A Dozen Dives: Chen's Noodle House

12 places we’re drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 1: Chen’s Noodle House
8650 Spicewood Springs Road. 336-8889, no website.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. Closed Tuesday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.09.12
You could walk this shopping center at Spicewood and 183 and cross off half a dozen strip-mall dives from your list: Chisholm Trail barbecue, Asia Cafe, Maharaja Indian buffet, a Tex-Mex place called Camino Real, an Indian grocery, even a Short Stop. But Chen’s was a galvanizing experience for me the first time, watching Zhao Chen flay noodles from a loaf of dough into a boiling wok at the speed of a drumroll. Those noodles form the base of 12 assorted stir-fry dishes and soups in bowls the size of Harley helmets roasting in the sun on a cross-state ride. If you speak the language, order from wooden slats dangling like raffle tabs from the kitchen window. If not, a Rosetta Stone in the form of a dry-erase board will translate. Chen’s draws an equal audience for both versions.
At the apex of lunch hour, Chen’s 22 seats can fill up so fast that you might have to kneel next to your kids at a card table like I did one Saturday after watching another man do the same to offer his chair to a female customer. The sounds bounce back and forth between the steady tap of ladle against wok and table-side slurping. The formula worked so well that Chen’s built a much fancier version of itself called Chen Z Hot Pot and Noodle Bar next to Cover 3 on West Anderson Lane. Much too polished to qualify as a dive.
What you’re eating: Lamb noodle soup ($7.95). Glowing red and green with tomato and spinach, the broth blooms with steam that carries a Middle Eastern bouquet, bristling with cumin and red chile oil. Diced lamb brings its own grassy down-meadow chew to the bowl. But the noodles are the dish’s unifying element, twisting like living sinew with ragged edges and starchy ridges with a range of uneven textures in each impossibly long ribbon. The noodles do a rubber-legged fandango as you pull them in full protest from the mosh pit, throwing off oil and broth like a Wham-O Water Wiggle
There’s a procedure for eating soup from a bowl this big. Using chopsticks and a flat melamine spoon, transfer a knot of noodles and broth to a smaller bowl, then eat with the chopsticks and polish off the broth with a mannered slurp by bringing the smaller bowl to your lips.
What you’re drinking: Free hot jasmine tea from the stainless coffee urn next to the water cooler. Use the little green bowls. They’re not for tea, necessarily, but a styrofoam cup feels wrong somehow.
More options: The stir-fried noodle ($7.95) at the next table looked good, and much more civilized to eat in a white shirt you’d rather not speckle with noodle splatter. My daughter craves leek pancakes ($2.75) like toasted crepes stuffed with egg, bitter greens and garlic. As much as I like the lamb, beef and combination noodle soups, a plate of noodles with bubbling black bean sauce called out from another table. Grilled lamb skewers and steamed dumplings offer something for the less adventurous.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)