Fed Man 55: Chen's Noodle House (42)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 42: Chen’s Noodle House
8650 Spicewood Springs Road. 512-336-8889, no website.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Sunday. Closed Tuesday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.20.12
There’s always one place on every list like this that has no business being on a list like this. Ranked higher than Hudson’s and Green Pastures? You’ve lost your mind. And who got left out so you could squeeze in a strip-mall noodle shop with 22 seats? Chen’s fought its way into the Fed Man 55 one noodle at a time, razored by hand from a fat loaf of dough into boiling water. They’re nonconformists, each one a snowflake of different shapes and textures: silky, skinny, chubby, chewy, doughy ... and Sneezy and Doc. Characters ready to play their part in a combination noodle soup ($6.95) with pork, tofu, egg, black mushrooms, carrot, spinach, potato and cilantro in an aromatic beef broth. Or a noodle soup with diced lamb ($7.95) that bristles with cumin and red chile oil in a rolling red stew with tomato and spinach.
Chen’s enormous bowl of wonton soup ($6.95) is the one all the other baby bowls at boilerplate Chinese restaurants wish they could be. Those feathery handcut noodles weave loose sachets around lightly spiced ground pork in a broth with scallions and paper-thin strips of fried egg and shaved pickled vegetable. Salt is a minor player, and this comes off as a mother’s prescription bowl of starch, protein and hydration. Flakeaway pancakes with green onions ($2) make fine paddles for those oceans of soup. Dumplings, lamb skewers and cold noodles round out a dry-erase menu 18 lines long with nothing over $8.50, including spaghetti-style noodles smothered in minced pork and black-bean sauce ($6.95). It’s as oily as a BP tidal basin, but when everything’s stirred together, it’s like Szechuan chili mac, in a good way.
Chen’s Noodle House is about as unassuming as a Top 55 restaurant gets. The formula works so well that Chen’s built a much fancier version of itself called Chen Z on West Anderson Lane. But I like the original for its marriage of good food, low prices and utter lack of pretense. It shares strip-mall space with the mighty Asia Cafe and the more conventional Dynasty Chinese Restaurant, along with a melting pot of barbecue, Mexican, Indian and hamburger places. The only decoration is the ordering window, like a Cinerama screen on a continuous cooking-show loop subtitled with Chinese characters on wooden slats at the top. When the food comes out, the spotlight shifts to the actors drinking free hot tea at cramped little tables leveled with wads of napkins. An almost silent film, except for the slurping.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants