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