Last week I set out to fill in one of the gaps in my noodle education, and paid a visit to Great NY Noodletown in Chinatown.
I was there ostensibly to do a bit of research on e-fu noodles (also called yi mein, yee-fu, or yi noodles; listed at Noodletown under "wide noodles in Cantonese style"). They are egg noodles made with carbonated water, which have been fried, dried, then hydrated for use in cooking. Actually, I just wanted an excuse to visit Great NY Noodletown, and Robyn, having been just once, was happy to keep me company.
This place is ancient in the best way. Its surfaces are worn and faded, but the joint is pretty clean for a place in Chinatown. We went at night. The chandeliers shone brightly, a beacon of warmth and good cheer at the end of Bayard. At least, that's what it felt like to me, how, as we got closer and closer to Bowery, the lights seem to draw us in. That, and the display of roasted meat in the storefront. By the time we got there, the suckling pig had been hacked away to a square, a small square hanging pitifully at the end of a hook.
While we waited for our order of roast duck e-fu noodles ($10.95), Robyn and I watched the man behind the counter drizzle soy sauce from a metal oil can onto plates of roast duck and white rice. The metal spout poured in thin, precise streams. We agreed that there was something soothing, or even hypnotic, about the way the brown sauce falls so neatly yet richly over the white rice.
Our e-fu noodles arrived in one of those glass pie plates the Cantonese are so fond of using — a mountainous portion, more than enough for two. The roast duck was tender, and I don't know, duck-like. Though I really wished they would have left it on top instead of mixing it into the hot pile of noodles, which incidentally steamed the meat—not ideal, but not terrible, either.
Duck meat aside, it was a nice dish. The noodles acted as sponges for the wok-charred flavors. The soy sauce and seasonings weren't too salty. And just when I thought that I wasn't going to meet my daily vegetal requirements, I dug into the pile and found half a dozen or so stalks of Chinese broccoli underneath, like a raft for the noodles.
What was most intriguing to us was the texture of the noodles. Al dente was not the right word to capture their character. They were like eggy, hard little nubs....sort of.
We ate and pondered, ate and pondered some more.
Have you ever done that at the table? Thought very hard about how something tastes, what it can be likened to, what spices and seasonings you can detect? I guess not everyone is a cerebral eater, but I can't remember the last time I didn't have some internal monologue going in my brain about the food as I was eating it.
Only this time, the right words, the right analogy, eluded us as we sat there sharing the pie plate. I'm sorry to report that I couldn't just relax and enjoy my meal. It just vexed me so much that we couldn't come up with the right description for their texture.
Until finally, with only a few strands left to go, Robyn said, "Wait a minute, it is like....spaetlze?," and a lightbulb went off in my head, and I could actually feel my writer-ly nerves relaxing their grip on my brain.
The e-fu noodles, of course, were uncannily like spaetzle. The same eggy taste, the same hard-but-not-undercooked quality. I was glad I still had a few noodles left on my plate, because knowing exactly how I felt about their texture made them taste better too. (Who was the ancient Greek philosopher who said that true knowledge of a thing changes one's perception of the thing itself? Actually I just made that up. But it is something I think a lot about when I'm eating.)
Unfortunately, I think that one visit to Great NY Noodletown is all I will have time for. It's not that I don't like the place. It's that everyone else likes it too much. I was in search of a place I could call my own, one of those anonymous joints in Chinatown where I could go with a friend on a quiet weeknight and eat well and cheaply. Great NY Noodletown is too storied in Chinatown lore, too well-known to be that kind of place. It's the sort of place you go to people-watch, the crowds more diverse than what you'd find at most places in the neighborhood. It's too bad. I don't know of another noodle shop with chandeliers and 1950's diner décor, where the soy sauce trickles so gently over rice.
Great NY Noodletown
28 Bowery, New York, NY (map)