One of the first things the Fujianese established when they moved into Manhattan’s Chinatown a dozen years back was their wizardry with noodles. Maybe it was because they found themselves—both here and in China—at the bottom of the food chain. Or maybe they just loved noodles. Not only did they make them in all the southern styles (Fujian is midway between Hong Kong and Shanghai), but they reached across the breadth of China and Southeast Asia to add new and unique varieties to their collection. Fujianese places often serve four or five kinds, usually in soups with another main ingredient of your choice.
Named after a city in the Gansu, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles first appeared three years ago at Super Taste on Eldridge Street. Right across the street, Sheng Wang outflanked Super Taste by introducing “peel noodles”—band-aid-size swatches shaved from the surface of a dough cylinder using a sharp blade. The origin of these noodles was so obscure that “peel noodles” elicited zero Google hits at the time.
We’ve come to depend on Fujianese noodles for cheap delicious meals, but many of these joints were outright dives, lacking the most rudimentary creature comforts. So it was a real shock stepping into newcomer Food Sing 88 Corp., which, despite the utilitarian name, occupies some high-priced real estate just off Confucius Square and looks like a real restaurant. The room is L-shaped, the furniture’s brand-new, and the walls are decorated like a Joseph Cornell box with waving cats and other objets d’art stuck in niches. A uniformed figure loomed up as we entered. “Holy Buddha!” a friend exclaimed. “This place has a waitress!”
Half the menu is devoted to Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles. Initially, you’ll want to stick with those, though a half-dozen other varieties are available. Spring for one of the most expensive—”house special hand-pulled noodles” ($6)—and discover a beef landslide in a rich fragrant broth. The assortment (brisket, tendon, tripe, and tenderloin) is similar to what you’d find in a well-made Vietnamese pho. For 50 cents more, you can have the seafood version, which boasts a distinguished collection of crustaceans: squid, shrimp, scallops, and delicate Manila clams. The noodles themselves are very good, though less firm than Super Taste’s. The dark and fragrant broth, though, is superior.
That broth remains more or less the same throughout the menu. If you want to eat like a Fujianese immigrant, pick the “pork bone noodles” ($4.50), featuring big marrow bones with little rags of meat and sinew attached. Don’t order it unless you intend to suck down the copious marrow, which is the best part. There are a couple of other noteworthy items on the menu, including a Fujianese wonton soup employing some of the thinnest wonton wrappers imaginable, and a soupless dish called “eight precious ingredients” that resembles dan dan noodles in its bean-pasty magnificence, only without the Sichuan peppercorns.
Inevitably, Fujianese restaurants have been zooming up the income scale, with new ones appearing every day on the Lower East Side. As with their Cantonese predecessors, many feature pricey seafood still swimming in tanks. Best Fuzhou Restaurant is one of these, named after the capital of Fujian, described by one tourist guide as “a grey industrial sprawl with little of interest to the traveler,” making me want to fly there immediately. Despite the rather modest premises, the extensive menu offers plenty of interest, including such Fujianese passions as organ meats (duck kidney with cauliflower, hot-and-sour pigskin soup) and amphibious creatures (frog wrapped with leaf, and the inscrutable “do do frog’s leg”). The seafood menu is wide-ranging, with a choice of several fish; one evening, we thrilled to the spectacle of two waitresses wrestling a five-foot eel.
In the midst of all this culinary fecundity, noodles still occupy one-fifth of the menu. There are rice stick noodles and angel-hair wheat noodles, served in soups and stir-fries. The eatery also slings one noodle I’d never seen before on the Lower East Side: “sautéed potato noodle, family style” ($5.50). These noodles are generated from starch extracted from white Asian sweet potatoes, rendering the noodles nearly transparent, with a buoyant chewy texture. Stir-fried with egg, Napa cabbage, scallions, and tasty little bits of pork, the dish is a memorable and unique new addition to the Lower East Side noodle catalog.