There are a lot of different noodle soups to be found around town. Dozens, if not hundreds, of versions of pho and ramen and Chinese noodle soups and more.
I’m willing to bet that none taste quite like the House Special Luosifen served at the soup’s namesake restaurant, Luosifen, in the Chinatown International District.
You’ll smell the broth before you taste it. It smells like a shoulder of pork, roasting outside, next to a couple muddy pigs.
It’s a sour-spicy broth made with pork bones, river snails and some 20 different kinds of herbs and spices.
It’s amber and clear, more consommé than tonkotsu. The herbs lend vegetal notes. There’s vinegar and chili that balance and temper the richness. Under it all there’s a meaty, barnyardy funk. It tastes like a farm. This is broth with terroir.
The soup ($10.99) is filled with wide, round rice noodles and an abundance of toppings. Enough toppings that listing them might be tedious, but, oh well, here’s what I counted in one bowl: a soy-brined hard-boiled egg, blanched baby bok choy, pickled green beans, a chunk of braised pig trotter, crispy pork belly, roasted pork, tofu skins, bamboo shoots, scallions and wood ear mushrooms. A little dish of roasted peanuts — sprinkle on top at your leisure — comes on the side.
You can also get the noodles and toppings with the broth on the side, but that version came, disappointingly, with a bowl of wan chicken stock, rather than the earthy, turbocharged stock that comes with the showpiece.
Ben Chen, 50, opened Luosifen in December. The restaurant is named after the soup, a specialty of Liuzhou, a Chinese city of about 3.5 million in the Guangxi region, which borders Vietnam. Chen emigrated from Guangxi in 1989.
Liuzhou is a couple hundred miles from the coast, but sits right on the Liujiang River, which has lots of freshwater river snails.
“That was their main form of food, seafood, snails to make the broth,” Chen said, with his son, Benny, translating. The Chinese word for luosifen is made up of three characters, the first two refer to the snails. Luosifen shops and stalls pack the streets of Liuzhou, Chen said. And, more and more, he’d been seeing instant versions of the soup in the aisles of local Asian grocery stores.
But nobody was serving the real thing locally, so he took a trip to Liuzhou, where he went to 20 or so different noodle shops, to eat and compare and develop a recipe.
“We wanted to get the broth down,” he said. “It took three months of research over there and over here.”
He gets snails shipped from China to use in the broth, although there’s no snail meat in the soup. He said they toned down the intensity to appease American palates.
“It’s that sort of smell you get from the sea, clams, oysters. A lot of people describe it as stinky, so to speak, like stinky tofu,” Chen said. “We wanted to find a balance so that people who weren’t used to that smell would try it for the first time.”
Appetizers, pot stickers ($4.50) and takoyaki ($5.50) were serviceable, if not remarkable. A better bet might be a side dish of “brined items” ($9.99). These are mostly assorted bits of braised meat that can also be ordered individually as additional soup toppings. Our platter came with chicken feet, duck feet, a duck wing, fish balls, fried tofu, sliced pig ear and assorted pig parts. It’s all very conducive to gnawing.
You can get rice bowls with such toppings, as Luosifen’s website puts it, “for our customers who, for whatever reason, do not want noodles.”
But the star is really that broth. It lingers — on your taste buds, in your memory.
Luosifen, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; 514 S. King St., Seattle (Chinatown International District); 206-485-7189, luosifennoodle.com