There’s a brand-new noodle in town. It goes by the name of “peel noodle,” a word combo that elicits an astonishing zero Google hits. Find it by descending the steps to Sheng Wang, a mirror-lined basement on Eldridge with no English name. Offering a handful of seats along a narrow counter, the room is undecorated except for the pink paper strips that constitute the menu. A giant glass window looks into an adjacent fish-ball factory, where towering mountains of product seem in danger of toppling and washing you out the door on a fish-ball tsunami. Fujianese cuisine is unthinkable without fish balls.
A smaller window looks into a kitchen where a skinny dude stands next to a fiercely bubbling wok. With utter nonchalance he thrusts his thumb into a tubular roll of dough, points it at the wok, then slashes at it with a stubby knife like Freddie Kruger. A strip flies off into the broth, then another and another. The speed picks up till he’s machine-gunning noodles into the broth, methodically working his way around the surface of the cylinder. The nearly translucent noodles are roughly the size of Band-Aids and have faint serrations along the edges. “In addition to wheat, there’s got to be some rice flour in there,” observes my friend Zak, who knows his noodles.
The pale noodles boil for a minute or so before the guy dumps them into a white plastic bowl with your choice of soups ($4 to $5). My favorite features morsels of pungent mutton with bone, fat, and pellucid skin adhering. There are 18 other choices, some demonstrating a fine linguistic sensibility. There’s no doubt that “cattle viscera peel noodle” makes fine reading, if not eating, while “gigot peel noodle,” with its component of diced lamb leg, makes the credible assertion that vittles this good are best described in French. Peel noodles are also available stir-fried with bok choy and egg ($3), which might be the way to go if you tire of fishing around in the broth for these wonderful slippery noodles.
There are three other types of noodles accorded their own menu sections: Skip the rice noodles and thread noodles, which aren’t made on the premises. The Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles are worth ordering, more delicate than those at Super Taste, directly across the street, but lacking the spicy broth. Each soup also contains a bonus fish ball, like the kind you’ve been ogling through the picture window. These piscine orbs are—surprise!—stuffed with shredded pork, in what must be one of the strangest culinary juxtapositions on the planet. If you’re already a fish-ball fan, focus on the “Country Style” menu. Not only can you get fish balls by themselves in a light broth (small $2, large $3), you can also order “potato fish balls”—sweet-potato starch formed around bits of sausage. What, no fish? With their gooey exterior, eating these balls is big fun.
The last block of Eldridge is crowded with similar noodle establishments serving recent immigrants from Fujian, a region on the east coast of China south of Shanghai. These shops alternate with placement services that specialize in cheap temporary labor. The noodle shops typically open at 7 a.m. and serve the same menu until 10 or 11 at night, when the last day laborer slurps his last noodle, stands up wearily, and splits.