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What I Ate: May 16, 2009 (Chen's Noodle House)

Posted 16 May, 2009 at 10:32pm by Michael Chu
(Filed under: Food, What I Ate)

Lunch: We met up with a Jason Vierzba, a college friend I hadn't seen in almost ten years who was on a business trip near Austin. I decided on Chen's Noodle House (8650 Spicewood Springs Rd, Austin, TX‎ - (512) 336-8888) because Tina likes noodle soup and I was curious about the dao xiao mian. (Noodles made from cutting dough directly into the soup or boiling water - usually the dough is formed into a loaf on a wood board and held in one hand while the other wields a knife or scraper that shaves off thin strips of dough into the soup. Advanced practitioners will shave the noodles off in such a way as to cause them to jump off the block and fly directly into the pot.)

Overall, I wasn’t pleased with the food we received. After chatting with the staff in Chinese for a while, we learned that it was their opinion that Westerners ordered the dao xiao mian (which was one of the reasons why we went there) but they preferred regular thin noodles in dishes like the beef noodle soup and the combination noodle soup. The only one they recommended to eat with dao xiao mian was the lamb noodle soup. She also suggested that we do a combination of the zha jiang mian (noodles with black bean sauce) with the combination noodle soup (which is served with regular thin noodles) which is not on the menu, but something that she’s found that the customers from mainland China seem to really enjoy. We agreed to try a small bowl of that in addition to the lamb noodle soup, stir fried noodles (which I chose because I didn’t think anyone had tried it yet), scallion pancakes (cong you bing), and an off menu item that the staff mentioned to my wife – yang rou chuan (lamb skewers).

Jason ordered the combination noodle soup.
Chen’s Noodle House: Combination Noodle Soup

I wanted to order the jiu cai he zi (garlic chives dumpling/pastry) but they were sold out. I’m going to have to go back to try the won ton soup and the jiu cai he zi.

The first thing to arrive was the scallion pancakes (cong you bing). I found these very flaky and quite crispy. Unfortunately, I prefer a good balance of flakiness, crispiness, and chewiness – there was no chewiness to the cong you bing whatsoever. The pancakes were so flaky that each layer tasted like it could be individually fried. That’s not a big issue at all, but there were more problems with the flavor. It was a bit sweet, not salty enough, and definitely did not have enough scallions. A little more salt would make this a good example of a you bing, but without more scallions, I can’t say it’s a good representative of cong you bing.
Chen’s Noodle House: Scallion Pancakes

Their dao xiao mian is great in some ways, but a failure in others. The skill of the man who cuts the mian into the soup is very high – the noodles are lengthy and fairly uniform with each piece about the same thickness and with the edges very thin producing a textural difference within each noodle from edge to center. The mian should be salted however. This usually isn't necessary in other Chinese noodles, but it is a paramount step in making great dao xiao mian. When done properly, each noodle with have a thick, chewy center (which they achieved) but without salting the dough the noodle tastes bland. Also, a few pieces I had needed to be cooked a little longer. Because of the thicker pieces, the mian needs to be cooked long enough that the center isn’t gummy or gooey which was the case in several pieces that I had in both the lamb noodle soup and the stir fry. When done properly, the interior has a wonderful chewy texture (a little like fresh mochi) and should not be gummy.

Lamb noodle soup had a great soup base which was very flavorful with just enough sourness to balance the natural gaminess of lamb. My issues with the dish were that the noodles were underseasoned and some were undercooked. The lamb pieces in the soup were very small (1 cm x 1 cm) and tough and chewy.
Chen’s Noodle House: Lamb Noodle Soup

Stir fried noodles were really bland (as most of it was the underseasoned dao xiao mian) but were a bit better after stirring in the chili sauce that they brought me as well as a few healthy dashes of soy sauce. I chose not to finish the dish.
Chen’s Noodle House: Stir Fried Noodles

The combination soup mixed with zha jiang mian (noodles with black bean sauce) is the only noodle dish we had today that we'd order again in the future. This one used regular thin noodles (which the staff was right to recommend to us instead of the dao xiao mian) and was very flavorful. The strong flavors of the zha jiang mian and the meatiness of the combination soup worked great together and I'd highly recommend eating that instead of the other mediocre noodle soups.
Chen’s Noodle House: Combination Noodle Soup mixed with Noodles with Black Bean Sauce

The highlight of our lunch was the yang rou chuan (lamb skewers seasoned with salt, chili flakes, and ground cumin cooked over a metal box filled with super hot coals) which is the epitome of Beijing street vendor food. The seasoning was spot on – with a good amount of kick, ample amounts of cumin, and just enough char to balance all the flavors. The only thing that could have made it better was a less lean cut of lamb. It was missing the grease that oozes out as it cooks over the coals and chars to the thin lamb strips and gives it a more intense lamb flavor.
Chen’s Noodle House: Lamb Skewers (yang rou chuan)

Dinner: I was really hungry when we were grocery shopping, so I ate at the Central Market Cafe. I had a Mushroom and Jalapeno Burger (and ended up eating a half sandwich that Tina ordered and didn't like).
Central Market Cafe - Mushroom and Jalapeno Burger

6 comments to What I Ate: May 16, 2009 (Chen's Noodle House)

Jason Vierzba, May 17th, 2009 at 9:49 pm:

  • I was really glad to be able to meet up with you and Tina for lunch; it was a lot of fun catching up on what's been going on in the last decade since we've seen each other. And I must say, it's a unique experience to go to lunch and see a full review of it a day later. :)

    I'll let you know next time I'm in town, and I'll try to stay in touch more via email.

Michael Chu, May 17th, 2009 at 10:21 pm:

  • Sounds like a plan! I had a lot of fun catching up as well… it's amazing how fast time passes.

Nate, May 18th, 2009 at 2:26 am:

  • Thanks for posting this. You have a very discerning palate.

    You are also fortunate to be able to converse with the staff in Mandarin, and discovered that off-menu treat!

Michael Chu, May 18th, 2009 at 7:57 am:

  • Yeah, we totally got lucky with with lamb skewers. (And it was all Tina - I don't normally go around speaking Chinese… it's a bit awkward for me as I search for words.)

Jason Vierzba, May 20th, 2009 at 5:31 pm:

  • Heck, I just stood back and let Tina do the talking and assumed that she knew what she was doing. Obviously she did, because those skewers were really good. I'd definitely get them if I went there again, but I'd probably have to get a few glasses of water ready first; they were pretty spicy.

What I Ate: December 27, 2009 (IKEA, Chen’s Noodle House) | Orthogonal Thought, December 27th, 2009 at 10:52 pm:

  • […] it was savory and had a decent amount of scallions, so I wasn't sure what it was. I remember last time tasting the same flavor (a flavor that I don't normally associate with Chinese food) in their […]