For months I drove past the freshly painted deep red brick building on a nondescript stretch of John R wondering what on earth is this place called "Noodletopia" and when will it open? You see, I love noodles. Always have. From the browned vermicelli in Syrian rice to the overprocessed, cancer-friendly Kraft OG. But despite my volcanic passion for noodles, we have — at times — had to go on a break. I had to see other grains. "I just can't do carbs right now."
Nevertheless, a large, fresh, brightly lit sign on the east side of John R exclaimed in a casual, lowercase doodle-like font: "Noodletopia."
I'm done for. Chinese noodle paradise.
But the days turned to months as John R motorists were left to wonder when Noodletopia would open its doors. That day finally came in August.
The first two things I noticed: an A-frame specials board written in entirely Mandarin. This is a good sign. The windows are dense with condensation — another good sign. I turn the corner and see someone slapping dough against a stainless steel table behind glass, repeating the motions of pounding, stretching, and twisting like the conductor of a fierce double Dutch, doubling the strands of noodles with each fold.
But we start with drinks, and the sea salt cheese tea is unlike anything I've ever tried. Thick, sweet, and salty, like a whipped cheesecake with a backdrop of black tea.
The freshly renovated space seats about 40 with room to spare, and seems to always have a steady flow of customers, even in the off hours. The open kitchen layout has a short six-seat bar affixed to its outside so customers can get up close and personal with the line cooks. Trendy incandescent bulbs dangle from the exposed ceiling, and a physically large menu written in chalk hangs above a banquette. Noodletopia adds items to the menu as they work the kinks out — a sign of experience.
The menu comes with a handy flowchart, visually explaining the components visually that make up the entrees. Customers can choose between blade-shaved noodles, hand-pulled noodles, or hand-pulled belt noodles — a thicker and wider variation. The sides and dim sum sections of the menu offer some incredible dishes. The bean curd salad is light and refreshing, with a hint of vinegar and green sichuan peppercorn. The lamb spine includes melt-in-your-mouth tender chunks of lamb meat that fall off the bone, served in an excruciatingly hot stone bowl with carrots, ginger, tomato, and five spice flavors — an example of western Chinese cooking that descended from Middle Eastern flavors by way of the silk road some 1000 years ago. The griddle pie is a common breakfast in China, a thin pancake with lightly sweetened soybean paste and a touch of vinegar cooked up on a crepe maker and wrapped around a cracker.
The noodles come out fast in waves, and everything is served as soon as it's ready. The star of the lineup of entrees is the Sichuan noodles. The noodles are long, firm, chewy, and carry the dressing well, and the balance between the aromatics, sugar, black vinegar, chili oil, ground pork, and sichuan peppercorns is just right. There's enough ma la (spicy numbing sensation) to make even the most seasoned of spice fans worry they might be allergic to something, and they pack a decent amount of Tianjin heat. There's black vinegar and a fantastic housemade chili oil on each table if you prefer a bit more heat.
The tomato and egg noodles are the one entree to feature the blade-shaved variety of noodle. It's thicker, each strand measuring around six inches in length. The dish was light and refreshing while remaining oily and filling. Good, but not a showstopper. The beef tripe noodles are fantastic as well, with the fermented flavor of lactic acid adding complexity to the deeply savory broth, and bits of mustard greens complementing the poached tripe.
It's a simple menu done well, with enough variety to keep things interesting while hitting home runs with a few staples. We're lucky to finally have a hand-pulled noodle spot of our own, and Noodletopia lives up to the name.