Thursday, April 5, 2012

The New Chen's Noodle House

It has finally opened! The second location of Chen's Noodle House, on Anderson Lane, by the Alamo Village theater. Or more precisely, facing Anderson, next to Cover 3 and Chipotle, not far from where the new Hopdoddy's is going in. The original spot is a hole in the wall in a strip center at the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and 183. With mismatched tables and chairs, the whole place (kitchen included) can't be much more than 200 (150?) square feet, but there's a total charm about it, and the food always rocks, so I've had no problem going to far northwest Austin for good eats, especially when it involves Chen's hand cut noodles.

For the new location, Chen's clearly had some financial backers with ample resources, because this place is swank by comparison. Modern clean lines, nice wood tables and chairs, carts to transport hot noodle bowls, and waitstaff dressed in all black attire. Minimal decor, except for a few plants, and very low-lighting rounds it all out. (I did not use the flash on the camera, so some of these are a bit fuzzy.)
It's also an expanded menu, though I am still glad to see my favorites on there, like the lamb skewers. We didn't get them this time, but if you like lamb, they're amazing.

We started with an order of the green onion crepes (pancakes), which I could eat my weight in -- they're light and crispy, with just a touch of elasticity to them on the inside. I love these!
And something new for us, the sesame pockets, with soy-marinated pork inside, sort of a Chinese pita pocket sandwich. Bread was a little dense, but the meat was quite good.
This new spot is offering hot pots, and there's a large menu of available ingredients to put in your hot pot, from meat to tofu, and every veggie in between.
There's a choice of four different broths, and we opted for the spicy broth, with lamb, enoki mushrooms, and bok choy. It also comes with three dipping sauces, a hoisin, a garlickly oil, and I am not sure what the third was, possibly a fermented soy, as it had a very earthy, miso-like flavor. So they bring the food, and light the sterno underneath the pot. Within a minute, the broth is bubbling away. The lamb was cut into extremely thin slices, so it cooked in about 10 - 15 seconds. It's fun communal eating! The broth does get very hot though, and we finally asked our waitress to extinguish the flame; in the future, I might ask to keep the sterno lid at the table so we can do it ourselves when ready.
Our final dish was the spicy pork loin in broth. On the menu, it comes with rice vermicelli noodles. I asked if we could have it with the hand cut noodles instead. (At the original Chen's I have asked for noodle substitutions in the past, because the hand cut are SO good. More on those in a minute.) Our waitress explained that Mr. Chen was about to leave for the evening (it was around 8 pm), and he was the only one who knew how to make/cut those noodles. Excuse me? This is a restaurant with several menu items with the hand cut noodles, and only one person can do it?! She further explained they had purchased a machine to cut the noodles, but Mr. Chen wasn't happy with the quality. Without being argumentative or disrespectful, I re-stated what she had said "So if Mr. Chen isn't here, no one can have the hand cut noodles?" That's correct. I asked her about the original location, and apparently Mr. Chen's wife is there, making the noodles. Oh, and Mr. Chen is supposed to go on vacation in May; they better have their noodle situation figured out by then! I did ask her to pass along the feedback that I would be a very unhappy customer if I was coming here just to have the hand cut noodles, and was told they weren't available.

So we had the vermicelli bowl, the original way it was listed on the menu. The broth was incredibly hot (more so temperature than spiciness, but it certainly had a kick), and while tasty enough, I felt that the vermicelli noodles got overcooked from the heat of the broth, because they developed a soft, almost mushy texture, which becomes unappealing to me.
Back to the hand cut noodles, or dao xian mian. You don't find these just anywhere. The noodle master makes the dough that is shaped into a loaf, like bread dough. Holding the loaf, the noodles are masterfully cut with a special knife into a pot of simmering water or broth. The texture of the noodle is uneven, thin along the edges, and thicker along the middle, giving them a bit of a chewy consistency. Here's a brief video from YouTube. At the original Chen's you could see Mr. Chen from the order window shaving the noodles. This is a picture from 2010 at Chen's; look at the stir fry dish in the back, and you can sort of tell what the noodles look like. 
The new Chen's is extremely nice, and again, there's an expanded menu. However, for a few miles more, I think I may stick to the charm that is the tiny spot in the strip center. As long as I can get my hand cut noodles, I will be happy, so I really hope Mr. Chen shares the secrets of the noodles with a protege.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I'm torn. I want that hot pot because I see quail eggs on the menu, but I want the charm, AND the certainty of hand cut noodles, therefore...I'ma go to both! (Dang this post made me hungry. And thanks for sharing the good and the 'iffy' on all of your posts. I trust your good taste.