In our seemingly never-ending search for regional authenticity, the charms of the mash-up are all too easy to forget. And while no one could ever really argue with the unmitigated beauty of well-crafted food that pays accurate homage to a specific national or regional culinary tradition, we still live in an increasingly flat world. Sometimes, unrelated cultures have plenty to add to one another at the table. You just have to be open to them. Or, rather, the chef does.
Which is all to say that, after my first mouthful of Cheu Noodle Bar’s brisket soup with long strands of egg noodles, an oozy egg and a fluffy matzo ball, all of it luxuriating in a broth hearty with dashi, sweet with napa cabbage and taut with kochujang, I wondered why I hadn’t had this before. It makes me think of all the Rosh Hashanah dinners and family gatherings that would have been improved upon with a vat of this glorious liquid set at the center of table, instead of the occasionally disappointing bowl of broth as devoid of flavor as color, with the sad little pre-cut “baby” carrots floating around all flaccid as if waiting resignedly for the mohel to show up for the circumcision.
But this bowl, this seemingly humble vessel at Cheu, came close to throwing my worldview asunder. It almost made me question my religion.
OK, maybe not. Great soup has been known to lead to hyperbole. But it was a damn good bowl—and a phenomenal indication of what the team behind Cheu have gotten so right.
This is a noodle bar with no agenda other than sending out the most flavorful food that it can, and if that means swerving from the path of Asian-noodle orthodoxy, then so be it. Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh are utterly confident in the quality of their concept and their menu—that is, they let flavor, not expectations, be their guide—and the result is stunning. This team is at the top of its game, the LeBron and Wade of Washington Square West, assuming both of those basketball stars actually showed up ready to perform the same night.
So Cheu is about really tasty food, excellent and friendly service—not to mention one of the best bathrooms in the city. The gents’ room is festooned with a collage of images, and one of them caught my eye and made me laugh and cringe all at once, just as it always has: the famously unfortunate pic of then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachman about to do something terrible to a phallus of deep-fried corn dog at the Iowa State Fair.
It’s awful to look at. And yet, still, even after gazing at the Ralph Stedman horrors of that image, I wanted to eat. If that’s not an indication of the deep appeal of the food at Cheu, then nothing is.
Hand-torn noodles with lamb neck, earthy and deep and lifted with the mystery of cumin, rested alongside pickled mustard greens. BBQ pig tail, the fat all melted and sexy, the moist meat glazed with a gorgeous Korean barbecue sauce and snappily crisp from a stint in the deep fryer, hinted at the togarashi from its initial sear. On its bed of ramp kimchi, this was a meal in itself. Pork belly bun played in the same end of the flavor pool, but here the sweet richness of the pig was cut with spicy cucumbers and the cosseting comfort of a riff on a steam bun whose recipe owes plenty to English muffins.
Long beans with burnt onion were milder but no less rewarding, their green flanks charred and nutty and echoing the clumps of fried quinoa clinging to them like remoras on a whale. Soft shell crab, which is being offered as an ever-changing special throughout its season, morphs with regularity, depending on what Puchowitz gets form Green Meadow Farm. This is more than a noodle shop with ambitions; it’s a restaurant to be taken seriously despite—or, perhaps, because of—its casualness.
All of this can be washed down with selections from a more limited selection of wines to a more extensive but still compact beer list. It’s a work in progress, however, so keep looking for changes and alterations.
Whatever you do, whatever you drink, just go with an appetite and a willingness to overeat: This is rewarding, delicious, joyous food, no matter where it finds its inspiration. n
CHEU NOODLE BAR
255 S. 10th St. cheunoodlebar.com
Cuisine type: Asian-inspired, but far from beholden to it.
Hours: Lunch Weds.-Mon.: Noon-2pm; Dinner Mon., Weds., Thurs., Sun.: 5pm-10pm; Fri.-Sat.: 5pm-11pm.
Price range: $2-$13.
Atmosphere: Comfortable and unselfconsciously cool.
Food: Creative, delicious and highly successful.
Service: Laid-back yet professional; just right.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014