In a perfect world, every noodle we eat would be handmade. Large clumps of soft dough would be stretched and shaped into thin strings by strong hands, its gluten worked into a glorious elastic frenzy just before being tossed into a hot pot or wok. But this is not a perfect world. Recently someone I know, a good home cook, walked into a friend's kitchen and pointed to the metal machine sitting by the sink. "What is this?" he asked. "A pasta maker," I replied. A little later, slightly depressed, I found myself thinking about how even people who love food are so used to dried noodles that they don't even know how to go about making them.
I'm not judging—I've got a box of Barilla pasta and instant ramen sitting in my cupboard as I type. I just wish we all had the knowledge, time, and arm strength to make our own fresh noodles, because handmade noodles are among the most satisfying and pleasurable things to sink your teeth into. The beauty of a handmade noodle lies in its imperfection—slightly irregular shape, uneven surface. The outer surface of the noodle has little ridges and valleys and bumps from being massaged by fingers and knuckles. It's these little imperfections that sauce, oil, bits of meat—flavor—nestle into and cling to. You can feel the superiority of a handmade noodle in your mouth. It's springier, filling up your mouth more, and it has real texture, moving over your tongue with weight and purpose.
Thankfully, several Chinese restaurants in town are carrying on the tradition of the handmade noodle, taking the time to knead, roll, pull, and cut for our pleasure. In pursuit of the perfect pork chow mein, I visited three neighborhood Chinese standbys and chewed my way through piles of lovingly crafted noodles.
Wedgwood's Black Pearl is a very comforting spot; I suspect it was once a diner. A framed portrait of Dan Rather hangs by the front door, a long counter with seats offers a view of the goings-on in the kitchen, and a row of tall booths lines a wall of windows. Their noodles look decidedly handmade—each one has several beveled, uneven edges, as though they'd been cut with a well-worn serrated knife and thrown into the wok by rough, hardworking hands. The texture, however, was a little too soft and flaccid (as were the strips of pork, sadly) and the brown sauce (of which there was too much) slipped off the noodles and pooled onto the bottom of the plate. While Black Pearl's pork chow mein ($9.50) is respectable, I wouldn't make a special trip to Wedgwood for it anytime soon. This is more American-style Chinese, the noodles buried under unnecessary vegetables (I am thinking in particular about the white button mushrooms) and a sea of sweetish sauce.
The owners of Chiang's Gourmet on Lake City Way are, clearly, geniuses: They offer two menus, one featuring American-friendly Chinese dishes (General Tso's chicken, moo shu), the other offering classic and obscure Chinese fare (Drunk Pig's Feet, Cattle Tripe with Blood Cake, Tofu Sour Pickled Vegetable in Casserole). The texture of Chiang's thick, ropelike Home Made Pan Fried Noodle Shanghai Style ($7.50) is also genius—dense, pliant, firm but chewy. I told my dining companion that if a dentist ever needed a mold of my teeth, I would insist that it be cast in these noodles. I also enjoyed the simplicity of this dish—just noodles, garlic, scallions, strips of pork, and spinach coated in a dark, almost smoky soy sauce. My one quibble with Chiang's is the use of spinach. It was too thin, soaked up all the oil, and couldn't stand shoulder to shoulder with the clear flavors present in the dish. A green with a little more attitude and bite would be better.
The best pork chow mein—and, by far, my favorite handmade noodles—can be found at the International District's Sichuan Cuisine. Located in the "Asian Plaza" at the corner of 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, Sichuan offers little atmosphere—the space houses two big round tables, a few four tops, a couple of faded scenic murals, and a specials board written entirely in Chinese. But Sichuan does offer the handmade noodles of my dreams—at first bite, they feel almost too firm, but then reveal a remarkable softness that is a pleasure to bite into over and over again. They're long and lean, deceptively uniform looking, but comprising the subtlest ridges and indentations that hold peanut oil, tangy Chinese cooking wine, and rich soy sauce. These are noodles you want to run your tongue over slowly in order to savor their feel and flavor. Combined with strips of pork, chopped garlic, scallion slices, and crunchy sweet slivers of cabbage, and offered at a mere $6.50, Sichuan Cuisine's noodles are heartwarming and satisfying, a picture of simple, well-made beauty.