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.
5 September 2019: 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.
5 September 2019: 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.
5 September 2019: 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.
5 September 2019: 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 wot a “numbing” level of heat.
5 September 2019: 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.
8 July 2022: Bon Appetit describes soup dumplings as falling “in the category of “delicious things we love to order when we’re out, but would never even dream of making at home.” A mainstay of dim sum menus, these steamed buns are an intricate dish whose Houdini-like preparation baffles non-chefs. Within each plump dumpling is nestled a little pork meatball surrounded by a delightful meaty broth. How the broth gets in there is a mystery, the answer to which you can find online, but one foodies prefer not to contemplate as we’d rather be enjoying these tender pouches of porcine perfection with the liquid surprise.
Our soup dumplings arrived at our table sans sauce. Trust me, that’s a good thing. The inclination of most Americans is to immediately take any sort of dumpling and dip it into whatever sauce accompanies it (even if it’s ketchup). There’s a reason these are called soup dumplings. When you bite into them, you’re rewarded with a burst of savory soup deliciousness. You’ll want to slurp up all the warm, comforting soup along with the porcine orbs within. The wrapper is a bit on the chewy side so that the soup doesn’t inadvertently escape onto your lap. After you pierce that chewy case and all the soup has been slurped up, you can certainly dip the remainder (if there is any) of the dumpling into sauce remaining from another appetizer.
8 July 2022: Doesn’t it make sense that Shaanxi, the northwest Chinese province, which served as the starting point of the Silk Road (and home of the Terracotta Warriors) would boast of mouth-numbing spicy noodles that set digestive systems on fire? Youpo noodles (also known as biangbiang noodles) are a specialty from that province. Touted as one of the “eight curiosities” of Shaanxi , these noodles are described as being like a belt, owing to their thickness and length. Normally hand-made, these noodles have, until rather recently, been mostly contained to the Shaanxi region. Their primary consumer were workers lacking the time to make thinner noodles.
Today, the noodles have become more widely known across China and to a lesser extent under spacious skies. My Kim, who loves noodles, practically leapt at the opportunity to enjoy Youpo noodles. Alas, because one of her medications has cost her any heat tolerance she acquired during years of eating chile, she ordered the dish with “no heat.” That meant the noodles couldn’t be tossed in the ground Sichuan peppercorns, ginger and soy sauce mix that gives Youpo noodles a “three chili icon” on the menu designating pretty darn hot. In essence, the dish remaining was thick noodles with braised beef. There was none of the boldness I was looking to try, but hey, it was her lunch. Were I to lose my heat tolerance my recourse would probably be a tall tree and short rope.
8 July 2022: Mark Twain once declared “Accident is the name of the greatest of all inventors.” Case in point, the invention of tonkatsu ramen. History has it that the modern-day tonkatsu broth was developed by accident. Legend has it that when the owner of a ramen shop went shopping, he left his mother in charge. To his shock, when he returned hours later he discovered that the soup was boiling and had become murky–almost white–in the process of being overcooked. Rather than dispose of it, he seasoned it and actually found that this new version had super umami and was much tastier than the original recipe. After this discovery (for which the mother received little credit), the technique for boiling pork bones for great lengths became widespread and very popular in Japan.
If you love ultra rich, ultra umami and ultra salty flavors, tonkatsu ramen is the ramen of choice. Constructed with boiled egg, fish cake, black fungus, green onion and sweet corn and your choice of meat (chicken, shrimp, beef–all of which seem contradictory to the pork broth), it’s a good ramen with the characteristic murky properties of traditional tonkatsu broth. It’s been years since tonkatsu ramen brought excitement to my life. Now, to quote an Eagles’ song “after the thrill is gone,” tonkatsu ramen is so there…still good, but no longer a taste bud awakening, transformative dish. Whether that’s on me or on Fun Noodle Bar, I’m saddened to have lost that excitement.
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: 8 July 2022
1st VISIT: 5 September 2019
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Roasted Pork Rib Noodle Soup, Dan Dan Noodle, Steamed Dumplings, Pan-Fried Bao, Fried Cheese Wonton