Kuai An Hand Pull Noodles is a recent arrival to the crowd of Fujian-owned Lanzhou noodle joints in east Chinatown, occupying the space where the popular Eastern Noodles once simmered its soup. Attracted by the neon bowl flickering outside, four of us hustled in to find a handful of tables set with chopsticks, roasted chile oil, Sriracha, fish sauce, and vinegar. The one occupied seat held an enormous backpack and a small boy bent over his homework.
Hand-pulled noodles are made by vigorously stretching thinner and thinner strands of dough, almost as you would taffy, slapping the long bands on the table to break down the gluten, so that the results will be pliant and chewy. Whap-whap-whap. The foodstuff originally come from Lanzhou, a city in the northwest of China on the Yellow River. The surrounding agricultural areas produce spring wheat, which is ground into high-gluten flour to make the noodles. You often find them afloat in beef soup.
There are now a dozen or so hand-pulled noodle joints in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a movement Robert Sietsema first wrote about five years ago when he reviewed Super Taste on Eldridge Street. Since then, the restaurants have multiplied and a few have fancied up a bit, but most are lovable, fluorescent-lit, linoleum-tiled places. Kuai An positions itself in the middle, offering more seating than others, as well as half-hearted table service.
It’s long been known that New York’s Lanzhou-style restaurants are owned by immigrants from Fujian, a southern province far from Lanzhou. How did this cuisine come to the Fujianese? In a recent Salon article, Francis Lam wrote that Lanzhou chefs opened shop in Fujian, then taught the locals the way of the noodle. Those converts then came to the U.S., and a certifiable New York food boom was born.
Kuai An means “fast and relaxed,” and that’s just about right — bowls emerge steaming-hot from the kitchen minutes after you’ve ordered them, and the sound of slurping drowns out conversation, though not the histrionics of the Chinese melodrama playing on the TV. The menu is broken into two sections: the marquee noodles and a shorter list of appetizers. But the latter are hardly smaller than the former, and most are Fujian-style, so the restaurant actually serves two distinct kinds of food.
Of those appetizers, don’t miss the potato balls — golf-ball-size orbs that look like giant Kix cereal floating in chicken broth. Bite through the gummy potato starch and find a small, perfect square of braised pork, an unexpected treat. Fujianese won ton soup is a study in delicacy — the won ton skins soft and fluttery, slipping into your mouth like they’re barely there, with a scant half-teaspoonful of salty pork mix tucked into one side.
The won tons bob in the same excellent chicken stock that buoys the potato balls — and the broth shows up again as the medium for mixed beef intestine soup with thin rice noodles, a mild dish that gets most of its excitement from the strips of goosefleshy innards. Spoon in some of the brick-red roasted chile oil, which lends a faint crimson hue and earthy heat. The steamed pork dumplings, on the other hand, need no augmentation — they’re juicy, slick-skinned paragons of their simple type. Bouncy fish balls, a Fujianese specialty, can be had as they are, or in a noodle bowl.
But you can’t leave without vacuuming up your share of the namesakes, which have a wonderful, irregular elasticity. “What’s fried hand?” quipped my friend while reading through the menu, playing on its “fried hand pull noodles.” But these are no joke. Along came a giant stainless-steel bowl of pork bone soup, a cloudy potage dominated by a large and nearly bare pig bone, dissected neatly down the middle to expose the brown marrow. We siphoned up the white tangle of noodles, silken with absorbed stock, and gnawed on the pork bone like enthusiastic dogs, relishing the marrow.
Even better, choose the duck and taro version, although the duck ends up bony and tough, there to flavor the broth rather than provide meaty bites. The hunks of taro are sweetish and starchy, a perfect foil for the salty brew. If you’re looking for more flesh, go for the lamb. Unfortunately, the beef broth fails: Across the menu and on several different visits, it was thin, even wan. The clean, true savor of the chicken stock is far superior, tasting as if it has been simmered longer.
In terms of sheer substance and deliciousness, nothing beats the house special — a gargantuan bowl of noodles and beef bouillon, plus roast pork, braised beef, tripe, seaweed, spinach, scallions, and a fried egg. At $6.25, it’s about $1.50 more than the other soups, but it’s quite generous. The combination of textures makes each bite an adventure — gush, crunch, chew. Order it, and you’ll leave utterly sated, the warm soup sloshing in your belly and practically all the nutrients you need in a day consumed.
As for fried hands, they were happily nowhere to be found.