“To witness the birth of a noodle is a glorious thing.
I have listened, spellbound, as an 85-year-old noodle chef in Beijing
told me why the act of making noodles helped him make sense of the world.”
-~Terry Durack, Noodle
In the movie Mr. Nice Guy, martial artist cum actor Jackie Chan portrays a chef with a successful television show. In the movie’s opening scene, Chef Jackie is presiding over a flour-dusted table, stretching, twisting, and pulling a piece of dough into fine strands of noodles, a process the TV host can only describe as “alchemy.” For the culinary obsessed among us, that was the highlight of the movie, all the “special effects” we needed. Later on, Chef Jackie would be stretching, twisting and pulling a drug lord and his syndicate in much the same manner as he did the noodles.
There’s something almost mystical about the artisan process of pulling noodles by hand. Certainly for the onlooker, it’s entertaining to the point of being mesmerizing. It’s not prestidigitation in that there’s no sleight of hand to deceive you. It’s sheer brilliant mastery of an time-honored craft. It’s performance art and scientific precision in one. Learning to repeatedly stretch dough to produce hundreds of thin strands requires months of intensive training under the watchful eye of a master. During this rigorous training, aspirants should expect to do nothing but making and pulling noodles all day long.
In China, chefs who have mastered the art and skill of pulling noodles are held in high esteem, both as culinary and performance artists (I would certainly be regarded as a buffoon, jester or maybe even Pho Kup were I to try pulling noodles). The dough has specific flours and oils and the temperature has it be right or it won’t pull. Noodle masters repeatedly stretch and fold a cylinder of dough then multiply it into progressively thinner strands. It’s a principle and aesthetic similar to a pizzaioli forming a large pizza dough (something else I couldn’t do without risking personal harm). The fresh noodles are prepared in a broth and served in sundry ways, most commonly in a soup.
Peruse the Noodle Works menu and you’ll find several dishes are named after Lanzhou, a Chinese city known for its noodles. Lanzhou is home to more than 1,000 beef noodle restaurants with a distinct culinary culture centered around different types of noodles, all hand-pulled. Until rather recently, Duke City diners had to travel to Las Vegas, Nevada or Los Angeles to enjoy the performance art of creating delicious noodles whose lineage can be traced back to Lanzhou. Then in 2019, the Fun Noodle Bar and the Iron Cafelaunched. Both feature culinary acrobatics, the deft transformation of a clump of dough into hundreds of silken noodles.
A third Duke City restaurant specializing in Lanzhou-style noodles launched amid the pandemic and myriad restaurant restrictions. Located in the North Towne Plaza on Wyoming just north of Academy, Noodle Works may be new (July, 2020) to Albuquerque, but as with the Fun Noodle Bar, is the younger sibling of a restaurant which got its start in Texas. In the case of Noodle Works, its elder sibling is Noodles & Dumplings out of El Paso, which isn’t elder by much, having launched in April, 2019.
From the shaded patio and its handful of tables, you’ll have to use your imagination to marvel at the hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye dexterity of the noodle chefs who make all noodles fresh to order in an exhibition kitchen. What you won’t have to imagine is the intoxicating aromas of a sizzling stir fry dish that waft gently toward you from the kitchen. Even more than the menu, those aromas might just help make your decision as to what you should order. Regardless of those aromas, you should study the menu. It’s a veritable trove of deliciousness listed in several sections: Popular Items, Appetizers, Noodles/Wontons, Dumplings/Bun, Entrees, Fried Rice/Noodles and Desserts.
Chinese legend has it that explorer Marco Polo missed scallion pancakes so much that when he returned to Italy, he tried to find a chef willing to make the pancake for him. A Neapolitan chef is said to have accidentally created pizza by putting the scallion pancake filling on top rather than inside the dough then adding cheese. Culinary historians long ago debunked this legend, but agree similarities between scallion (green onion) pancakes and pizza do exist. For one thing, Chinese pancakes are round in shape. For another, they’re sliced into wedges. It should also be pointed out that though they’re called “pancakes,” there’s little similarity between what denizens of the fruited plain call pancakes and what Chinese call pancakes.
Typically savory, Chinese pancakes are traditionally fried and have a crispy and crunchy crust with scallions sandwiched between layers of pastry inside. Eight wedges per order will make them a very popular appetizer option at Noodle Works. The green onion pancakes arrive at your table fresh, hot and inviting with a golden hue punctuated by the neon green of fresh onions. Instead of a more common soy based dipping sauce, the pancakes are served with a chili oil that just doesn’t have much bite. Considering the pancakes were very lightly salted, they could have used a little help. My Kim asked for the restaurant’s plum sauce which actually went quite well with the pancakes.
Pork scallion dumplings made for a much better appetizer. Get them fried instead of boiled and they’ll arrive at your table with a brittle umber tuile connecting all eight of them. Yes, each order rewards you with eight pork scallion dumplings. Best of all, they’re soup dumplings which means you’re well advised to exercise a bit of caution when you bite into them. Start by nibbling a corner, just enough so you can sip (not slurp up) the soup. That way it doesn’t scald your tongue Then you can eat the remainder. Both the pork and scallions are terrific. As with the green onion pancakes, the dumplings are served with a rather insipid chili oil.
We’ve come to the portion of this review in which a public service announcement is probably necessary. Diners at Noodle Works should be aware that portion sizes are probably double what you get at most restaurants. Neither my Kim nor I made a significant dent in our entrees which turned out to be a good thing because those entrees were even better the following day when flavors had fully penetrated. Ingredients on my Kim’s entree, shredded pork in garlic sauce (julienne carrots, green and yellow peppers, woodear mushrooms, scallions and chili) over flat noodles proved the perfect complement to tender, shredded strips of pork in a sauce that might best be described as piquant with a hint of garlic. Okay, it wasn’t that piquant or my Kim wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it so much.
Leave it to me to order a menu item about which very little information seems to exist online–the curiously named westland beef noodles (the menu also lists westland chicken noodles and westland lamb noodles). We surmised the wide, flat noodles might be called “westland” because the dish is a sort of “Italy meets China” fusion (insert another Marco Polo legend here) of ingredients. Red, green and yellow peppers as well as white onions are probably as common in Chinese food as they are in Italian cuisine, but tomato sauce skews heavily toward Italian food. Noodle Works creates its own tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes which they season in a manner not entirely unlike some Italian dishes. Shredded cabbage is perhaps the most Chinese outlier and it’s probably the least flavorful. This is stir fry fusion magic at its best, a dish you could enjoy whether you’re in the mood for Chinese or Italian food.
Three dessert dishes–chocolate bun, cheese bun and milk bun–are available should you have any appetite remaining. When you use the term “bun” in Asia, you’re typically talking about steamed buns, a very popular festival food, particularly for Chinese New Year. Steamed buns are a delicious, warm, fluffy treat of stuffing wrapped inside a sweet, white dough. That’s what we expected when we ordered chocolate bun. Instead of steamed buns, three donut hole-like obs sprinkled with sugar arrived at our table. Bite into them and a molten chocolate deliciousness is released. They’re good, but not what we were expecting.
Even if you don’t get to watch a skillful master stretch, twist and pull noodles into hundreds of strands of pure delight, there’s a lot to like about Noodle Works, a Chinese restaurant as good as any in Albuquerque.
5901-S Wyoming Blvd., N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2020
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Pork Scallion Dumplings, Green Onion Pancakes, Shredded Pork in Garlic Sauce Over Noodles, West Land Beef Noodles, Chocolate Buns