About a year ago, I overheard my sous chef from Jean-Georges talking about a fantastic little hand-pulled noodle shop he and his girlfriend had stumbled upon. I found out that this restaurant was in my favorite part of Chinatown, east of the Bowery and south of Canal. The further away I can get from Canal and Lafayette, the better. It may be fun for about four minutes to be bombarded with the repetitive chant of vendors selling “Gucci, Prada, Chanel,” watches, scarves, and sunglasses, but I would much rather wander around at my leisure, poking my head into meat markets, fresh rice noodle vendors, and tea shops where owners still count their profits on an abacus, without fear of an accessories ambush.
So I ended up going to that hand-pulled noodle joint and had a satisfactory bowl of soup. It was a chilly evening and just the fact that I could stick my face into a billow of steam rising from the mass of noodles made me happy enough. But as I was walking out the door, with words of critique about to spill over my lips, I saw another restaurant across the street, shimmering beneath a yellow overhang. Sheng Wang’s. I crossed the relatively empty road, hopped down a few steps to get a better look into the lower level restaurant, and saw a man behind the counter pulling noodles. My stomach resisted the idea of having to expand for another bowl of soup, so I eased its conscious but reassured my mouth that we would be back the next day.
The pulling of the noodles is an art form. The potato dough is rolled out into a long log, folded and twisted until many layers develop, and then swung in the air like a jumprope, the ends finally being held together to let gravity wind the rope into a doughy twist…and then the ballet is repeated a dozen times. I sat at the counter unsure of where to keep my eyes. I was the only white person in the shop and the walls were all mirrored and reflected my slight unease — and I had no idea what all the orange signs with Chinese characters were informing me of. I looked around at all the bowls in my near vicinity and pointed to a metal one that was overflowing with massive pork bones. The man made his dough dance for me, the waitress wiped my table and pointed to the spoon and chopstick jar, and minutes later a huge, steaming bowl of soup was set down before me. I held my breath and grinned. It was beautiful. I tasted the broth and decided to adjust it only minimally. I added some black vinegar, a touch of fish sauce, and a dollop of Szechuan chili. The noodles were perfectly cooked, retaining the right amount of bite, bok choy added a green freshness to the porky broth, the pickled cabbage lent to my favorite taste component (acid/vinegar), and a pork stuffed fish ball was a tasty morsel I hadn’t expected. I slurped the soup down just as noisily as all my neighbors, savoring every bit of meat and marrow on the bones and relishing every drop of broth.
I’ve returned to this restaurant on a pretty regular basis. I love walking through the doors and having the waitress knowingly smile and ask me “pork bone?” I’ve sampled several other soups, but it’s the pork bone one that keeps me coming back for more.
Anyway, all this time I’ve been going there I’ve dreamt of being able to pull the noodles as efficiently as the stocky man behind the counter. I finally summoned the courage on Monday to go in and ask for what I wanted (remember when nobody speaks English there?). I tried to communicate the idea to my waitress, but she just repeated “no English. no English.” So I turned to a few customers and asked them if they spoke any English. Everyone shook their heads no. I was starting to get nervous and scolded myself for not having picked up the Rosetta Stone: learning Mandarin with Michael Phelps sooner. But then a man turned to me, handed me his mobile and said “ask.” I spoke to the woman on the other end of the line and told her why I was at the restaurant. I said I was a cook and wanted to learn how to hand pull the noodles. I then passed over the phone to the waitress, who listened intently for a few minutes and then handed me back the phone. I put my ear up to the receiver and the woman on the other end responded shrilly “NO! it is too difficult. Too strong. No!” I pulled the phone away from my ear and smiled in confusion. I’ve been coming to this restaurant for a long time now, and I had just assumed we could all be friends! But the waitress looked at me, shook her head and said I wasn’t strong enough. I put my tail between my legs and left.
I went home and remembered so many chefs’ stories of perseverance. Mind you, I’m not Grant Achatz knocking on Thomas Keller’s door for the opportunity of a lifetime, but it all feels the same to me. I really want to learn how to pull noodles, so I decided I’d go back and show them I was serious.
I woke up this morning at seven, put my apron and knife in my purse, pulled on my heavy kitchen shoes and trudged down to Chinatown. I’ve never seen it so quiet in my life. Most businesses hadn’t even opened their doors yet, or pulled up their metal garages, but as I approached Sheng Wang’s, I heard clanging in the kitchen. I poked my head in and asked the couple if I could lend a hand. They both shooed me away, indicating that the restaurant was closed. I then pulled out my apron and tied it around my waist. They looked at each other, cocked their heads to the side and then waved me in! I was ecstatic. I’d get to see what went into creating my favorite bowl of soup.
I immediately began helping the woman portion out pork bones, filling containers with the broth (which wasn’t simmered for hours as I had expected it to be!), cut trotters, shins, cartilage, watched the production of the fish and pork ball, and saw the preparation of the potato dough that would eventually be stretched into strands that could substitute for harp strings in a noodle heaven. I spent three hours in the kitchen, mainly observing but trying to lend a hand whenever possible.
At eleven, I took off my apron and headed out to the front to try to watch the noodle man work his magic. But my waitress friend wasn’t there and the young boy behind the counter tried to shoo me away. Instead, I ordered a bowl of my soup, sat, watched and waited. After nibbling every bone and contemplating my love for the toasted Szechuan peppercorns,my waitress arrived. She laughed the second she stepped through the door and asked how I was. I replied that I was there to learn how to pull noodles, again. She said I wasn’t strong enough, so this time I showed her my bicep. That made her laugh even harder! I giggled a little as well, but told her I was serious. She said, “okay. we teach. $1000. no, $2000.” I said I was a cook and then turned my pockets inside out. She said “fine” and that each try would only cost ten dollars. I again laughed, turned to head out the door, and called out that I’d back tomorrow, muscles raring to go! So, we’ll see if she actually let’s me get behind the counter to learn the noodle dance…But maybe one day, if you stop in Sheng Wang’s for a bowl of pork bone hand-pulled noodle soup, you may just see a blond girl whipping up some toothsome noodles both for your eye’s and mouth’s enjoyment.
Sheng Wang’s 27 Eldridge St., Manhattan. Open 10am-7pm. A bowl of pork bone soup costs $4.