At first I didn't know what to think of these noodles, the kuaytiaw khua kai ($10; the translation approximates "noodles fried with chicken") at Pok Pok Phat Thai, down on Rivington.
They were fresh rice noodles, sautéed with chicken and cuttlefish, served on lettuce, and sprinkled with ground chilies and other spices. Cuttlefish, I feel, is the most underappreciated and underused of the cephalopods (the others being squid and octopi). I don't know why this is. Cuttlefish is so delicious, and has a certain tenderness and texture unlike that of its cephalopodal brethren.
So, ostensibly, it was a noodle a dish like any other: rice noodle, chunks of protein, a bed of lettuce.
Only everything about this dish was just a little different. The top of the dish looked sort of fuzzy, if that's the right word, as though it had been dusted with a sprinkle of finely ground nuts.
I squeezed a wedge of lime over it and dug in. The noodles, so white and soft on first glance, were actually quite browned, and a little chewy. It was dawning on me as I sat there eating that this might be one of the better noodle dishes I've had in months, in this city, in any city, and if only there were more of it, if only the portion were like Chinatown noodle portions. If only.
I went back the very next day, and noticed new things about it. That the noodles were not charred in a dry-ish wok, but rather slowly browned in a sauté pan. I watched the cooks work. In the time it took to turn out two or three platters of pad thai, the noodles for my kuaytiaw khua kai lay in a wok, slowly browning. And browning in nothing less than a pool of lard, which would account for their sweet, meaty flavor. Due to their slow browning, the noodles had a shellac of a crust, golden and thin and crispy. (This is an exaggeration, but only slightly: I wish all noodle dishes could be slowly browned in lard.)
And as for the crumbly surface, well, those were just bits of egg, and the natural sediment of the noodles being cooked in the wok. (Though, kuaytiaw khua kai, a specialty of Bangkok Chinatown, is sometimes garnished with little bits of fried dough. But not at Pok Pok.)
After my meal, I went to inquire about the matter of protein.
"If I had asked," I asked, "would I have been able to get my noodles only with cuttlefish, and no chicken?"
The cook paused a second and said, "That's a tough one. The dish is supposed to come with both."
"But I love cuttlefish," I said.
"Yeah, but we only put three pieces of cuttlefish into each bowl."
This had me floored, momentarily. They actually counted the pieces of cuttlefish that went into each serving? I suppose that makes sense—you don't want to be stingy or liberal with the good stuff.
"Well, what if I paid extra to get only cuttlefish?" I asked.
He was hesitating, looking off to the side for maybe someone else to deal with crazy cuttlefish lady. "I don't know, uh just wait a minute, maybe I can ask about it."
"Oh, don't worry about it," I said. I was in a hurry to go.
Now I had in mind to walk down Orchard Street, a few blocks east, and visit each shop there selling hats. A daunting task, actually, because practically every other shop on Orchard, between Delancey and Stanton, sells hats. I wanted a trapper hat for maximum ear protection. I went into shop after shop, and much to my disappointment, not a single shop sold them. A nice old man tried to sell me a fedora, but I said, no thanks. Finally I stumbled into a shop with a nice selection of trapper hats.
The man working the counter—now, if he were a doctor, you'd say he had wonderful bedside manners; he had a certain gentleness and civility, really nice.
A black furry trapper hat caught my eye. It looked like the sort of hat you'd want to brave a Siberian winter—perfect for a cold wimp like me.
"Forty-five dollars," he said.
"Forty-five dollars! Get outta here," I said. "I'll give you twenty."
"This hat is of a very fine quality," he said smoothly. "I can give it to you for thirty dollars."
Thirty dollars? Thirty dollars for a hat? I could have bought three kuaytiaw khua kai's for that price! And recently, recently the whole practice of bargaining seems sort of, not crass, exactly, but just very tiring. (In my younger years, I was much more feisty.) Or maybe it was because I'd used up all my bargaining prowess trying to get some extra cuttlefish at Pok Pok, and had none left over to deal with this gentleman.
So I shelled out the big bucks for the hat, grumbling only a little, and only on the inside, and walked away a satisfied, warmer customer.
Anyway, I digress. If you are looking for noodles that defy your expectations of noodle-ry (or, just a pretty decent price for a hat), then I would head over to the Lower East Side sometime soon, and get yourself the kuaytiaw khua kai.
Note: Upon talking to Chef Andy Ricker, he gave me hope to think that somewhere down the line, there could be an all-cuttlefish version of kuaytiaw khua kai, or even a seafood version. I am waiting, with bated breath for that happy day.
Pok Pok Phat Thai
137 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002 (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.