this is a food blog, right?
first i need to give main credit to jen myers' "room 50" blog for turning me on to this place. her writeup described this past monday night's folklife series (props to the lowell national historic park people for their efforts to "bring the spirit of the folk festival all year round", though as usual i'll chime in to point out that local chefs and artisans get to participate, and that's great, but local songwriters and musicians do not, and that's not so great) where chef gene wu shared his noodle-making techniques with an eager and appreciative audience.
where do you go to get your own first-hand look and taste of chef wu's noodles you ask? why, gene's chinese flatbread cafe in chelmsford, of course.
my son had the #3 pork flatbread sandwich. (and it was good--very, very good). i had the #5 house noodle soup. (and it was good--very very good). but my daughter (seriously on this one) won the lottery with the #4 hand pulled noodles, and (we were sharing things family style) she had to spend the entire rest of our meal fending off the chopstick forays into her bowl lest she be left with nothing at all to eat. these noodles go so far beyond anything i've ever had to describe that all i can say is WOW, and, seriously on this one, you gotta try these things.
my daughter is pretty laid back about her food. we do drive thru burger king double cheeseburgers and various local pizza options and run of the mill chinese take-out (more on that later) and she gets the difference between true crap and otherwise tasty crap, but she's never so ambitious as to want to endure restaurant crowds to get the really good stuff. (to her, three people is a crowd). some day i'll write a review listing all the stuff she likes here dowtown (she's got pretty remarkable tastes, her comfort with comfort fast food notwithstanding) but i'm going to have to throw all the other places out the window and start with this one, because it's the first time i've ever seen her get territorial about food. we're talking primal sideways glowers and sincere aggression here. we're talking about the queen of "whatever" all of a sudden going straight to "touch this bowl again and i'll pin your hand to the table with this chopstick and i'm not kidding--i can get another chopstick at the counter if i have to".
with my bowl of soup and a plateful of flatbread slivers and the hands-down best fried chicken i've yet had anywhere north of alabama, (gene's pu-pu platter is not like your run-of-the-mill pu-pu platter, and more on the fried chicken in a moment), i was too full to feel compelled to try to overpower a 100 pound waif of a sixteen year old girl, (though with that look in her eye i'll grant you i would not want to bet on the outcome, even out-weighing her two-to-one and having a solid 12 inches on her in height), but the thought did occur to me. my son had polished off the flatbread sandwich and was pulling noodles out of my soup bowl and grousing that she didn't have to be so nasty about it, but he, too, like me, was more amused to see her true colors come out than to want to risk life and limb over something that he knew he could have again whenever he wanted. (he goes to school just down the road at nashoba tech, and i'm betting you right here and right now that he and his buddies' next after school jaunt is up littleton road towards chelmsford and straight into gene's parking lot).
i get tired of assholes going on about "presentation" and things like "mouth feel". (as you probably are by now about reading this). but, like my awakening at l'auberge de l'ill in alsace, (a religious experience i would highly recommend to anyone, and i HATE restaurants like that with a passion), when i saw the bowl at gene's, and then when i first managed to get a piece into my mouth, (more on that in a sec), i realized i was experiencing remarkable. l'auberge de l'ill will run you hundreds of dollars for a proper dinner for two (i'm embarrassed to say how many, but i will say worth every last samolian), but you can beat the appetites of two teenagers and a 200 pound hungry man into absolute submission for $30 at gene's, and the hand pulled noodles are as good as any food you're gonna get anywhere at any price. (and they're six bucks--SIX BUCKS!)
so, how to clean this up and get through all the rest of the stuff i want to tell you...
i want to put in a bit about how disappointed i was with the chinese food here in lowell when i arrived going on six years ago... until china star opened up on broadway, there wasn't a joint within 10 miles i'd cross the road to bother to enter. china star is the real deal, don't get me wrong, but it's still, for the most part, "generic" chinese. oh, yeah, they've got awesome peking duck, pork belly by the pound, and plenty to satisfy. i go there all the time. but it's not something i'd talk about with my friends from san francisco, or elsewhere like chinatown in boston where they know what real chinese is really like. it's just lowell's best in my humble opinion, and i'm eager to learn better. (seriously--if you know of a good place, tell me--i love good chinese food). but this one? i'll put anything i've ever had in either chinatown or san francisco or anywhere else for that matter up against these noodles, and i'm telling you right here and right now that these noodles would win every single time.
seriously. noodles. just noodles. if you don't believe me, do yourself the favor of going to try to prove me wrong. just noodles. i've stood in lines around the block to squeeze into house of nanking there on kearny street in san francisco, and i've had it straight from the wok. (if you're ever near there, go there!) i've trolled the quays in singapore and picked live fish out of the tank to have it cooked just for me. i've had the good fortune in my life to have eaten some amazing food. (sometimes having a job that makes you travel places isn't so bad). and it's never better than when it's cheap and straight from somebody who knows what they're doing, who's cooking just for you. none of these places will set you back more than a pittance. (house of nanking potstickers are six bucks, too, and the most expensive thing on their menu is barely $14, and i just looked to doublecheck). i don't do fancy. i don't do expensive. (my l'auberge de l'ill tab was paid for by my exceptionally generous dining companion, because she knew if i were paying, we'd have had one appetizer and left). but i'll do good every single day of the week. and gene's noodles are GOOD.
boston mag, (yeah, i know) does a lot of "best of" stuff. they picked their 20 best asian restaurants in the area. they picked gene's: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/articles/2013/01/asian-dining-20-essential-best-asian-restaurants-boston/2/
tiny urban kitchen gave 'em a go: http://www.tinyurbankitchen.com/2012/09/genes-chinese-flatbread-cafe.html
bunny and porkbelly have had TWO says on gene's so far, and here's the latest (with a link to the original): http://bunnyandporkbelly.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/dapanji-%E5%A4%A7%E7%9B%98%E9%B8%A1-genes-chinese-flatbread-cafe-chelmsford-ma-boston/
and, of course, the boston globe: http://bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2012/06/12/cuts-and-tugs-fresh-noodles-chelmsford-for-traditional-chinese-soups/4G3QpT5lmF7NsAiAcrc4AK/story.html
so, about those wings...
rumor has it, when the first curious customers showed up, they asked all the time about "traditional" (i.e. cliche american) chinese dishes like lo mein and fried chicken. so, as a sop to our poor, bland and tasteless tastes, gene added both, and a few other more readilyt-to-americans-recognizable dishes to his menu. my daughter, as a matter of fact, went straight for the lo mein off the menu, until gene talked her out of it. so i can't say about gene's lo mein. but i can say about gene's fried chicken. i'm not proud. i'll admit it. when going deep with something alien like xi'an hand-pulled noodles, i'm not above bribing the hesitant with a little crab rangoon and fried chicken. (via that pu-pu platter i mentioned). well, i can say that the rangoons were nothing to write home about, but that chicken is amazing. so succulent and perfect... melt in your mouth good. i'm guessing gene would be embarrassed to brag on it, so simple and common as it is, but i'll go out of my way to toss a few wings on every otherwise authentic order i place there. they're that good. and, so that we're clear, still not nearly in the same stratosphere with those noodles.
so, lastly, about wrestling those noodles into your mouth... the hand-pulled noodles are really *A* hand pulled noodle. can't say how many feet long because it would have been messy to try to unwind it out of the bowl to its full length because there was so much of it. but dealing with the dish is something that didn't come naturally to me. i've managed udon before, so it's not like i don't have experience with the concept. but these noodles (this noodle?) was so amazingly substantial that its weight added an extra degree of "how do i do this?" to the bowl. round-eyes with chopsticks as a rule are not dextrous enough and strong enough on their sticks to deal with this sort of thing. my technique, and i'm going to ask gene next time i'm there for the *right* way, was to sever the noodle by pressing it against the side of the bowl with my chopstick, so that it tore into smaller segments that i could then manage to hoist to my mouth. (and even that was an amazing experience--the noodle was so alive in the bowl, and i can think of no better word than alive, that it severed in an organic way, from one edge of the noodle to the other, with a gradual separation across its width that was pleasing to watch and to feel all by itself). my daughter went primal and looped over a chopstick, managed to wrestle the weight of it up to her mouth, and then slurped and chewed off each piece. (not as easy for me from across the table, and, as i said before, she wasn't letting this bowl get away from her even one millimeter). i'm sure there are 100 ways to do this, all of which end the same way--with a spreading smile and the zen contentment of the buddha. the noodles are substantial. satisfying. you know the mee pad at viet-thai? those delectably wonderful broad, flat rice noodles that are more like lasagne noodles than anything else? imagine thicker. imagine more substantial. (they're wheat-based, not rice, so i don't know if that's got anything to do with it). imagine like nothing you've ever had before.
highly recommended. and i'll take you there if you need the ride. i will take any excuse to have them again. only this time, i'm getting my OWN BOWL. all to myself.