It's lunchtime and all ten tables at the Lucky Pot noodle shop are taken. Aside from me and my dining companion, the only other Anglo in the joint is wearing a blue cap with a City of Houston insignia on it. A health department inspector and a restaurant critic -- this is Lucky Pot's lucky day.
I have the lamb noodles, a huge bowl of hearty, thick-cut homemade noodles served in a broth with tender lamb chunks and fresh spinach leaves. My dining companion orders a chewy green onion pancake cut into quarters, and I slather my slice in soy sauce and crushed chiles. We also munch on little condiment dishes of crunchy garlic seaweed and celery with dried tofu that are as addictive as bread-and-butter pickles.
When our lunches are finished, we sit back and eavesdrop on the health inspector as he writes up Lucky Pot's report card. I am impressed to hear him speak Chinese, albeit with a Southern accent. The kitchen is spick-and-span, he says. But they need to stop keeping the rice ladle in a bowl of water. That's about it for the demerits.
When this ordeal is over, I ask the owner where he is from and whether his fantastic homemade noodles are made with rice or wheat, but he simply smiles and walks away. A woman comes over to our table and explains that the owner is from Peking and doesn't speak English.
"But aren't Peking-style noodles the kind with the dark brown sauce, like the ones they serve a couple of doors down at Xiong Café?" I ask.
"There are 10,000 kinds of noodles in China, sir," she says. "These are northern-style noodles."
While you may not be able to find all 10,000 varieties of Chinese noodles in this unassuming new shopping center at 9888 Bellaire, I can personally testify that you will find more than you can eat in a week of lunches.
I started at one end of the "9 Triple 8" center and ate my way to the other. In the process, I sampled Yunnan, Peking, Szechwan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mandarin-style noodles. Here's a brief account of my slurpings.
In the front window of Hong Kong Food Street, half a dozen brown and glistening roast ducks hang by the neck next to an upside-down pig whose skin is blistered and crispy. With its mahogany dining tables and ornate carved wood screens, this is the most impressive restaurant in the 9 Triple 8 center. The waitress assures me that the food here is just like in Hong Kong.
There's a happy hour menu featuring dim sum and cold beer; a congee menu for rice gruel lovers (congee with pig kidney and livers is a popular choice), and an extensive selection of Chinese barbecue and noodles. The place is packed at noon, and everybody seems to be ordering barbecue.
I try to make sense of the noodle menu. "Special intestinal meat noodle" sounds more like a flu remedy than a noodle bowl. I'd try it if somebody could tell me what it is, but of course nobody speaks much English here. Finally I point to a table where a man is eating barbecue pork and noodles and tell the waitress, "I'll have what he's having." We also get a bowl of soup noodles with sliced roasted duck and wontons.
The other guy's pork and noodles were served separately, but my barbecue is already in the soup. The curly little wheat noodles have a firm, springy texture, and the barbecued pork is sweet and salty enough to season the whole bowl.
I think my dining companion likes my soup better than hers. Sliced duck is always a nuisance to eat since it's still on the bone, but the fatty meat and skin give a rich sheen to the broth. The wontons are filled with ground pork and big chunks of shrimp. Both noodle bowls are pleasant but not exciting. I will definitely be back, but next time I'll concentrate on the various barbecue dishes.
Next stop is Lollicup, a Taiwanese bubble tea franchise where the patrons are all young Asian-Americans. The worldwide 1,000-store chain with the smiley-face-in-a-daisy logo is the brainchild of bubble tea visionary Daniel Lai, creator of the legendary Forever Young Afternoon Tea Station chain in Taipei. I try a bowl of Lollicup's South Taiwanese soup noodles. It's chicken stock with dark brown (roasted?) tofu cubes, a preserved duck egg and some lackluster noodles in it. A comedy skit ensues in which a clueless white man splashes soup all over himself as he tries to eat a slippery duck egg with chopsticks. The slapstick routine has the whole place in hysterics. I might bring my teenage daughters back here to check out the bubble tea scene, but I'll pass on the duck egg soup next time.
The forlorn Classic Kitchen restaurant at the far end of the center never seems to have any customers. Is it the Styrofoam cups they give you when you order hot tea that turns people off? Or is it the dishwatery soup you have to wade through to get to their extra-long noodles and Shanghai dumplings? The Szechwan-style noodles with pickled radishes come with an equally bland stock, and a noodle bowl with Szechwan peanut sauce isn't the least bit spicy. Although the noodles themselves are good, we leave without finishing anything.
At Xiong Café, there's an old map of the Forbidden City on the wall, and expats from the Chinese capital filling the picnic-style tables. We share a typical Peking snack of cold pickled pig's ear and pork stomach pieces in chile oil while we wait for our soup.
Spaghetti-like Peking noodles, which come with a topping of chopped cucumbers and a dark sweet pork sauce, are a popular order here. But I know from experience these are too sweet for my taste. So I try the spicy beef noodle soup, which comes with wide noodles and a dark brown beef stock. It's one of the heartiest soups in the 9 Triple 8 center, and an especially good thing to order on a cold day. We also order Peking-style fried dumplings, which are oblong with a cylinder of meat inside. They remind me of miniature dough-covered hot dogs.
The sign above our next noodle shop stop says Fancy Noodles in English and Long Chopsticks in Chinese. Maybe this is an allusion to the Asian folk saying: The difference between heaven and hell is that in hell, people have yard-long chopsticks so they can't reach their mouths. In heaven, the chopsticks are the same length, but the people feed each other.
The counter help speaks English here, so you can ask questions to your heart's content. We try spicy beef noodle soup with specially requested wheat noodles (it usually comes with rice noodles). The dark reddish broth really packs a kick. Is it hot sesame oil that makes it so spicy?
Overly aggressive slurping leads to an on-the-job accident. As I vacuum a long wiggly wheat noodle out of the bowl, a droplet of spicy broth flies up into my eye, temporarily blinding me. The engineer I'm eating with immediately begins designing protective eyewear for noodle-fanciers.
We also get Yunnan rice noodle soup with pork, seafood and vegetables. This one starts off slow, with garlicky broth and nothing-special rice noodles, but finishes strong. The vegetables are some kind of crisp pickled shoots, and when you get to the bottom of the bowl, these, and a lot of crushed peanuts, make the final few slurps extra-crunchy.
On the last day of my noodle testing, I ended up back at Lucky Pot. I'd already eaten lunch, but there was one last bowl of noodles I wanted to try. While the lamb noodles were excellent, I suspected that the big homemade wheat noodles they make at Lucky Pot would taste even better in the house special noodle soup. The waitress started to describe this soup to me at lunch the other day, but she lost me when she mentioned cornstarch.
The house special comes with big chunks of Chinese bacon, shiitake mushrooms, black mushrooms and dried tofu in a thick brown broth. True, the cornstarch makes the soup a little gloppy, but it also gives it an appeal I hadn't anticipated. The sublimely flavored bowl of noodles reminded me of fresh, rough-cut pasta in a mushroom and bacon sauce. It is currently my favorite bowl of noodles in the 9 Triple 8 shopping center.
But, of course, I won't know for sure until I've tried them all.
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