Slurped: Marrow Bones and Hand-Pulled Noodles at Lao Bei Fang
A few weeks ago I wrote about a mouse infestation problem that really threw my appetite for a loop. I went on and on about it for an entire post, but long story short: the mouse grossed me out to an unexpected degree. It caused me to lose my desire for offal and bony bits.
And as some of you may know, offal and bony bits are my bread and butter. But recently, another bowl of noodles at Lao Bei Feng in Elmhurst reinvigorated my love of bones, and now, I feel pretty good. I'm running at maybe 80% capacity, which as a friend kindly pointed out, means that I am maybe only doubly obsessed with food as the average person.
Lao Bei Fang used to be a smaller operation; now it occupies a larger space, what was once a hot pot joint on the corner of Broadway and 83rd Street in Elmhurst, near the LIRR. My friend Anne arrived before I did. She said the lines were out the door. When I got there, the place was merely packed.
I liked the place right away. It reminded me of a Chinese cafeteria: one of those operations that, though it seems too small to handle everything, somehow manages to run with more efficiency and skill than places twice its size.
This seemed like one of those places. Just look at the awning, which has bun and soup and noodles all crammed in one banner. And I submit to the court as further evidence, the menu, which offers dumplings (steamed and fried), hand-pulled noodles, buns, pancakes, congee, rice noodles (thick and thin), and cold dishes. Pretty ambitious, no?
But as I said, I had a good feeling. Inside, the warming trays of ready-prepared dishes looked fresh and inviting. Steaming bowls of noodles were churned out by the minute and announced with a microphone by the woman behind the counter. In the corner, there was a canister with hot tea and cups, so you could help yourself.
When I was waiting for my noodles and dumplings to come out, I saw a man honing in on a bowl of pork bone noodle soup. The most extraordinary thing about his serving was that it came with not one, not two, but three large bones. What a steal for $4.50.
The man was dressed in a suit. He looked very stern and all business-like, and he held the butt end of the bone firmly but primly between his thumb and index finger, with his pinky finger pointed outwards. With his other hand he took one chopstick and stuck it in ever so gingerly to extract the marrow inside the bone. How nice it must have been to be that man, I thought, knowing that you had a whole two other bones to go.
But on that night, I didn't feel like bones, so Anne and I stuck to the stir-fried hand-pulled noodles with fried tofu and vegetables ($5.25). They were bouncy and chewy, with good charred flavor and vegetables that retained some crispness. The noodles had that alkaline flavor, which some people like, some dislike, and others are just non-cognizant. (I happen to like it.)
The plate was more like a platter. Anne and I sat across from each other on a small square table, such that I could hover over my end of the noodle platter, and she over hers. No lady and the tramp moment going on here. Not only that, but we didn't even breach the middle portion of the noodles. I added some of the house chili oil to my end; Anne added some Chinkiang vinegar to end, and we ate from our respective ends without ever meeting in the middle.
I just knew I had to go back and get the pork bone soup. One day, I did. As soon as I placed my pork bone soup with hand-pulled (aka hand-drawn) noodles, I started fretting that maybe I wasn't going to get a whole three bones in my soup bowl. Maybe the guy in the suit had connections (guanxi), or maybe he was the nephew of the owner or something.
Three bones. It just seemed to good to be true. But when the order came out, there were indeed three. Three very large bones, which covered the whole surface of the bowl. I saw the bones, and suddenly something in my brain seemed to click, and I didn't want to hold back anymore. I slipped the flesh and tendon of the bone and dipped it in soy sauce and chili oil. I extracted the marrow with my chopsticks, and when I couldn't get at it anymore, I spooned soup in the marrow bone and mixed it around, making fatty marrow cocktails of the residual marrow. Then, when I could go no further in a civilized manner, I put down the chopsticks and put down my spoon, and went to town on the cartilage, gnawing it clean.
It was a very good lunch. And the only bone I have to pick? (Sorry, I had to do it.) I think it's a structural mistake to place so many heavy bones on top of the noodles. Halfway into the meal, the bones had crushed my freshly pulled, freshly cooked noodles into a sodden lump, not worth eating at all. Although I suspect that this would have happened anyway given the ephemeral nature of hand pulled noodles in soup.
I was glad I returned to Lao Bei Fang by myself for lunch. This was just one of those private moments I had to have, some time alone with three big pork bones.
And as for the mice situation? Well, thanks to some readers' advice, I plugged up what holes I could see with steel wool, and we set out more traps. The traps are working. Too well, I think. Three days ago one of the traps near a large bookcase was sprung, but no mouse in sight. Now there is a putrid smell emanating from behind the bookcase, or maybe it is in the wall. I can't really tell, and the bookcase cannot be moved. It seems to me that I've traded one problem for another, but so far, my appetite seems unaffected. If there's one thing I've learned from the mouse ordeal, it is that the appetite is a perilous, precious thing.
Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House
83-05 Broadway Elmhurst, NY 11373 (map)
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.