Thursday, December 05, 2013

2013: The Year in Chinese Noodles

Fa La Shin
As we plow head-on into the last month of the year, it is time to take "stock" of the year in terms of Chinese noodle soups. Living in Budapest, we are often annoyed that we can not find a hot bowl of mein on every street corner, but that does not deter us. Budapest has Chinese noodle soup, in fact. And if you keep reading you will learn where. But first, the best of the bowls, the Annual Index of Chinese Noodle Soup. The Chinese noodle soup index is based on several factors, including but not limited to a) How many Chinese noodle soups did I eat this year. b) How many Chinese noodle soups were available in my general vicinity at any given point in the vast time/space continuum, which includes both New Jersey and Zugló, and c) Whether the noodle soup was prepared by a Chinese person skilled in the preparation of noodle soup. This last requirement addresses the need to differentiate between my beloved Chinese noodles in soup and other Asian noodles in soup, such as Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen, and Uzbek laghman, all of which have graced the interior of my digestive system in 2013, and all of of which deserve their own separate posts. Now, it should be added that when I am traveling with my delightful and beloved better half, who is from Japan, we tend to eat a lot of noodle soup. I am going out on a limb right now and stating the obvious: I like Chinese noodles in soup best. She likes ramen. My soup rarely costs more than US$ 5.00, hers rarely cost less that US$ 10.00, mine will have chunks of meaty tendon and pig butt in it and hers has Japanese pink processed fish baloney floating in it. We are constantly constantly bickering over whether our next meal with be Chinese or Japanese, but we are both pretty sure it will be noodle soup of some Asian kind. The classic form is simple wonton noodle soup, as prepared at Wing Shook Chinese Seafood Restaurant (194 East Broadway in New York's Chinatown) the quasi dim sum place on the corner of Seward Park. Four bucks. 

Wing Shook at Seward Park
Like most Manhattan Chinatown noodle joints, this features the slightly crunchy Hong Kong style noodle with several hefty meat wontons floating in a very chicken-y broth (that I can never reproduce at home because I can't get the Chinese "blue-legged" chicken that is used for the stock) and some bok choy cabbage floating around in it to remind you to eat some vegetables. This kind of casual bowl o' noods is what keeps me going around New York City: a full blown meal for under five bucks. My favorite noodle joints had closed in the two years since I had last been to East Chinatown, but strolling around West (touristic) Chinatown I bumped into into Bo Ky on Bayard Street. Bo Ky is known as one of the cheapest places to eat in New York, and is something of an ethnographic answer to the charge that Cantonese people will eat anything that moves. They do, and it is on the menu at Bo Ky for under ten bucks. The last time we ate at Bo Ky, the waiter answered each of our menu choices with shakes of his head and  "Maybe you no like dat" which is almost a guarantee that I will like that. Today: pork bung soup.

Poop Soup
I love a restaurant that is not afraid to mince words, much less internal organs. It's hard enough to find any place outside of France brave enough to serve andouillette, an odorous but delicious poop shoot sausage, and the gentile French are never willing to expose the pig anus in all its glory in a bowl of clear broth and noodles, but there it is. Poop soup. Thick, chewy rounds of the business end of  a pig's large intestine. And yes, the entire table immediately took notice of the soup's strong aroma. A drummer buddy of mine used to tour in the road band of T-Bone Walker, the blues musician, across the southern "chiltlin circuit" of R&B bars during the 1980s. T-Bone would always go to the BBQ and steam table stands to order dinner. Pointing to the intestinal chitlins hanging above the BBQ smoke rack, he would select the biggest, fattest section and shout "Gimme that one there. The big one. Cause that's where da poo is made!" I should add that this was definitely one of the best bowl of noodles I had during 2013.

Bo Ky: $11 well spent. With soy braised pig foot.
Today, New York's largest and most interesting Chinese neighborhood is no longer in Manhatten, but out in Flushing, Queens. Its a forty minute ride on the subway, or you can find dozens of Chinese-run mini shuttle buses circling around the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway. They usually have a sign in English saying "Flushing" but the bigger sign, in Chinese characters, reads as "Fa La Shin" So it was off to Fa La Shin we went. Flushing is going to get its own blog post sometimes in the winter. Its best to arrive early in the day and pace yourself as you eat your way through it. There are snack shops along the street and food malls serving amazing, cheap regional Chinese eats all over the place. A word of advice: if you do succumb to the noodle soup urge, you are finished. The noodles soups of flushing are not to be taken lightly.

Red Bowl
I found the Red Bowl offering Taiwanese beef noodle soup and made the mistake of ordering it: a huge bowl of steak and hand pulled noodles effectively ended my day of roaming and snacking. Closer to home, Budapest has a growing and successful community of Chinese immigrants, mostly engaged in the retail trade providing affordable shoes and underwear to virtually everybody in East Europe via the huge Four Tigers Chinese Market complex out in District VIII along Kőbányai ut. We have dealt with the food scene out here in previous posts, but this year we did discover a small Chinese lunch place in the new wholesale complex offering "Xian Specialties."

Tiny Place in Budapest Chinese Market
For a while, this led the pack for local Chinese noodle soups. And the Chinese Market is in danger of being shut down by the mayor of the Eighth District, Mate Kocsis, the mean spirited little simian who was behind the plan that made being homeless a criminal act in Budapest. For the time being the market stays, but for more convenient noodles we have the Eat Sense Chinese restaurant on the corner of Dózsa Győrgy and Damjanich utca next to the city park. Eat Sense (which probably inherited the name on the front sign board from one of its previous failed restaurant incarnations) is a multi function yet nondescript Chinese food place. It offers the usual steam table fare (syrupy sweet and sour pork, brownish fried spaghetti noodles) but does its main business as a hot pot restaurant, which is actually quite good. They also offer noodle soups. At FT 1000 a pop, these are a cheap way to get stuffed in relative proximity to downtown Budapest. The beef or seafood soup is nothing to crow about, but they are Chinese, and they are noodle soups.

Eat Sense Spicy Pork Noodles
I tried the spicy pork noodles, which arrived as a bowl of noodles and ground pork swimming in hot chile oil. I finished it, but maybe this was one dish where I really should have had a waiter come and tell me "Maybe you no like..." Still, biking home at night to Zugló it is nice to have a place for a nice, big, cheap bowl of beef noodle soup right on the edge of the city park. Other Chinese choices in Budapest are limited. The best Chinese place in Budapest is, of course, the nearby Mester Wang, but they did a renovation this summer and now their prices are rising, which is never a good sign in a Chinese restaurant. And the Lanzhou, which has not gone down the tubes as much as has been purported, still has good food although they never serve decent rice. And then there are the hot pot joints like Mimosa and Eat Sense.  "Kinai Büfé" which is popular among Hungarians mainly for being cheap: a mediocre plate of rice and meat for FT 500 will attract the universally cash strapped Magyars at every city corner.All the menus are the same, and the Chinese serving them usually have no background in cooking - the büfé networks are a stepping stone on the way to an EU resident permit. Most are so small they don't even cook in house - the pre-made slop is delivered from some central steam kitchen by truck.  Every time I go to one of the many "Kinai Büfé" in Budapest I always find myself asking "When will some enterprising Chinese guy with some sense of taste start to fiddle with the menu." This week, my prayers were met. Fumie saw an ad in one of the Chinese language newspapers you can pick up in the Chinese market for a new restaurant someplace out beyond the market on Kőbányai ut. We decided to go noodle hunting.
Dare to be Great, Orient Etterem!
Sure enough... at 43 Kőbányai ut, right across the street from the Északi Járműjavító stop on the Number 28 tram that rolls out of Blaha Lujza ter, we found it. The Orient Etterem, formerly a pizza place, seems to have entered a design competition for the most nondescript building in Budapest. It had all the marks of a classic "real" Chinese foodie find: small, absolutely empty, nobody who spoke anything but Chinese except one waitress who was Hungarian and could sort of communicate with the owner-chefs in a pidgin combination of both, and illustrated menus in Chinese only. This place showed promise!

I'll have that!
There was the usual steam table offering generic "Kinai Büfé" food, but`also huge scallion pancakes as well. But Fumie can read basic Chinese and the menu was illustrated, and almost nothing seemed familiar to either of us. Vaguely edible products seemed to have been sliced and arrayed on plates next to prices. This lack of anything familiar is what sets my appetite on edge. Remember: I once ate both raw sea squirts and live sea cucumber in a single sitting at a Korean restaurant...  so... beef noodles for her, and lamb noodles for me. 
Lamb: beware the bones
And yes, we were impressed. For one thing, the two soups came with hand pulled noodles, a bit bland and soft, but authentic and it showed the owners had some skill in the kitchen. The stocks were different as well... a lot of places only use one master stock for all their soups. And a small plate of Chinese salads was also home made and showed some sense of distinctiveness that may have come from somebody's Grandma's kitchen. Their specialty is noodles and dumplings: we bought a serving of 25 pork dumplings to go which were excellent in a "hey, I'm a dumpling" kind of way. 

The menu seems to offer more than just noodles and dumps, too. We'll go back someday with friends when we can point our way through more of the menu and maybe crank up the karaoke machine. All in all, 2013 has been a fine year in Chinese noodles. 


Anonymous said...

hey Bob, must let me buy you a beer one day in exchange for you taking me to get some good noodles :0)
Steve A

Anonymous said...

I've always spied on Eat Sense since they replaced it's predecessor Robbie's. However they're almost always empty. Even the corporate advertising and finance workers in the area don't seem to frequent there even though there's not many places to eat in that area. As you implied this city doesn't necessarily support quality foreign eateries. Thanks for the tip!

Anonymous said...

Finally visited Mester Wang's since the renovation and you are absolutely correct that the prices are higher. But some of his specialties, like his noodles, are hard to replicate at home but if one is going for "regular" Chinese food this place is not the place to go in Budapest. But why are the rising prices not a good sign? I noticed on a weekend evening that the place didn't have many persons there.