Noodlemania in Little Saigon: Uway Malatang


In the relative obscurity of the Pacific Rim Center that sits just east of I-5 (and therefore qualifies it as technically located in Little Saigon instead of Chinatown), the art of hand-pulling noodles is being practiced by Chef Cheng Biao Yang in his latest restaurant venture, Uway Malatang. The man seems like a restless spirit who every few years sells a successful restaurant, only to open another one soon thereafter. He’s made a full circle as Seven Stars Pepper, which he once owned, is just down the street, with stopovers at Szechuan Chef in Bellevue and Spicy Talk Bistro (which Yang’s brother now operates) in Redmond in between. Uway Malatang represents a new addition to Chef Yang’s culinary repertoire as he is now the master noodle maker, an art he learned in China only recently.

I had lunch here with a friend, a direct result of a feature article written by Nancy Leson that appeared in the Seattle Times this past Sunday. We were seated at first at a table by the entrance. But the waitress offered to reseat us so we could watch the chef make the noodles in a small room visible behind a glass window. The seeming effortlessness with which he pulled the noodles speaks to the countless hours he practiced to perfect the technique. Such exhibitions are rare in the restaurant industry, much like being able to watch a master pizza dough maker spin and toss the dough in the air. You can watch the manufacture of the xiao long bao and other dumplings at Bellevue’s Din Tai Fung through glass windows at the entryway. The only other time I’ve witnessed a master make fresh Chinese noodles is at the now-closed Bamboodles in San Gabriel, California.

Both my friend and I ordered different dishes so that we could get a taste of each other’s. I knew what I wanted already, Szechuan style beef noodle soup. Even with a choice of hand-shaven noodles, I opted for the pulled noodles for obvious reasons. They arrived in a large bowl, so attractively garnished with cilantro and green onions that I wanted to dive in immediately. The first bite of noodles was excellent, fresh-tasting and glutinous with a slight springiness. But, as the minutes ticked by, they began to soften in the hot broth. This is sort of expected for thin noodles that are made with no more than wheat flour, baking soda and water. Which means that the broth should do its part in noodle soup appreciation, for while the star begins to fade, the supporting cast has just as big a job to keep the customer happy. I found the broth disappointing, salty and lacking depth. There was some flavor from the beef chunks, which were hit-and-miss tender and gristly, cabbages and onion, but the overall impression was one of thinness (☆☆½). This problem reminded me of the shortcoming of the above-mentioned Bamboodles, a collection of broths that didn’t measure up to the noodles. While the sinewy texture and fattiness of meat don’t appeal to Westerners, their almost ubiquitous appearance in all kinds of Asian cuisines indicates that they are not considered a defect.

Szechuan style beef noodle soup

Szechuan style beef noodle soup

All was not lost, because my friend’s hot and spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef dish was memorable (☆☆☆½). The noodles were equally as fresh as hand-pulled but the sauce was anything but weak. It was savory with a touch of tartness (likely from black vinegar), caramel overtones and spicy. Contrasting crunchiness was provided by cucumber slices, green onions, tree ears and aforementioned beef gristle. Friend was so impressed by this dish that he swore to bring his wife here. When I return, I’d likely order the same.

Hot & spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef

Hot & spicy sauce over hand-shaven noodles with beef

Uway Malatang makes a big deal of its hot pots, too. In fact, when you first enter the restaurant, there are chilled ingredients on the left which you can mix and match (one-pound minimum) to make your own hot pot, augmented by a choice of eight broths. These might require some experimentation before you find what appeals to you.

Hot pot ingredients

Hot pot ingredients

Also included on the menu are many of the favorites that have appeared at Chef Yang’s previous restaurants. Chongqing chicken or cumin lamb, anyone?

Update (5-17-14): We had an early dinner here with another couple.

(Fried) salt and pepper squid is generally a good dish to order whenever a Chinese restaurant has it on the menu. The calamari has a thin, crispy batter typically made with cornstarch; the flavor is boosted by addition of scallions and a bit of green chiles to add a touch of heat. An important consideration is not to overcook the squid, which Chef Yang is careful not to do. The intriguing addition is ground Szechwan peppercorns, which added their characteristic numbing quality and floral fragrance, raising this entrée out of the ordinary (☆☆☆).

Salt and Pepper Squid

Salt and Pepper Squid

Besides pulled noodles, chef Yang also makes hand-shaven noodles, which make an appearance in chow mein. Other than the pasta having a slight powderiness, the sauce was good, with thin pieces of tender pork, green onions and cabbage (☆☆½).

Hand Shaven Noodles with Pork

Hand Shaven Noodles with Pork

The best dish of the afternoon was tofu with eggplant (☆☆☆½). Chinese eggplant slices were meltingly soft, likely after having absorbed a prodigious quantity of oil, in a savory sauce mixed with fried tofu and scallions. But, it is an oily dish.

Tofu with eggplant

Tofu with eggplant

It’s a little worrisome that there were only two other dining parties this afternoon. Foot traffic seems to plague all the businesses in the multi-story Pacific Rim Center, no matter what time of day. Even with ample free parking, its location on a steep hillside (which provides a little thrill when the car enters the parking structure tilted sideways at 30o) at the edge of Little Saigon, physically separates the shops from the main commercial area up the block, where most people do their shopping on foot. Could it be that Uway Malatang is therefore too much out of the way to make the effort worthwhile? If so, that’s a shame because there is talent in the kitchen.

Update (4-11-16): Chef Yang no longer helms Uway Malatang. As of July 2015, he opened Country Dough where he is now making Szechwan guo kui, flatbread filled with meat or vegetables.

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Uway Malatang Restaurant
900 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98104
206.467.0600

Sweet Home Cafe (Honolulu, HI)


sweet-home-cafe
Sweet Home Cafe is another restaurant that specializes in one thing, and one thing only–Taiwanese hot pot. There is no shortage of patrons. By the time we arrived at the restaurant at 5:30pm, there was already a waiting list. We didn’t get seated until after 6:30, and I’ll say it right now, the wait was worth it.

If the visit is your first, you will be given detailed instructions on how the operation works. First, you select a broth from among many. Then, you choose one or more meats (beef, pork, lamb, or beef tongue). If you’re on the waiting list, the maitre d’ will ask you to make your selections right away so that when you get seated, the broth and meat(s) will immediately be brought to your table. You may be told that the three most popular are the house special, spicy and healthy herb broths. Every patron is not required to order a meat (we selected a single serving of beef). If you want two broths (to try different ones), you will be charged for two broths, which will be served in a divided vessel. The container is placed on top of an electric hot plate. We selected the spicy and house special broths.

Once you get seated, you then select however many wrapped plates of ingredients as you wish from the coolers along the back wall. Each plate is color-coded: $2.75 for white or green; $3.75 for yellow or orange; $4.75 for blue. There is a bewildering selection of vegetables, seafood, organ meats, noodles, and several kinds of tofu from which to choose. I can’t even provide a complete list. We chose soft tofu, watercress, sliced squashes, nappa, lobster balls, and fresh shiitake.

Extras

Extras

As if selecting ingredients weren’t enough, you can choose one or more of fourteen different dipping sauces: homemade*, sesame, Chinese-style shabu shabu, hoisin, sweet honey mustard, Chinese-style steamed soy sauce with chili pepper, chili garlic, oyster chili*, homemade spicy, miso*, Thai-style sweet and sour, black bean*, tomato chili* and hot bean curd*, all of them prepared in-house. Every single one we tried (asterisked above) was delicious.

Dipping sauces

Dipping sauces

At first, you may be intimidated by this whole process, aggravated by the tight spaces, mostly community-shared tables, and human traffic to and from the coolers, but you’ll quickly get settled and concentrate on the task at hand.

Steamed white rice is also provided.

Once the meal is over, you will be given a dessert gratis. Finely crushed ice (not as fine as shave ice) was surrounded by scoops of green tea and pineapple tapioca pearls, coffee mochi cubes, soft tofu, with the whole works drizzled with condensed milk and almond cream, and topped with an espresso mousse. Despite the fact that the tapioca flavors were artificial and the ice clumped in several places, the mousse, mochi balls and almond flavor were absolutely delicious. If you stuffed yourself with the main meal, you’ll still find the room to (mostly) finish this stellar dessert. It’s possible that the dessert might change periodically.

From start to finish, the dining experience was extraordinary. Not only was the meal fantastic, the entire wait staff was very friendly. Sweet Home Cafe aims to make you feel at home and is on our list of must-return places.

Sweet Home Cafe
2334 S. King St (McCully/Moiliili)
808.947.3707