68b Forsyth Street, New York NY 10002 map); 212-625-8299
Service: Very friendly and fast
Setting: Typical Chinese diner style. No frills, linoleum flooring.
Compare to: Xi'an Famous Foods
Must-Haves: Big Tray of Chicken, Wide Noodles with Pork and Black Bean Sauce
Cost: $4 to $6.50 for noodles, pancakes for $1-2
Given how well Xi'an Famous Foods (full review here), the Flushing noodle and soup joint that made a successful leap across the East River to the East Village is doing, it was only a matter of time before a few of its competitors began to follow suit.
Henan Flavor, the brand new Chinatown spinoff of Flushing's Henan Feng Wei, serves a menu that resembles Xi'an's in many ways. Wide hand-pulled noodles available in soups or platters, simple homestyle stews, and pork-stuffed sandwiches. But despite these superficial parallels, a few bites in and it's quite clear that you're in a different province entirely.
While both are located in the lamb-heavy central region of China, Xi'an, with its immediate proximity to Sichuan, makes much heavier use of hot dried chilis and chili oil, while Henan is far milder with little, if any heat in most dishes. But they do know their noodles, and the ones served at Henan Flavor are of the thick, hand-stretched variety.
With its close proximity to a high school, there are a few obligatory Chinese-American staples on the menu—crisply deep-fried sesame chicken in a sweet, gloppy sauce, and stir-fried chicken thighs with the basic flavors of pepper steak; neither of these dishes are particularly worth ordering.
Nor, for that matter, are the dumplings, which come in two varieties. Steamed Dumplings ($5 for 15) make it clear that the chef knows his way around dough—the wrappers are great, tender with a slight chew (though they're rolled a little thick for my liking). It's the filling that could use work—we found them to be not quite as juicy as the ones you can get at a few of the dumpling shops down the street. The Sour Vegetable Dumpling Soup ($6 for 15) suffered from the same good wrapper-mediocre center problem, with a watery broth to boot. (Both of these are better than the abysmal Soup Dumplings ($7 for 8), which have no trace of soup in them.)
The best appetizer is the crisply griddled wheat pancake with pork, the minced filling flavored with hoisin and chopped cilantro. They could have used a little more filling and a lot more cilantro, but it's tough to complain for two bucks.
Our advice is to skip the appetizers and go straight for the good stuff: the noodles.
Hand stretched into thick, irregularly shaped ribbons, they've got a beautifully resilient spring and a rough texture that's perfect for sopping up broth, of which of you have a few options. Most of the noodle soups ($4 to $5.50 for small, $5 to $6.50 for large) come with a pale white lamb broth. Its aroma is intensely lamb-y, but its flavor is under-seasoned and thin, with a very watery mouthfeel. Unless you're really into lamb tripe or innards, we'd skip the lamb soups.
The two beef-based soup options (beef brisket in soup and ox tail in soup) were better, with tender, slightly gelatinous chunks of rich meat cooked fall-off-the-bone tender, but they were served with the same watery broth. In fact, the only soup with real flavor was the Pork Chop Lo Mein. Finally—a broth that does the noodles justice!
As with many shops that specialize in hand-pulled noodles, the best dishes on the menu were the dry noodle dishes rather than soups that rely on perfect stock construction. The Wide Noodles with Pork and Black Bean Sauce (small, $4; large $5) is something we'd order for lunch at least once a week. A big bowl full of the excellent noodles topped with a savory-sweet ground pork mixture flavored with hoisin, a few steamed leaves of bok choy, and crisp shredded squash, it's like a sweeter, more substantial cousin of dan dan noodles.
Described simply as Big Tray of Chicken ($12), this is the one to get. It's nuggets of bone-in chicken leg and wings stewed down with potatoes in a rich savory gravy heavily scented with Sichuan peppercorn, and a bare hint of chili heat. It's homestyle cooking—the kind of dish you can easily see on the family dinner table. For an extra dollar, grab a side order of hand pulled noodles and toss it together with your noodles. With added noodles, it's enough to easily stuff three to four people, and to stuff them in a particularly delicious way.
Don't expect much by way of decor or amenities. The restaurant is typical low-rent Chinese with light tables and linoleum floors, but the service is friendly—almost familial. Both the owner and the chef seemed genuinely interested in making sure that the food was coming out to our liking. Henan might not have the fiery pedigree of its cousin in Xi'an to the west, but its hand-pulled noodles are just as good.