Friday, July 08, 2011

Review: (Ultimate) Noodle Bar

I'll level with you. This restaurant isn't actually called Ultimate Noodle Bar. I just made that up because it sounds cool. Usually we just call it the Sanlitun Noodle Bar, but there are several of those around. Sometimes we call it the Hidden Noodle Bar, but then we get confused between that and the 1949 Hidden City Noodle Bar (which is also excellent and deserves its own write-up).

So as of right now, I've decided to call the place Ultimate Noodle Bar.

I've been selfishly hesitant to write this post. This place is already way too busy for my own liking. But after our last visit, I couldn't not write about it.

Besides, I actually found out about this place from The Beijinger's interview with SALT chef Ana Esteves, so to whom much is given, much is required, or with great power comes great responsibility or something like that.

M owes me several big fat "I told you so"s on this restaurant too. For years, we've wandered past it in that alley behind Tongli Studios and M, being the sucker that she is for all things noodles, would always point out the large "麵" (Noodle) signs on UNB's 2nd floor window. Given that Sanlitun has a wealth of excellent non-noodle foods, I would shake my head and walk on by.

So, a few months ago, when we were perusing an issue of the magazine and saw that Ms. Esteves' favorite bowl of noodles was at a hard to find noodle bar behind Tongli Studios, M shrieked and ran directly there. I know what you're thinking: "Ah, interesting use of hyperbole--obvious exaggeration used to emphasize a point or add excitement and humor to a story." Nay, my friend, nay. I'm reasonably sure that she actually ran straight there.

And when we arrived, the good people at UNB were sorry to inform us that they had in fact run out of noodles. They were as surprised as we were, noting a sudden seemingly random spike in foreigner clientele asking for their Eggplant Noodles.

M was crushed, but we ate something else (Eggplant Rice if I recall correctly) and vowed to return for the noodles. We've been back several times and have been impressed each time.

How to get there

Ok, so if you're standing in that alley (stroll north through the Village past the Apple Store and into the a sea of sidecars, cigar vendors and body odor) and then turn left into a small courtyard. There's a sign for 家常菜 No.42 Chinese Restaurant. Turn in there. By the way, you might want to hold your breath on your way through this mini-tunnel, as there are trash cans on your right that any sane person would not want to smell.

Once you emerge, turn right and walk down to the end of the so-called lane. If you're keeping score, you'll want to head to 七单元 (Unit 7). The Noodle Bar sign should help you find it. Enter the building and head up the stairs.

At the second floor, you'll notice a styrofoam sign with their hours. M and I discovered a trick last week. This illustrious family rests (and preps) from 2-6, you'll want to arrive right at 5:55 to avoid having to wait. Basically, we wandered in right as they were turning the sign, said hi to the chef on our way to the kitchen (yes, it's one of those places) into the small dining room. By 6:00, the place was packed and angry noodle-fiends were harrumphing outside.

We tried to go for a late dinner a few months ago and the place was packed with a 45 minute wait. Unfazed, we went for a bit of shopping while we waited for them to call.

You should be warned. This restaurant isn't perfectly suited for everyone. This is homestyle cooking done well and they charge a bit of a premium for it. And I do think they're actually cooking in their home. As far as cleanliness, the place is quite clean when compared with Xiaochi's and other homestyle restaurants, but less clean than the full service luxury Chinese restaurants. Noodle dishes are in the 30s, as are several rice dishes and plates. The Pork Belly (more on that later) runs 45.

Now, in our minds, that's a friggin' steal. But we have friends who would way rather spend that kind of cash on budget foreign food (say at Biteapitta which is directly across the way).

Ok, on to the food.

Om nom nom

Cherry Pork (Xiao Yintao Rou)

Don't let the name fool you. This ain't no Pick-up Stix deep-fried cardboard in a sweet sauce.

This is a serious slab of pork belly. One of the amazing things about this dish is the layering. On top you've got classic gelatinous belly goodness. I'll be honest with you, everytime one of these lardkins slides down my esophagus, I can hear my slowing heartbeat pounding in my ears. But I'm usually too raptured by awesomeness to care.

Beneath the collagen bombs, you've a nice pulled-style pork. This reminds me of the Carnitas we make at home, rendered in its own fat and caramelized with orange juice.

And beneath the strings of meat, you've got little cubed chunks of sauciness. Not really sure how they do this, it comes out as one slab, but this is a miracle on your plate. They used to have a noodle version of this dish but they've crossed it off their menu. What a pity.

I recommend this for sharing. I got this with a bowl of rice last week, while M and her brother each got noodles and I could only get about halfway through it.

Here's a shot of their noodles. I forget what exactly they have, but they've got several varieties of fried noodle dishes and you can choose from eggplant, eggplant and egg, saucy noodles, strips of meat, mushrooms, etc.

I'd venture to say this is the best bowl of noodles I've had in Beijing (and so much easier than pulling them yourself). But after being married to M for 4 years, the noodles start to run together...

Lastly, we ordered up some veggies. Somehow the veggies here are abnormally verdant, which I assume is a good thing.

These are Jielanmiao, which I guess you could call Chinese Broccoli (Kale) shoots. I'd also highly recommend their Ganbian Doujiao (this is a must for me. This dish is so dang good when done right. Like crack-dusted french fries in vegetable form) and their Kongxincai.

I'm blanking on the story behind this family, but from what I can remember, the floor manager and the chef are brothers. The chef is trained in Sichuan style cooking, but he's not actually from there. So as you can expect, there's a whole lot of Sichuan peppercorn action going on, so if you're not into that, you might want to ask them to tone it down.

When I eat this food, it's clear to me there's a lot of love and self-respect that goes into it. And having had several really pleasant (albeit efficient) interactions with this family, I hope they do well for themselves. Judging by the looks of the line outside their door, I think they're doing fine.

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