,” which means foreigner in Mandarin. He was hurt at first: He’s part-Chinese, but his classmates didn’t consider him to be. The experience felt like an extension of Do’s upbringing in a Chinese-Cambodian-Vietnamese family in San Francisco, which meant he never fit into a single cultural box. His Cambodian relatives didn’t fully see him as Cambodian, and he never felt wholly connected to his Vietnamese roots during visits to Little Saigon in San Jose.
It wasn’t until Do started selling hand-pulled noodle kits out of his South San Francisco home a month ago that he embraced these cultural complexities, weaving California sensibilities into Lanzhou cuisine. The tangle of noodles — springy and toothsome with a nutty, slightly sweet flavor from five kinds of local grains — come with cheffy accoutrements like velvety garlic confit, caramelized soy sauce, and Lanzhou chili crisp that Do makes himself. He named the pop-up Laowai Noodles.
“I’m trying to own this word, laowai — being a foreigner but taking that back is something that I find to be meaningful and important,” Do says.
Before starting Laowai, Do cooked at the Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions, the Progress, and Mister Jiu’s. He wasn’t always a chef, but he’s always been an inquisitive student. At Brown University, he studied the diaspora of Southeast Asia refugees and wrote his thesis on second-generation Chinese-Cambodian-Vietnamese youth. He briefly worked in investment banking before landing a stage at State Bird.
Do felt drawn to the food and history of Lanzhou, in part thanks to a favorite Lanzhou noodle shop in New York City. He was also fascinated by the northwest region’s many ethnic groups and links to Islam as a major point on the Silk Road. In 2016, he gave into his curiosity and left State Bird to study noodle-making in Lanzhou.
In the dry desert city, Do’s days would start at 5:45 a.m. He’d spend hours kneading and pulling dough, facing the exacting judgment of teachers who had devoted themselves to the craft of hand-pulled noodles for decades. Pounds of dough would pile up around him as he learned the proper ratio of flour to water and how to elongate the dough like taffy until it reached peak plasticity. For exams, students had to make fresh noodles within 18 minutes. If the noodles didn’t measure up, teachers doled out the ultimate punishment: Eating your mistakes.
“There’s some assumed or presumed mystery behind hand-pulled noodles and this craft … exoticizing this entire experience. It’s actually just hard work,” Do says. “It’s training for 18- to 20-hour days, kneading dough, understanding how it feels.”
In Lanzhou, he learned the unwavering tenets of the city’s beloved beef noodle soup (it must be a clear broth with beef, radishes, yellow noodles, and greens from specific alliums or herbs) and explored the region’s Muslim influences through the use of spices like cumin and cardamom. He fell in love with Lanzhou chili crisp, the classic mouth-numbing condiment, which he started selling informally when he returned to the Bay Area — a side project that he’s dabbled in the past few years while he worked as a cook at the Progress and then Mister Jiu’s.
“There’s this trend where you put chili crisp in everything but in reality in China, you mostly put chili crisp on noodles. I wanted to pay respect to that,” Do says.
So he eventually started making noodles too, starting with a 50-pound bag of flour he panic-purchased at the beginning of the pandemic. In December, he posted the noodles to Instagram, and Laowai unexpectedly took off. He’s now making up to 80 kits per week and is taking orders online on a rolling basis. You can — and should — also order a jar of his chili crisp, a labor of flavor-packed love made over 24 hours from a secret mix of chiles and spices.
Do’s kits feel personal: The uncooked noodles come with a handwritten thank-you note, explanation of the ingredients, and step-by-step cooking instructions. He’s currently making what he describes as a “derivative” of chilled sweetwater noodles, a Sichuan dish adapted through the lens of his Lanzhou and Bay Area cooking experience. He makes the noodles using a technique native to Neijiang, China, and puts his own twist on the toppings — replacing peanuts with roasted sesame seeds, raw garlic with creamy garlic confit, and sesame paste with one made from earthy perilla seeds.
“My background in California cuisine cooking, having trained in those restaurants, it’s definitely left an imprint,” Do says. “How do I use those sensibilities of local ingredients in enhancing tradition but also being a little progressive?”
Do plans to offer more dishes soon, including that classic Lanzhou brisket noodle soup. His goal is to open a permanent noodle shop at some point.
He’s also experimenting with an original creation that — perhaps not unlike his college studies — pays homage to both his heritage and Lanzhou noodles. Called “Tuo Mee” (which means hand-pulled noodles in the Teochew dialect), the dish comes with Lanzhou-style noodles in a pork-seafood broth inspired by kway teow. A “migratory” dish born in Chaozhou, China, kway teow eventually became the Cambodian kuy teav and Vietnamese hu tieu noodle soups because of the Teochew diaspora in the early 20th century, Do says.
Do wants to combat the notion that Chinese cuisine is monolithic by sharing the stories and nuances of regional dishes. This includes celebrating his own culinary ethos, which he describes as “Californian Chinese desert cuisine.” By the time he left Lanzhou, he came to accept the nickname “laowai” as a meaningful expression of all the worlds he inhabits.
“I’ve always had to straddle different cultures,” he says. “[Laowai] is not really traditional, not fully authentic to a motherland’s culture, but it’s also authentic to myself.”