The first time I saw noodles being hand-pulled, I was fascinated. A chef — in this case Tony Wu of Martin Yan’s M.Y. China in San Francisco — was pulling noodles as part of the annual Chinese New Year’s celebration at Fung’s Kitchen. His movements were deft, extremely quick and mesmerizing.
Before you could get a handle one what was happening, what seemed like hundreds of strands of fine, thin noodle were held dangling in a wide-U shape between his hands, with just the faintest dip in the middle. His face beamed triumphant and it was with amazement that we later got to sample his noodles as part of a stir fry noodle course (and yes, they were terrific).
Strings Noodle opened in the back facing section of the Dun Huang shopping plaza in Chinatown around February of this year. I promptly visited the first time I heard about it, watching in amazement as two Chinese chefs worked side-by-side, pulling and stretching, and pounding and then forming the noodles much in the same way that chef Wu did behind an exhibition window that allowed guests to see into the kitchen. Like the windowed dumpling rooms that are installed at famed Taiwanese dumpling house Din Tai Fung, there’s a definite thrill to seeing what’s happening, of witnessing the craft and skill and mastery of these undoubted noodle artisans.
It also builds expectation, and that’s where Strings Noodle has the most difficulty. After seeing all those crazy arm acrobatics behind the window, you’re most assuredly going to have a memorable meal, right?
During my first visit, the restaurant was so new that there were only two main dishes on the menu. I ordered the Lanzhou Beef Noodle Soup (their specialty) at the recommendation of the very helpful, very nice server who spoke English (note that the majority of the staff only speak Chinese). The dinner was a “combo” which came with a very large, appetizing-looking bowl noodle soup, a plate of thinly sliced beef and a small rectangular side dish with pickled vegetables and a boiled egg on the side. I had asked for mild spice, so the broth appeared clear, topped with floating bits of chopped cilantro and herbs, and a little bit of chili oil.
Promising, right? This is definitely one of those cases where appearances so don’t match up with the reality. Strike one was the broth. One sip and I already knew it was a bomb. The broth had no flavor whatsoever. In fact, if you had blindfolded me and told me it was pasta water, I would have believed it.
Strike two was the noodle. I didn’t know that I could specify a size of noodle (you can get thin, regular, and flat noodle), so they had given me the regular. It, too, had barely any flavor, tasting like undercooked, unflavored dough. I mean sure, when you pulled them up with chopsticks they looked beautiful, but most store-bought noodles that you can pick up in the cold section of any Asian grocery store put these to shame.
Dejected and disappointed, I couldn’t bring myself to return for some time. I had hoped that my experience was a one-off, that maybe they were too new, or maybe something was wrong with the boiling water to where it couldn’t heat up properly to cook the noodles.
Well, folks, this week (several months later), I went back. The place was as cute as ever — cozy, with a happy cartoonish mural on the wall of chubby Chinese kids slurping noodles. This time, instead of a Chinese noodle puller, there was an Hispanic noodle puller. My helpful English-speaking server was still there, answering questions and attentive in an earnest, want-to-please kind of way. No complaints about service.
But as for our meal? Of our four appetizers, there were two that were good. A tofu with preserved egg, bathed in a pool of chili sauce, was fresh and probably the best thing we tried. An appetizer of sweet and sour string beans, which I’d had before, was well made and interesting, though I think the more traditional sour pickled green mustard would have been more to my liking. But our two meat appetizers — a cold sliced pork shoulder and a braised beef (the same braised beef that is used in the soups) — were dry and flavorless. Cardboard would not be too harsh a description.
The noodle soups — a relative bargain at $5.99 a bowl for lunch ($9.99 at dinner for a combo) — came in the same large bowl you get at dinnertime. And, just like last time, they were filled to the brim with just-pulled, just-boiled noodle.
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My companion’s take? “No such thing as al dente, huh?” he murmured as he pulled his thin noodle strands high and piled them on his spoon. A few bites later, he pushed the bowl away. I made a go of it with my wide noodle (which resembled Italian egg noodle), but gave up a few bites into it as well: It tasted exactly the same as the first time.
So the verdict? Go to Strings Noodle if you want to see a hand-pulling noodle show. It is pretty amazing, and the staff are extremely indulgent with people who come up to the window to film or take pictures. Also, go at lunch because the lunch special is extremely affordable (four appetizers and two noodle bowls rang in at just around $30). But don’t go expecting to find a new go-to noodle soup. Instead, head on over to Bun Bo Hue Duc Chuong Midnight for their hearty flavor-bomb of a noodle soup known as bun bo hue (beef and pork noodle soup) from Vietnam’s Hue region, and you might just say to yourself "Now, this I'm going to crave."