Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hand Pulled Chinese Noodles in Chelmsford, MA

Hand pulled heaven
Today, I went to Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe. And from here on in, all other days will be different for me. The mind boggles at how something so delicious could have eluded me for so long. And how I had known about it for nearly a year, and lazily did not make the trek to Chelmsford to check out a true hidden gem. My Chinese hand pulled noodle ignorance has come to an end, and I am better for it.
Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe
This is a small shop, located next to a package store in a fairly unsuspecting little town a short commute from Boston. Nothing about the area suggests that the shop has sprung up due to a large population of Chinese in Chelmsford, and to my knowledge, this is the only hand pulled noodle shop to be found from here to New York. Unusual? Yes. Worth traveling to? Shut the f*** up and get in your car. 
Menu and noodle pulling in
the background
Upon walking into the shop, we noticed that the population of diners was entirely Chinese speaking, a good sign if ever there was one. Knowing that we were making the drive up today, I studied up on yelp about the names of the different dishes. I'll tell you right now that such research is completely unnecessary at this fine little restaurant. I find it's always polite and helpful when going to Chinatown to know the exact name of the dish that you're looking for. Fortunately for us, Gene's lacks many of the intimidating "you don't belong" qualities of some of the best restaurants in Chinatown. Their menu, depicting the house specialities via way of photograph, is prominently displayed behind the counter. As you mosey up to the kind lady at the register to place your order, all you have to do is stare at the pictures and pick out the items that you want. Furthermore, while many Chinese restaurants tend to have a marathon menu running the gamut of every dish offered in any particular region of China and then some (you know what I'm talking about... those menus with 100+ items spanning from chilled bitter melon to char siu baau to neon sweet and sour pork to egg foo young), Gene's has a very succinct menu of about nine heavy hitters and then a few obligatory Americanized items (pupu platter stand up). 
So what did we order? Three items and two sodas... totaling less than $20. 
Xi'an Chilled Noodles
(weekends only)
Item 1: Xi'an Chilled Noodles. This dish is only available on the weekend, and takes about two days to make, so we were especially excited to have an opportunity to try it. Unfortunately, we only got our act together by about 1:30, arriving around 2:00 pm, so odds were high that we would be shit out of luck, as it were. But that lucky penny I threw in the water fountain as a kid must have finally cashed out. We put in the order for the Chilled Noodles, and immediately Mrs. Wu, Gene's wife said she had to check with the kitchen. After a few sentences back and forth with kitchen staff, she smiled and said "Only one  order left." I wanted to spike a football or something. The sold out sign went up a moment later.
The taste? Remarkable. Nothing can prepare you for the harmony of flavors and perfect textures that are about to be unleashed from what appears to be the most humble of all tableware: a Styrofoam plate. The chilled noodles are a touch over an eight of an inch thick, and an inch wide. The noodle length seems to go on for a solid twelve inches with consistent thickness throughout. They are dressed simply, but deliciously in a bright orange chili oil, very mildly spicy and infused with the smell of garlic. Crunchy bean sprouts, and interesting little cubes of chewy wheat (I understand a byproduct of the process of making these particular noodles) also add to the flavor and texture party. The noodles are so slippery, and have a lovely springy chew to them, at the very end leaving your lips bright with the orange oil... the only thing concealing a wide toothy grin at the delicious, hearty, and clean flavored noodles you've just consumed. I am so glad we had the chance to eat these.
Hand pulled noodles
Item 2: Moving onto the big show, the hand pulled noodles that have drawn more and more people to this little restaurant. The word on the street is that at the end of the pulling process, what you actually have before you is a single long, thick, chewy noodle. And I believe it. When your noodle is pulled to order, and shortly after arrives in front of you covered in chili oil, chili powder, cilantro, spring onions, mounds of garlic, little can describe how special this bowl of noodles actually is. They are super doughy, satisfyingly chewy and bewilderingly kind of meaty. The garlic adds a sharpness to the flavor of the oil, and does a little dance with the chili powder, rounded out with veggie zing from fresh spring onions and the cilantro. There is a loving process of tossing the noodles with all of the sauce and bits to get that perfect mouthful. I think the Bigger Half summed it up perfectly as he swallowed his first bite, looked up with wide eyes, and with quivering lips softly proclaimed, "They're so burly." Head down, further consumption of delicious noodle.
Pork flatbread sandwich
Item 3: Pork Flatbread Sandwich. One thing that you start to notice about the food at Gene's is that the dishes are  straightforward in the most wonderful way. There aren't seven hundred ingredients. But there is time and precision making each dish special. This is true of the two noodle dishes we tried and perhaps even more so of the pork flatbread sandwich. How many sandwiches do you eat nowadays that there is the obligatory lettuce, mayo, sauce, maybe some kind of fruit spread, a few slices of onion, and then shaving of gold and white truffle specks? That's right... there's a right place and a wrong place. And while I love a good banh mi perhaps more than the average joe, I'm a little sick of everybody trying to be banh mi or po boys. Gene's does no such thing. Their pork flatbread sandwich is pork and...wait for it... wait for it... flatbread. That's it. But when I say pork, I mean slow roasted, succulent pork, perfectly tender and pull apart, but also mixed in with a good dose of fat for that extra richness and saltiness. The flatbread? Equally special. The thin bread is perfectly pressed to be crispy and chewy, a wonderful vehicle for that tender, melt in your mouth roasted pulled pork. Two things done exceptionally well, and nothing else to spoil it. 
If the pictures of the noodles can't convince you to get your ass in your car, then my long winded writing style certainly isn't doing anything to help the cause. Let the noodles sing for you. Let them become part of your comfort food rotation. And did I mention that all this stuff and two sodas were less than $20? Gene's is something special and unique for Boston, the first place to introduce hoards of us to our new addiction: hand pulled noodles.

Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe
257 Littleton Rd
Chelmsford, MA 01824

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