Movable Feast: Lo mein

Lo mein is the meat-and-potatoes of Chinese food. It is simple, tasty and filling. And most every Chinese food place on the planet serves it.

They just don’t all serve it the same way.That’s what we found during a recent survey of the shrimp lo meins served by some of University City’s most popular Chinese food trucks. We had expected to have trouble telling one dish from the other—how many ways are there to prepare a basic shrimp-and-veggie stir fry?—but were surprised to find variation in just about every facet of the dish.

The sauces varied from peppery to sweet. Vegetable offerings ranged from stingy to generous. And while some of the shrimp were restaurant-quality, some most certainly weren’t. Here’s our take on shrimp lo mein, West Philly style:

Yue Kee
38th Street between Walnut and Spruce, $3.00

Yue Kee’s spicy, flavorful sauce was by far the best we sampled, and the simplicity of the presentation here—the dish came with bean sprouts but no other veggies—worked in its favor. The noodles had a pleasing burnished brown hue and, as an added bonus, the wonderful sauce was evenly distributed (something that couldn’t be said for the other dishes). Overall, a great dish. For flavor, this was the day’s best.

Tang Chinese Food
37th and Spruce sts., $3.50

Tang Chinese Food offered up a very different take on the same dish, but the results were nearly as good. Working in Tang’s favor were large, juicy shrimp that were better than any other we tried. A nice assortment of fresh vegetables—broccoli, cabbage, carrots, green peppers and onions—helped make up for comparatively bland noodles, some of which appeared to be unseasoned. The sauce, less piquant than Yue Kee’s, was slightly sweeter, but not overly so. A splash of soy sauce helped here.

The Real Le An
Spruce Street between 36th and 37th sts., $4.00

We were surprised, and somewhat confused, when we opened up The Real Le An’s lo mein to find large chunks of tomato as a garnish. Who puts tomato on their lo mein? We set the offending vegetables aside and found the dish to be significantly sweeter than our other samples. Though radically different than Yue Kee’s more traditional offering, The Real Le An would be a good selection for those who like their Chinese on the sweeter side.

Kim’s Chinese Food
Food Court behind Pottruck, $3.00

Kim’s lo mein was steady if unspectacular. The sauce fell somewhere between the zing of Yue Kee and the syrupy sweetness of The Real Le An, and the vegetables—peppers, onions and shredded carrots—were tasty, though not as fresh as those from Tang. The shrimp, however, were small and bland, and unlike the shrimp we found on the other dishes, hadn’t been de-veined. A minor flaw, but one that bothered us nonetheless.

Originally published on March 30, 2006