The other day I realized something that has lain dormant in my noodle unconscious for years now, but which did not become clear to me until I thought about it in term of problems and solutions.
Problem: It has always bothered me that hand-pulled noodles in soup grow limp very quickly, a problem I even wrote about two years ago during our hand-pulled noodles taste test.
Solution: Don't eat hand-pulled noodles in soup.
Now why didn't I think of this before?
You may disagree with me on this, but I don't think I've ever had a bowl of hand-pulled noodles in soup in which the noodles did not get floppy halfway into the bowl.
And when the noodles get floppy, that is end of the line for me, the deal breaker that makes me pout and throw down my chopsticks in unutterable frustration.
Over the years, I realized that it's just the nature of noodles when they hit the piping-hot liquid. Hand-pulled noodles, which are so skinny, suffer especially from this problem. The only way to overcome the problem is to slurp down your bowl at breakneck speed, which I do from time to time. But I'm a lingering eater, and you can't linger if those noodles are growing lax in the soup by the minute.
So last week I ate some stir fried hand-pulled noodles and was pleased. Very pleased. As in, I don't think I'm going to eat another bowl of hand-pulled noodles in soup for a long, long time.
Stop number one: Sheng Wang, which is known, among other things, for its potato dumplings filled with juicy pork. Every time I go, there are ladies sitting down at a table forming yellow play-doh dumplings from giant aluminum bowls. I like watching the sheet trays fill with ball after ball, the neatness and order. Also, I've really only ever noticed this at Chinese joints, that the kitchen for want of prep space just overflows into the dining area, and so customers and workers are seated side by side. I like this.
I also sort of liked that after we ordered our hand-pulled noodles dressed cold in some sesame oil concoction ($2.75), our noodles arrived fairly warm, with a fermented black bean sauce and blanched green topping. Maybe they thought that we wouldn't notice the difference, or maybe they took the cavalier approach, divined that what we wanted was for our hand-pulled noodles not to be in soup, and gave us that.
Probably, I might have said something if the noodles weren't good. But they were pretty alright by us. Chewy, a nice thickness, the sauce savory and not too greasy. On the night we went, Sheng Wang's hand-pulled "cold" noodles were actually much better than its knife-cut noodles beef fried noodles ($6), stir-fried with slices of beef laced with tendon (yum.) But their shavings of noodles were too thin for our taste. I am told that you can request your noodles to be shaved more thickly, which is what we should have done.
You would never be able to make the same kind of mistake at Tasty Hand Pulled Noodle on Doyers Street. On the back of the menu, they not only list, but show you pictorially the four options for thickness you can select when you order hand-pulled noodles. (If you don't say anything, they will probably give you their standard width, but why would you leave such an important choice to someone else?)
Now how can you not love a place with a noodle width gradient? You have four choices: fat hand-pulled (#4), big wide hand-pulled (#5) regular hand-pulled (#6), small wide hand-pulled (#7).
At first I had my doubts that there would be a discernible difference between options 4 and 5—the pictures did not look all that different—so for lunch one day Robyn and I ordered both, stir-fried. It turns out that there is a difference, though it took us the extent of the meal to figure this out.
When the noodles arrived at the table, the plates piping hot, they looked exactly the same, down the color and flavor. The stir-fried noodles at Tasty Hand Pulled are about as uniform as you can get, all cooked with a light soy-based sauce, and all possessing the same wok hay flavor and the same stir-fried greens, no matter what topping you get. I have never had a roast duck portion there I didn't like.
If I had to guess, I'd say that Tasty Hand-pulled Noodles has the longest hand-pulled noodles in all of Chinatown. It was almost as if the noodles hadn't been cut at all, because every time you took up a strand with your chopsticks, the other end of the noodle was buried somewhere deep inside the mountainous pile, and you have to keep tugging on it to get the whole noodle in your mouth.
Our findings? Option 4 did have wider noodles than option 5. Even though the width of the average noodle on plate 4 was about the same as the width of the average noodle on plate number 5, the low and high extremes on both plates were commensurate to their advertised "regular" and "fat" widths. (A statistical curve of our noodles, whereby frequency is plotted on one axis and width of noodle on the other axis, would show large overlapping regions, with just the tail ends of the curves being completely discrete regions.)
But I'll tell you, we really had to tug and tug, and tug some more. We shared our plates, and by the time we were done, the strands had traversed from one plate to another, so it was just a squiggly mess on the table. What can I say? Robyn and I know how to have a good time.
27 Eldridge Street, New York NY 10002 (map 212-925-0805
Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles
1 Doyers Street, New York, NY 10038 (map) 212-791-1817