Comparing versions of the dish in Denver seemed like a tasty immersion in culinary history, so I located another example of jajangmyeon and several instances of its Chinese forebear — and also learned that the dish’s path through Asia didn’t end in Korea, but also took it to the shores of Japan.
The best place to start exploring it here is at one of the two locations of Zoe Ma Ma — the original, at 1020 Tenth Street in Boulder, or the newer shop next to Union Station. At both, housemade noodles are nestled beneath a dark, meaty sauce of slow-cooked pork and a pile of julienned veggies — cucumber being the most prominent. It’s a homey, stewy dish like many others cooked by owner Edwin Zoe’s mother, Anna.
China Jade, at 12203 East Iliff Avenue in Aurora, serves a soupier style, labeled Tianjin-style lo mein (the words “mian” and “mein” both mean “noodles”). At first I wasn’t certain this dish was related to zhajiangmian, but the julienned cucumber, slightly funky note of soybean paste, ground pork and thick, square-cut noodles were giveaways. The sauce had been diluted into a glossy broth, and two kinds of mushrooms added earthy flavor; the lingering presence of star anise gave the bowl a wintry note. The noodles were chewy and firm, reminding me of their distant Italian cousin served at Patsy’s, at 3651 Navajo Street.
On the west side of town, you can also find zhajiangmian at Lao Wang Noodle House, at 1045 South Federal Boulevard, where it’s labeled simply as “Chinese-style spaghetti” on the English menu (maybe the Patsy’s comparison isn’t so outlandish), but footnoted with a description of “succulent soy bean-based sauce” that hints at its true provenance.
The Korean-Chinese jajangmyeon is a little harder to track down; it’s much blacker, saucier and more powerful than the Chinese original — at least in Denver. Aside from the P & Y Cafe, the best source is the hard-to-spot Yong Gung at 2040 South Havana Street in Aurora. If you have trouble finding it, just park between the M Mart and Seoul Korean BBQ in the same shopping center. While Yong Gung’s exterior is rather nondescript, the dining room inside is bright, modern and bustling (except on Wednesdays, when the eatery is closed). Like the jajangmyeon at P & Y, Yong Gung’s is inky black, viscous, and served in a big bowl with scissors for chopping up the noodles. It’s a dish meant to be shared, and the waiter instructed me to stir and chop thoroughly before distributing into smaller bowls. While P & Y’s version was pungent, salty and packed full of barely cooked diced onions, Yong Gung’s was smooth and mild, studded with mushrooms and touched with something unmistakably buttery. It was a good counterpoint to the kitchen’s sticky, flame-red fried chicken wings, which packed as much heat as their color suggested.
Noodles also jumped from the Chinese mainland across the East China Sea to influence Japanese cooking, especially in that country’s ramen houses. Dan dan noodles, a fiery product of China’s Sichuan province, became tan tan men in Japan, retaining the heat while adopting a more distinctly Japanese noodle style.
Zhajiangmian also found its way to Japan, where it evolved into ja ja men, a ramen dish that I had been unable to find on Denver menus. I checked with experts, but struck out on calls to Domo and Sakura House, both known for traditional ramen bowls. I also reached out to Jeff Osaka, chef-owner of Osaka Ramen (2611 Walnut Street and 2817 East Third Avenue), who said he hadn’t encountered ja ja men in Denver, but suggested that perhaps Sushi Den had put the dish on its noodle menu at some point in the South Pearl Street restaurant’s thirty-year history. And that’s where I met with success — at least partially.
Yasu Kizaki, who owns Sushi Den with his brother Toshi, pointed out that ja ja men — found mostly in larger Japanese cities in traditional Chinese restaurants — is a dry style and so is generally served in warmer weather, when diners may not want a steaming bowl of broth. At Sushi Den, spicy, soupy tan tan men ramen is served year-round, but during the summer a dry style is offered that’s similar to zhajiangmian, only spicier. Sushi Den’s menu also includes brothless hiyashi-chuka, a warm-weather noodle bowl that translates as “cold Chinese,” owing to its roots on the continent.
Like zhajiangmian and jajangmyeon, hiyashi-chuka is served heaped with fresh vegetables including cucumber, and it’s mild rather than spicy; Sushi Den also adds tomatoes, julienned charshu pork and julienned omelet. Kizaki says that Ototo, the brothers’ smaller restaurant across the street from Sushi Den, will likely offer both ja ja men and hiyashi-chuka as specials in July and August.
Denver may not be Beijing, or even a magnet for international immigrants, like New York City or Los Angeles, but with a little digging, you can take a historical tour through our city’s Chinese, Korean and Japanese eateries by just following one noodle dish. And who knows? Maybe some day a few decades from now, a food-loving Coloradan will be able to track the evolution of Denver-style zhajiangmian.