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New Noodles

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in the USA

Summer Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(2) page(s): 16

EASTERN HAND-PULLED NOODLES at 28 Forsyth Street is settling in nicely at their new location just along the northern side of the Manhattan Bridge. They moved around the corner and lengthened their name since glowing reviews earlier this year in the New York Times and then in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 12(3) on pages 14 and 33. Bright blue awnings announce their new quarters, triple the size of the old Eldridge Street downstairs den. A few items have been added to the menu and everything seems as tasty and well-prepared as before.

Chef/owner Jianbin Gao trained in Lanzhou, a city famous for spring grains and noodle-making. That was in China’s geographic center where chefs are famous for turning balls of wheat and water into noodles of infinite shapes. He is still busy at work; and coming up with new noodles. He can make leek leaves, pillars, straps, even bundles of silk.

Muscle-y Gao's dedication to the art form shows. Diners can feel the floor vibrate when his beefy arms thwack masses of dough onto the work table. With his wife Meihui in charge of soup making, the pair ran a restaurant in the Fuzhou Province hometown before coming to the United States in 2001 to open their thirteen-seat starter restaurant.

At loose in his bigger new Manhattan kitchen, the dog days of August 2005 saw Mr. Gao setting out to introduce a brand-new noodle to New York. He worked hard and has now perfected his recipe calling them Finger Cut Noodles. In Chinese, the name is cho pin mein or Fall handmade noodles.

Gao’s creation, pictured on this age, is akin to knife-cut noodles (dow shao mein) which are made by slashing at a brick of dough with a sharp blade. The ragged results are prized for their unevenness, not unlike southern Italy’s matagliati; also known as 'badly cut' pasta. I am told that Chinese knife-cut noodle makers press dough around their heads to leave their hands free to wield dual knives, but have been unable to confirm this carnival-esque cookery.

Gao’s Finger Cut Noodles consist of a secret blend of flours and a little water. A rolling pin is used to press and pull the dough until it’s about two and a half inches wide. With each successive roll and pull, the 'highway' of dough gets longer and thinner. When it is about three feet long and a sixth of an inch thick, Gao grips it at either end, lifts it in the air, and swings it up and down in arcs reminiscent of a kid jumping rope. Next he steps to a bubbling cauldron and swats at the taffy-shaped length with a forefinger, shearing off pieces roughly the size of ravioli wrappers. The ribbon of dough moves through his fingers like a bandolier, pasta bullets splashing left and right into the boiling broth. There is a reason why the pasta is two and a half-inches wide--that is the length of Gao’s finger-cum-knife.

In no time the noodles are scooped from the broth and splashed with cool water. The firm, springy, fleshy results are superb; not unlike shards of pappardelle which is from the Italian pappare or to gobble up. Off-white, the noodles feature a nubbly surface that 'grip' sauces. They are reminiscent of Italian pastas which are made in brass molds to achieve a similarly uneven surface. Gao is a pasta purist, a dough pro, if you will; and he insists on serving his handmade noodles in clear broth. His dense, powerful Finger Cut Noodles are wheaty and earthy, a perfect sop for Meihui’s meaty stocks. Their creator is right when he says they are more "beautiful and tasty" than knife-cut noodles. His daughter is equally proud. "He thinks it and does it," she coos.

Noodle lovers will be thrilled to learn that the Gao's are not the only game in town. A new arrival on the traditional Manhattan Chinatown scene, GOLDEN WOK NOODLE HOUSE at 25 Catherine Street #4D with its entrance on Henry Street also does a lovely job with hand-swung noodles. The immaculate family-run establishment makes a succulent meat sauce for their chewy xia jia mein, and their knife-sliced noodle in savory broth. It is a worthy taste and a terrific texture sensation.

In an era dominated by mass-produced fast food, it is reassuring that China's scrumptious handmade noodles have hit the East Coast. Six years ago in Vancouver, handmade noodle 'shows' cost twenty bucks. Then some years later, there was a noodle restaurant where for the price of a dish one could see a less expensive show (See the article about the Shalin Restaurant reviewed in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 11(1) on pages 31 and 32).

Now that more and more Northern Chinese people are moving to the United States, Chinese artisanal noodles are starting to make the rounds. You can find the treats from the food malls of Flushing to the Asia-centric suburbs of Los Angeles. Eastern Hand-Pull Noodles and Golden Wok Noodle House may be small potatoes by Manhattan standards, but their homespun acts are Broadway-big and fast for less than five bucks. Let’s hope these Northern Chinese handmade noodle-makers are here to stay!

There are also packaged noodle places such as one the editor wants you to know about. One is HONG KONG STATION at 128 Hester Street; phone: (212) 966-9382. There, one can select one of nine kinds of noodles at a dollar a piece and dozens of toppings, each also a buck. This 'create your own noodles' on whatever you would like is a make your own noodle soup cafeteria-line-fast-food facility. It is pleasant, popular, and a practical place to experience a Hong Kong eatery in Manhattan's ever-expanding Chinatown.

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