Fun Noodle Bar – Albuquerque, New Mexico
By definition, many, if not most noodles are fun. No, not fun as in luxuriating in a tub filled with ramen (albeit non-edible, synthetic noodles) with real tonkatsu (pork bone) broth. Yeah, that really is a thing in Japan. Nor does my contention that noodles are fun have anything to do with the Simpsons episode in which Bart was threatened with “forty whacks with a wet noodle.” It doesn’t even have anything to do with the Beach Boys classic “Fun, Fun, Fun” song. It especially has nothing to do with those buoyant polyethylene foam “noodle” tubes people bring to swimming pools.
In a classic example of Gil style “swerve,” Fun refers to Chinese noodles made from rice flour or some other kind of starch (as opposed to mein, which are noodles made from wheat). So, when you order “chow fun” at a Chinese restaurant, what you’re really ordering is stir-fried rice noodles usually served with vegetables or meat. And when you order “chow mein,” it’s crispy, fried wheat noodles that’ll be ferried over to your table. So, as you see, many noodles are, by very definition, fun noodles.
Not that noodles can’t be fun or entertaining. During our inaugural visit to Fun Noodle Bar, my friends Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR), Tom Molitor and Bill Resnik commandeered a table with a great view of the exhibition kitchen where a baby-faced chef performed feats of prestidigitation far beyond our capabilities. It’s unlikely any of us would have the manual dexterity to toss a pizza onto the roof of Walter White’s Albuquerque home much less “pull noodles” by hand. We marveled as the young chef transformed a lump of dough into thin noodle strands which would become our meals.
In China, chefs who have mastered the art and skill of pulling noodles are held in high esteem, both as culinary and performance artists (Bob, Tom, Bill and I would be regarded as buffoons or jesters were we to try pulling noodles). They repeatedly stretch and fold a cylinder of dough then multiply it into progressively thinner strands. It’s a principle and aesthetic similar to forming a large pizza dough (something else no one at our table can do without risking personal harm). The fresh noodles are prepared in a broth and served in sundry ways, most commonly in a soup.
The specialty of the house at Fun Noodle Bar is the Lanzhou beef noodle named for the city of Lanzhou, home to more than 1,000 beef noodle restaurants. Lanzhou’s distinct culinary culture is centered around different types of noodles making the city renowned throughout China for its noodles nonpareil. Fun Noodle Bar’s operational statement is to “bring Chinese local specialties to the United States, integrating Chinese food culture into Western’s and letting more Americans know about the FUN Chinese local food elements.” According to the restaurant’s website, “the name FUN NOODLE BAR can be understood as a funny environment, unique dishes and native ingredients.”
The restaurant’s ambiance is in a “young and international style, providing a bright and fashionable dining environment for consumer.” The website boasts of cooking “healthy food in use of local ingredients from the United States and flavorings from China.” Besides Chinese cuisine, Fun Noodle Bar also “combines local specialties from other parts of Asia.” While the initial draw may be the hand-pulled noodles, the menu is replete with interesting and delicious options that will certainly inspire repeat visits.
As you peruse the appetizers section of the menu, you’ll probably conclude it has the makings of a pretty good dim sum menu with such small plate items as scallion pancakes, popcorn chicken, edamame and BBQ pork crepe. That conclusion will be reinforced when you turn to the dumplings section of the menu and find steamed dumplings, beef or pork pot stickers, steamed bao, pan-fried bao and more. We quickly scoured the cold and pan-fried noodle entrees before concentrating more of our time studying the noodle soup section of the menu. There are eleven different noodle soups including several ramen dishes. Rice and fried rice options such as kung pao chicken and General Tso’s chicken round out a very interesting menu.
You could debate whether my friend Bill is an eternal optimist or what P.T. Barnum might term “a sucker.” Much like Charlie Brown continues to fall for Lucy Van Pelt’s repeated promises to hold the football in place only to pull it away at the last second when Charlie tries to kick it, Bill continues to order crab Rangoon type appetizers in hopes of a savory delight. Invariably what winds up being delivered to his table are dessert sweet, sometimes even cloying, bite-sized bits of disappointment. At least Fun Noodle Bar’s fried cheese wontons made for good comedy material. We compared them to everything from fried cheesecake to cronuts stuffed with pudding to sweet chicken feet. After each of us had one, no one really wanted to polish off the remaining wonton.
There was nothing comedic about the pan-fried bao (pork with Chinese cabbage), a seriously good dumpling. Bao actually translates to “steamed bun.” In fact to most dim sum aficionados, the term “bao” probably conjures images of a warm, soft bread bun stuffed with char siu (BBQ pork) and served in a bamboo basket. There’s nothing obviously “fried” about the bao pictured above. You actually have to turn them over and look at the bottom to see any semblance of a fried appearance. Bite into them and what you will see is a generous clump of pork with minced Chinese cabbage. The accompanying soy-based dipping sauce has sweet, savory and tart elements that complement the bao very well.
Wikipedia might tell you tamales, ravioli, empanadas and even matzo balls are a type of dumpling, but for most of us the term dumpling evokes images of crescent-shaped steamed dumplings. At Fun Noodle Bar, they’re available with pork and Chinese cabbage or beef with onion. The telltale hand-pinched seal that keeps the filling in place is readily apparent. It’s a Tupperware-like seal that prevents the filling from spilling out while the dumplings are immersed in a boiling bath which renders them soft, but chewy. Bite into them and you expose the minced protein (beef for us) with which the dumplings are stuffed. These are delicious, but not exactly special.
Both Bill and Tom enjoyed the Dan Dan Noodles, a popular street food favorite in China with a rather unique backstory. Dan Dan actually refers to a pole used by vendors to carry noodles and sauces to sell on the streets. When someone orders a bowl of Dan Dan noodles, the vendor mixes the noodles with a sauce and tops them with pork. Fun Noodle Bar’s version of Dan Dan Noodles is described on the menu as “spicy sauce with preserved vegetables, chili oil, Sichuan pepper, minced pork and scallions.” While quite flavorful, you would think all this soup’s piquant elements would have generated more heat. In the Sichuan province, this dish is typically served at about a “numbing” level of heat.
When Philip Bolyard recommended Fun Noodle Bar, he suggested the roasted pork rib noodle soup, an option as intriguing as how much the Dallas Cowboys will have to pay Dak Prescott after his dismantling of the hapless New York Giants. The roasted pork rib noodle soup (spinach, green onion, cilantro, Shanghainese greens) is one of those enchanting elixirs you dream of when winter’s bite is making life uncomfortable. If you love (and who doesn’t) roasted pork ribs, this is the soup for you. There are three of them floating in the swimming pool-sized bowl. The pork slides off the bone easily and is as tender and delicious as can be, inheriting the rich flavor of a broth kissed with star anise and cinnamon. The noodles are slurpalicious.
Comedian Michelle Wolf declared “the most useful information on CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles.” I may not have the cachet of the celebrity chef, but for all its worth, the Fun Noodle Bar is a great place to go eat noodles and have fun (by multiple definitions) in the process.
Fun Noodle Bar
5317 Menaul Blvd., N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Roasted Pork Rib Noodle Soup, Dan Dan Noodle, Steamed Dumplings, Pan-Fried Bao, Fried Cheese Wonton