There is sometimes the implicit belief among Chowists that if one can find a food purveyor that is sufficiently tiny, the food must be good: the more ramshackle the better. We leave our judgments at the door - if there is even a door. Two quite different noodle adventures reveals the errors of this claim. Just because a food preparing can't speak English doesn't mean that they have talent at the stove.
Hammer and I made our way to Kuai An Hand Pull Noodle Restaurant (28 Forsyth Street, East Chinatown, Manhattan) - a Fujian-owned Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle house that specializes in hand-pulled noodle soup. We should have worried at the lickety-split speed of the preparation. The young man preparing the noodles didn't spend much time pulling and the noodles were served in a snap. Given the praise for this tiny establishment, I can't believe that this is the first-string staff, but eating the noodles was like grazing on flour. The duck and tripe were fine, but soup was thin and the noodles nearly inedible, especially for trenchers like Hammer and me. The potato balls were swimming in a watery, funky soup that had accents of durian or dirty socks. The steamed little juice bun were no better than average. The best dish of the evening was "pain noodles with seseme peanuts sauce" - a nice plate of noodles with a little nutty heat. Perhaps we arrived at the wrong time on the wrong day, but what was most memorable was the speed with which we rolled our eyes. Most of the food was left in the bowls with no request to pack it up.
Steamed Little Juice Buns
Duck and Tripe Hand Pull Noodle Soup
Pain Noodles with Sesame Peanuts Sauce
In contrast I revised Yunnan Flavor Snack (774 49th Street, near 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn), the only Yunnan restaurant - or teeny tiny storefront - in this big, busy city (and none in Chicago). I had visited Yunnan in January and missed the chewy rice noodles. YFS is run by a couple, very hospitable. My Chinese is nearly non-existent and the husband's only in the process of growing, but we did have a partial conversation about my visit and the wonderful mushrooms from the region (YFS doesn't serve mushrooms). I ordered a Rice Noodle Soup with Pork and cold spicy Rice Noodles with Ground Beef and Peanuts. Both were very fine, pleasantly chewy renditions of what I had been served in Kunming (where the couple is from). Granted this food didn't compare to the elaborate cuisine at the best Yunnan restaurants, but the visit was fun, the food tasty and well-made, and the two large portions (really double - or triple - portions) were $4.25 each.
Rice Noodle Soup with Pork
Cold Rice Noodles with Ground Beef and Peanuts
For those who abhore the crowds in Manhattan's Chinatown or begrudge the distance to Flushing (and the semi-crowds), Sunset Park in Brooklyn - New York's third Chinatown - might be a better choice for a visit (there is a fourth, smaller Chinatown in Elmhurst in Queens). Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park is much more sedate, and most of the restaurants haven't been described on line. There are gems out there for the intrepid.
Just because the restaurant is tiny, just because the cook cannot communicate, just because the price is impossibly low does not mean that dining will be sublime, although it just might be. The sublime is our hope but not our promise.