Editor's Note: From hand pulled noodles in Chinatown to pasta with Sunday gravy on Arthur Avenue, New York is one big noodle town. You may already know Chichi Wang from her Nasty Bits and Chinese cooking columns, but I'm thrilled to say she's now joining us on SENY for a new series, Slurped: Noodles in the City. She'll uncover the city's best noodles and dish out their history, culture, and place in our lives every week. Take it away, Chichi!
I ate my first knife-cut noodles at Beijing University, where I spent the a semester trying to memorize the few thousand characters I would need to read at the third-grade level. Those were a demoralizing few months. Memorization is not my strong suit. Also, it was a frigid winter. I arrived in January to a never-ending onslaught of Siberian winds, and that was how the whole winter seemed to pass. Few defenses against the cold were better than a bowl of noodle soup.
The noodle shop was the most chaotic of all the eating establishments at Beijing University. You had to wrangle your way through the starving masses just to place your order. The choices were knife-cut noodles (dao xiao mien) or hand-pulled noodles (la mien), and you could order any number of meat and vegetable toppings.
The cooks behind the counter stood over boiling pots of water, holding the blades of their cleavers against blocks of dough, shaving and shaving away, their forearms moving at half-seconds per stroke so that floury white ribbons fell like lemmings into the pot.
You placed your order and your noodles came right away. I had never eaten knife-cut noodles before, and I was entranced. The noodles were frilly and frayed, more like sea creatures than pasta. Each was a toothsome pleasure, and no two strands were alike. There was a meaty broth, and some toppings, but what I remember most of all were the noodles themselves.
State-side, Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles (henceforth Tasty HPN) on Doyers Street is my go-to spot for noodles. Their hand-pulled noodles are in fact the best I've eaten in the city, and their knife-cut noodles are very tasty too, to say the least. They are as good as the ones I ate in Beijing and elsewhere in China, as good as any I've had in the States. Wok hay, a term coined by the Cantonese to describe the smell of stir-fried fare—a certain kind of lightly charred perfume—is apparent in stir-fried thing at Tasty HPN, including the stir-fried noodles.
By the way, I have eaten most of the toppings at Tasty HPN over the years, and am happy to report that I would not dissuade anyone from any of the toppings (nor do I have a favorite—they are just all uniformly good.)
Ordering a noodle dish at Tasty HPN feels a little to me like ordering at Starbucks. You have the options of getting either hand-pulled or knife-cut (and if hand-pulled—what thickness?); you can get them in soup or pan-fried; you choose the protein or vegetable. Those are a lot of decisions to make for one dish.
I ate my plate of knife-cut-noodles, pan-fried, with vegetables, for breakfast on Sunday. I called my mother and gave her a report of my meal, as I am wont to do. She listened, patiently, like only a good mother can do, and after I recounted every detail—the wok hay, the tender and fresh vegetables, the sesame-chili oil that came tableside—she asked about the length of the noodles.
"Exactly how long are they?" she asked.
"Oh, I dunno. Four or five inches, I guess," I said.
"Did you measure them?" she asked.
No, I had not measured.
I stopped eating and picked out a few strands. Most of the noodles were indeed four to six inches in length, but there were a few that exceeded the length of my chopsticks. Those must have been a foot long or more, which seems to me the noodle equivalent of peeling an orange rind in one long strand.
So it's a good thing my mother asked about the length. Otherwise I might have slurped the whole dish away without making this very important discovery.
Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles
1 Doyers Street, New York, NY 10038 (map) 212-791-1817