Whenever I order mei fun noodles, I think miserly thoughts about how this exact type of noodles is sold at Chinese markets for 99 cents a pack or even less, so why am I paying ten times the price for it in a restaurant? Why, indeed, when I could be ordering a bowl of noodles that would be very difficult for me to replicate at home, such as hand-pulled or knife-cut noodles?
But the thing is, I never get around to making mei fun noodles at home, even though I like them very much. Their shape and texture are like no other. Mei fun are rice noodles, yet they are so stringy and dense as to be unslurp-able in dry form. Instead, you kind of chew on them, like rice.
Their non-noodle character may be why they are considered a stir-fry dish rather than a noodle dish at most restaurants. More often than not they appear in the stir-fried section, or as a chef's specialty.
One of the better versions of mei fun noodles in Chinatown can be found at Amazing 66 on Mott Street. The last time I went, the Taipan Style Mei Fun ($12.95) arrived in a dish that looked like a glass pie plate, the noodles piled so high that they looked in real risk of toppling over.
Beyond a sheer abundance of noodles, the cooks added too many other mix-ins. Shredded carrots and cabbage, little nubs of scallops and shrimp, dried shrimp, stir-fried eggs, and sweet pickled peppers all went in. I would not be surprised if I went back on another day and the things they added to the dish were slightly different. It's just that kind of noodle dish.
Usually I am not a fan of hodgepodge items added to the wok, and this goes for stir-fried rice in addition to stir-fried noodles. Your palate gets flustered at the sight of too much stuff, and doesn't know what to think. But the effect in this case was quite good, thanks to the skill of the cooks: nothing was over/undercooked or over/underseasoned.
Also, here was a case in which the form (i.e. the noodles) matched exactly the content (the stir-fried stuff). You couldn't get away with this kind of anarchic noodle composition with thicker wheat noodles, which would seem out of place amongst the small fry. You couldn't use fresh rice noodles, to which the stir-fried items would cling, unpleasantly. But these mei fun were like a bale of hay, in which the various critters could crawl around without being too noticeable. (Now how's that for an appetizing metaphor?) But despite the size and questionable aesthetics, I devoured them.
The only remaining question is whether the relatively high price tag was right.
Now, it just so happened that the week before I'd been eating a noodle dish similar to this one at Old Sichuan down on Bayard. (You may know the place by its interior design—namely, a hallway that has been gussied up to look like a cave, by which a small shallow pool has been placed to affect, I can only assume, the look of a limpid pool at the base of granite rock. I'm not sure why such efforts were made at decorating, maybe so that people can say, "Oh yeah, that joint in Chinatown with the hallway that looks like a cave.") The Singapore rice noodle dish at Old Sichuan, which does not contain exactly the same "stuff" but which uses the same noodles, and is of comparable size, costs $8.95.
Certainly, Amazing 66 is a classier joint than Old Sichuan, but does that justify the increase in price? I think it does. In both restaurants the noodles were perfectly cooked. But only at Amazing 66 was the flavor of wok-hay, the Cantonese term describing the almost charred and seared essence of stir-fried fare, apparent in each bite.
The way I see it, you can pay 99 cents for dried mei fun at a Chinese market and expend the effort at home. But to assemble all the ingredients found in a typical mei fun dish at a restaurant, and to cook everything as expertly as the cooks at Amazing 66, would be something else. Not to mention the ineffable quality of wok hay. The ad would read something like, Mei fun: 99 cents. Wok Hay: Priceless.
66 Mott Street, New York, NY 10013 (map)