It started with this dish: Spicy Wide Rice Noodles with XO Sauce, Scallions and Pickled Vegetables ($9.95) at Dim Sum Go Go in Chinatown. On top of the noodles, XO sauce and razor-thin strips of pickles had been piled—dark salty masses, almost furry in appearance due to the still-discernible slivers of dried scallops, shrimp, fish, ham. (XO sauce is a rich concentration of all those ingredients, and more: chili peppers, onions, garlic, various condiments and aromatics which vary from maker to maker. I have written about it here, if you want to know.)
It was an impressive plate, maybe the most XO sauce I've ever seen in one dish. I thought, surely, these must be the XO-iest noodles I've ever had.
Or were they?
We agreed that the presentation of noodles we agreed was somehow intestinal, like tripe, and each clump of steamed rice noodles could be accompanied with its own quarter-teaspoonful of XO sauce. But there was no cornstarch-slurried sauce uniting the disparate ingredients, and from what I could tell, no additional preparation done in the way of highlighting the XO sauce.
Now, to be fair, such a preparation could simply be attributed to the restaurant's XO philosophy—something akin to: it's so delicious and complex we should just leave well enough alone. But in this case, the sauce was just there—dry and salty, lacking in any real connection to the noodles underneath. Having finished the noodles, I felt bereft, knowing that I'd filled my stomach with so much of the expensive good stuff, and yet had been somehow denied the most authentic XO experience I might have received.
It also got me thinking about what makes a noodle dish, or any dish, really, XO-ey?
Take, for instance, the noodle dishes at XO Cafe and Grill and XO Kitchen. The restaurants are at least related, if not owned, by the same people. Their menu, and their XO noodles dishes, are almost identical. (Pretty good congee there, too.) Both Cafe and Kitchen offer the Steamed Minced Pork with Rice Noodles and Special XO Sauce ($3.95 and $2.95, respectively). Both dishes feature freshly steamed rice noodles—thin and tender, yet not overcooked, the sheets of rice noodles gently folded over, billowing onto the plate like luxurious, heavy fabric. Little nuggets of steamed pork are nice but unnecessary. And at both restaurants, the noodles are covered with savory-sweet sauce that's pretty good. Yes, these noodles really are quite nice, but there's a big drawback: there's very little XO sauce in there, not even its intimation.
At Mei Li Wah, I think they do their Fried Rice Noodle with XO Sauce ($4.25) just right. Rounds of rice noodles (a stack of rice noodle sheets, rolled into a cylinder and then cut up) are sautéed until their surfaces are a little crisp but their interiors are still bouncy and white. As accompaniments: sesame seeds, sauteed bell peppers, scallions. Most importantly, tell-tale wisps of dried scallop and ham were laced into (or throughout?) the sauce, imparting a strong hit of XO flavor without overwhelming you with its clumpy heft.
They are, I dare say, the XO-iest noodles I've eaten in Chinatown.
And these noodles made me really happy for another reason. They satisfied the intuition I had in the first place about what makes something memorable: it's not the pricetag, or how much of it you use, but it's how you use it that counts in the end.