It seems that every immigrant group in the city demands its own version of Chinese food. Indians enthuse over a half-dozen places that serve Sino-Indian, heavy on the fresh ginger and garlic, while Peruvians and Ecuadorans cherish their chifas—lo mein shops where the fare tends to be relentlessly yellow and cornstarchy. J.Lo’s old nabe in the Bronx—Castle Hill—boasts a wonderful Dominican-Chinese restaurant, while Chel-sea still has one Cuban-Chinese café remain-ing, from a collection that dominated Eighth Avenue a decade ago. Of course, Chinese-American carryouts have been serving a twisted version of Cantonese since at least the 1920s, gloriously slinging chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo yong, while kosher Chinese establishments have a similar, further mutated menu. When you scarf Chinese food these days, you increasingly have to ask yourself, “What am I eating?”
When Koreans go Chinese, they demand red kimchi and yellow pickled radish on the side, and there are plenty of restaurants in Manhattan and Flushing that will oblige them. But only two serve the freshly made noodles called cha chiang mein. Carried to Korea by northern Chinese refugees after World War II, these wheat noodles are made from dough that’s hand-pulled like a skein of yarn, whipped around, and thrashed on a hard counter till it breaks into strands of square circumference. The process has never been chemically explained as far as I know. Patrons insist these noodles be served immediately after being made, gobbed with a sauce like lumpy crude oil. The result is one of the city’s most sublime noodle experiences.
At Sam Won Gahk, an Elmhurst diner, the centerpiece of the menu is “noodles with special brown Peking sauce” ($7.95), which comes in two bowls. The smaller holds tidbits of coarsely ground pork and caramelized purple onions bound with an inky black-bean paste that boasts a camphorous fragrance and a pleasantly bitter edge. The larger bowl encompasses a heap of glistening noodles folded in on themselves in undulant waves like the blond hair of a siren, scattered with julienned cucumber like so many green bobby pins. The aproned waitress approaches rapidly carrying a giant pair of scissors, causing a momentary panic. But she’s only there to snip the precious noodles into smaller pieces, which facilitates mixing spaghetti and sauce.
The extensive menu features additional northern Chinese fare, which is relatively rare in New York. The blasé-sounding “dumplings” ($6.45) are worth a visit in themselves. Though shaped like Japanese gyoza, they’re twice the size, as if they’ve been inflated with a bicycle pump. And instead of being fried on only one side, these meat-and-onion dreadnoughts are deep-fried, so that they arrive glistening with oil and well browned all over. No sauce is needed and none is offered. The balance of the menu comes from other parts of China where the food is admired by Koreans, including a scattering of Sichuan dishes that are obviously prized for their chile wallop. My favorite is “hot green pepper beef” ($11.95), a prodigious mound of meat strips, onions, and green chiles presented in a simple sauté, again with no sauce. Looking around as my friends and I chopsticked the last morsels of beef and green chile, mopping our brows from the spiciness, we noticed that, in the northern Chinese style, there wasn’t a bowl of rice in the place. This is a Chinese joint?