It's the Year of the Noodle

By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

At China Boy, one of the handful of food shops in Washington's now-sparse Chinatown, a couple of older Chinese men sit at tables, having an easy conversation in Cantonese. A woman brings them two orders of tripe soup with flat rice noodles, steam wafting from bowls. But there's a lot more going on at this 27-year-old shop than mere lunch service. China Boy's fluorescent lighting and Formica tables obscure its importance to the area's Asian cuisine.

Despite the lolling pace of the front, in the back, 12 workers rotate on stations in a tiny room throughout the day, making 1,800 to 2,000 pounds of rice noodles for more than 100 Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Thai restaurants in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Wu Wei, 42, originally from Guangdong region of China, took over his uncle's shop five years ago and says the bones of the place haven't changed much since it first opened in 1983: A rice grinder sits in one corner of the back room, pails of flour perched around the base. In the far reaches of the kitchen, Chinese women in pastel aprons shift their weight in the alley between the stainless-steel workspace, a stove and a griddle. After they've milled the rice into a thin batter with water, they steam it in a baking pan, layer it with oil, steam, and repeat. Sheet pans of their final product lie stacked around the shop: layer upon layer of thin, fresh, dewy sheets of rice noodles, waiting for delivery or pickup. That is how they are sold, to ensure freshness and to allow restaurants to cut noodles to order: wide, thin or asymmetrical, such as for an order of triangle-shaped drunken noodles.

Whether they're buckwheat-based soba, wheat-based udon, cellophane, rice or egg, Asian noodles are hitting their stride as one of the city's most versatile, inexpensive comfort foods. And while a bowl of noodles is gaining cachet -- just ask foodies waiting to see whether the London-based Wagamama really opens in Penn Quarter this May -- noodle houses have flourished in Washington for as long as the area has been home to Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Thai immigrants. When the Lunar New Year begins Sunday (coincidentally, Valentine's Day), the two-week celebration will see many Asian families feasting on long, uncut noodles, which symbolize longevity, as well as fish, various meats, mandarin oranges and dumplings, the latter two a nod to good fortune.

Which cultures use what noodles? Author Corinne Trang says, "Noodles are actually simpler than they seem," but for the noodle illiterate, the vast array is dizzying. How do you know what to order where, or what to buy if cooking them at home? Ingredients aside, noodles can be long or short, thick or thin, curly or flat or round, fresh or dried, any of which might be better suited for boiling, steaming, stir-frying or braising. (See sidebar.)

Trang based her most recent book, "Noodles Every Day" (Chronicle, 2009), on her extensive travels and on what she learned growing up with her Chinese-Cambodian father (her mother is French). "Texture is more important than shape, though the path of purists is that each noodle has a place in its own special dish," Trang says. "However, in many Asian restaurants, customers are given a choice of noodle types."

In her book, she notes that rice noodles are found throughout Asia and are "the culinary workhorse." Wheat-based noodles are also versatile and often flavored with vegetables or seafood. Wheat-based udon and buckwheat-based soba are most common in Japanese cuisine. And mung bean cellophane noodles are often used in stews and soups or with more delicate flavors.

One of the darlings of the noodle world, New York chef David Chang, likens Americans' lack of familiarity with Asian noodles to the situation with Italian noodles 20 or more years ago. "Today, people know tagliatelle, pappardelle, bucatini, linguini, fettuccini," says Chang, who owns such restaurants as Momofuku and Noodle Bar. "Hopefully, the next decade will be the same for Asian noodles, and people will come to know Asian noodle flavors, shapes and sizes."

In Washington, shops such as Sak Pollert's DC Noodles on 14th Street fill the knowledge gap by offering a pan-Asian menu in a non-intimidating environment. The choices are vast: from pad Thai to lad na noodles, Vietnamese pork sausages in clear soup, egg noodles in soy soup, red curry noodles. There's little guessing and no language barriers for English speakers. Not to mention the place has a decent selection of beers.

"Who doesn't like noodles?" says DC Noodles' manager, Tom Farobon, who is originally from Thailand. "In my culture, we eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner." Farobon says the shop is doing well in a down economy because it's the right price point. All bowls start at $12; add $2 for shrimp or seafood. Even cheaper is China Boy, where a bowl of soup costs about $5.

DC Noodles' supplier is Far East Noodles, behind the D.C. Farmers Market building in Northeast. Owned by Malaysian-born Alan Tang, formerly a partner in China Boy, Far East Noodles produces 1,000 pounds of rice noodles by machine every day.

At China Boy, where noodles are made by hand, five sheets of rice noodles cost $4.50; 10 are $8.40. Wu says he makes a living but is by no means getting rich. At Far East Noodles, five sheets of machine-made noodles cost between $3.50 and $4. "Most noodles are machine-made now," says Tang, who decided he had to switch to mechanization to make money.

The recently opened New Kam Fong in Wheaton -- a favorite among foodniks in the know -- also makes its own rice noodles. Co-owner Karen Lee, formerly a restaurateur in Chinatown, moved to the suburbs to be closer to her family and to the area's Chinese population. Regulars order a bowl of the savory duck and cabbage soup, brimming with rice noodles, black mushrooms and pickled vegetables.

Many mom-and-pop outfits don't have the space to turn out several types of noodles on the premises. Rice noodles are the easiest to make because of the prevalence of their main ingredient, says Scott Drewno, executive chef of The Source, which recently recast its lounge as an izakaya: an Asian pub that specializes in sake drinks and Japanese-brand beers. "Flours for some types of noodles aren't as easy to find locally since there isn't the demand like there is in a larger city like New York," Drewno says. That's why he buys rice noodles from China Boy but gets others, such as egg noodles and fresh wonton wrappers, from Brooklyn's Twin Marquis.

As for hand-pulled, wheat-based lo mein noodles, those are a labor of love. "The people you see making hand-pulled have been doing it for 10 years or more," says Corinne Trang. "It's very complicated." Watching it is like seeing someone play a medieval instrument or create a work of art. A noodle maker forms the dough into ropes and uses an intricate kneading technique involving the wrists, the arms and gravity. As gluten relaxes, noodles can achieve the desired shape. In Chinatown, passersby can see workers at Chinatown Express, where workers make making hand-pulled noodles in the window.

Though many of the pan-Asian spots are geared toward sharing, at long-established noodle houses such as China Boy, noodle soup is among the most popular orders. After all, a bowl is dinner for one, chopsticks aren't a choice, and slurping isn't rude; it's part of the ritual.


Recipe: Long-Life Noodles

© 2010 The Washington Post Company