Szechuan Noodle Bowl
The Primal Gnaw
420 Eighth Ave S, 623-4198
Tues-Sun 11:30 am- 9 pm.
Call it the Chowhound.com prejudice, but the less a restaurant has to offer visually, the easier I am to please. It's really not fair, I know, but if a restaurant doesn't bother to dim the lights, if it boasts linoleum tables and those standard-issue restaurant chairs in a mauvey shade of pink, I instantly feel eager to eat. And so it is at Szechuan Noodle Bowl: a no-nonsense source of fabulous Sino-starch. The Bowl specializes in all things doughy, from bowls of ropy noodles to hand-pleated gyoza to scallion pancakes. Nearly everything served there possesses a deeply satisfying chew.
The Bowl is quite tiny, small enough for a group of five to feel conspicuously chatty, small enough for said group to make a precious, pink, once-sleeping baby bawl with too much table shuffling. All you can do to remedy such a situation is put your head down and eat.
You might start with a green onion pancake ($2.50), crisp on the exterior, with pull-apart layers of oniony bread inside. Since the Pennsylvania Chi-Chi's hepatitis A outbreak last year, scallions have had a rough time getting much positive attention, so it's nice to taste a dish so centrally focused on their herby punch. (And no symptoms of hepatitis so far!) For a more exotic appetizer, there are spiced and boiled peanuts, garnished with star anise, and infused with its licorice flavor.
A friend who is a regular at the Bowl says that if you come late in the afternoon, you can find the ladies who run the shop sitting around a table, pinching gyoza into shape. Once he asked how often they made fresh dumplings. "Every day!" was the answer. "Seven trays!" The gyoza are thick and chewy, no veil-thin wrappers here, but their primal doughy gnaw is intensely satisfying. There are dumplings filled with pork and napa cabbage ($5), which are tasty, but I surprised myself by gravitating to the veggie version ($5.20), with a minced green spinachy filling and some spicy marinade poured on top.
It is actually the wonton noodle soup that brought me to the Bowl in the first place. It seems to have a powerful effect on men, an effect I first noticed while talking with a friend on the phone. He went all lyric on me as he described the soup--I swear there was a catch in his throat as he spoke. Later I ran into another friend at the restaurant and he used nearly identical words, with a similar urgency. All I can do is paraphrase them both: The Bowl's wonton broth looks like water but through some gingery vegetal magic is in fact radiant, crystalline, and powerful, in a subtle, subtle way that makes you a little emotional.
I should mention that the wontons themselves are delicately wrapped, with tissue-thin little skirts trailing off from their gingery pork nuclei.
All of the Bowl's noodle soups, including the wonton version, are quite similar in appearance: some broth, some noodles, and a few emerald wedges of bok choy. The thick noodles reveal the process of their creation: their edges are slightly squared off where they were hand cut; an odd kink or twist shows where they were folded before cooking. The structural similarities between soups accentuate the differences in the broths: The spicy Szechuan beef ($5.20) is chestnut brown, with a low rumble of heat and chunks of beef from some gelatinous quarter--shin, shoulder, I'm not quite sure where. The original beef soup is mild and meaty ($5.20), a soothing alternative to the bravado of the spicy soup. Lighter still is the chicken noodle soup ($5.20), with hints of ginger and scallion. It is a soup of nuance, perhaps not for everyone, but for times when colds or hangovers demand a sort of elevated blandness, this is it. Should you want your noodles without broth, they also come slicked with that spicy, nutty Szechuan sauce ($4.65) that is entirely too addictive for me to eat again in the next six months.
No matter the flavor, the Bowl's noodles are the porterhouse steaks of the noodle world--much of the pleasure comes from the chew.