Islamabad has better Chinese food than Karachi — there I said it. As a Karachiite it pains me to have to admit it, but our neighbour to the north has far superior Chinese food than we do — sorry Wang Wang!
The Karachiite in me cringed when my friends waxed poetic about the Chinese food in Islamabad, especially one place in particular — Lan Zhao. On a recent trip to Islamabad I was told — not asked, mind you — that we would be visiting the “best Chinese restaurant in the city”.
There are two branches of Lan Zhao in Islamabad, one in I-8 and one in F-7 and I visited them both. That’s how much I liked the food.
The first time, I visited the F-7 branch, which is a dingier version of its I-8 sibling. You walk up a narrow and rather dirty staircase into a room filled with tables and chairs and not much else. There certainly wasn’t any air-conditioning. But what I found was a bowl of possibly the best noodles I have had in Pakistan. Now, I have to preface this by saying that I love noodles of all kinds — pasta, lasagna, ramen, mi goreng, chow mien, you name it and I love it.
So when big bowls of beef noodles were brought to our table, I just nodded my head in anticipation — “Yes, this is what a bowl of noodles should look like”. The food at Lan Zhao is nothing like the Pakistani version of Chinese food we know and love and that’s what makes it great.
For one, the spices were different and so were the offerings on the menu. There was no sweet and sour chicken that I recall. Instead, there was broccoli and fungus — which was delicious, by the way.
On my first visit, we ordered the beef noodles, the broccoli and fungus and the dumplings. No pictures were taken because I was so blown away by the food that it slipped my mind to document my meal so all the pictures are from my second visit.
The noodles were thin, yet chewy. The broth was flavourful and not too spicy at all — but that was easily fixed with the chilli oil available at each table. If, like me, you need to finish every drop in the bowl, you’ll find that there was quite a bit of pepper in the broth. The bowl was quite large and more than enough for two people to share.
It also came with about three to four thin slices of beef but I was more interested in the noodles than the protein. However, I think people who prefer their food on the meatier side might be a bit disappointed with the quantity of beef in the bowl.
Ordering the broccoli and fungus required equal parts bravery and stupidity on my part — I was sure the fungus in question was a mushroom. It was not. It looked much like something you’d find at the beach and tasted slimy, but in a good way. The overall dish was salty, mixed with a spice that was new enough to our tastebuds that we couldn’t identify it. All we knew was that it was good.
The dumplings were also great — smaller than what I was used to but soft and tasty. The wrapper was thin and the filling was flavourful. This also wasn’t spicy so the chilli oil came in handy once again. It’s probably for the best that they don’t cater to the spice level I ordinarily like — this way everyone can have the food, not just spice-crazed madwomen like me.
My second visit was to the I-8 branch, which is far fancier than its counterpart. It is cleaner, better lit and overall, bougier. There we re-ordered the noodles and dumplings.
We also ordered many more dishes because I was determined to review them. We began with chicken wings, which I am not generally a fan of.
I did, however, sample them and was surprised at the taste, which was a far cry from the American style sauce covered wings that are so popular at fast food joints. The friends I came with said that the wings and potatoes at Lan Zhao are what keep them coming back.
That brings me to the potatoes, which were amazing.
On the menu, they’re called dry potatoes but these spuds were anything but dry. Salty, ever so slightly sweet and with the perfect amount of sauce, these potatoes were an immediate favourite.
We also ordered egg and tomato rice, which was good but not my favourite thing on the table. It tasted and looked like something you’d make for a midnight snack when you’re short on ingredients. Don’t get me wrong — it tasted good, but it didn’t blow me away like some of the other dishes did.
The last thing we ordered was the garlic spinach. This too didn’t blow me away. I like garlic and I like spinach, so I was expecting something good — maybe something as good as the broccoli and fungus — but it was just fine. I guess you can’t win em all.
The damage for three people for the second meal came to around Rs6,000 — which isn’t bad considering that we definitely over ordered and had a lot of leftovers to take home — but more heart-wrenching was the emotional damage that came with the realisation that we don’t have anything like Lan Zhao in Karachi. Woe is us.
I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the food but I can say it tasted far more authentic than what we get in Karachi. I’d attribute that largely to both the Chinese owners and the Chinese clientele they’re clearly catering to. Islamabad, I have been told, has a large Chinese expat population. But while I did spot some Chinese visitors during both my visits, they were largely outnumbered by Pakistanis happily munching down on some great food.