Ramen City: 123 Noodles
An ongoing exploration of Austin’s noodle soup of the moment
Inside Hana World Market at 1700 W. Parmer Lane, No. 100. 512-666-3577, www.123noodles.com.
Hours: 11am-8:15pm daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.21.13
MARCH 2014 UPDATE: From 123 Noodles' Facebook page: "123 Noodles will be closing permanently after Sunday, March 23, 2014. We have enjoyed serving you delicious food, but family obligations will not allow us to keep the restaurant open."
It’s a fact the world over that some of the best places to eat are in the most unlikely spots. We see them on TV, mostly, when Zimmern hits the market stalls or Bourdain goes kebap hunting in a war zone. We have places like that here, like Chen’s Noodle House in a strip mall or the Taco Rico trailer by the laundromat or Brown’s Bar-B-Q next to a car wash. I’ll add another one: 123 Noodles inside the Hana World Market Korean grocery, where it shares food court space with a Korean lunch counter.
I came for ramen — and I got it, a Chinese-style bowl for $7.50 — but I walked away with a stunning taste of Vietnam, by way of Nam Luu, his mother and a couple of aunts. Collectively, they make nine styles of noodle bowls. The Chinese ramen started with the shop’s long-simmered pork stock and fat round noodles like spaghetti. The bowl was loaded with bok choy and chopped fried shallots with a protein trifecta of thin roasted pork, steamed shrimp and petite pearls of quail egg. It’s not as poetic as the Japanese form, with its noodles like cosine waves and medallions of fishcake and eggs with sunshine yolks. But it was fortifying, hydrating and restorative like a good soup should be, served with a plate of cilantro, sprouts, jalapeño and lime to freshen things up.
The real discovery here was Hu Tieu, served dry, with soup on the side (No. 3, $7.50). I’ll let Luu describe this signature dish from Vietnam: “Underneath is a bed of steamed bean spouts, and then on top of that we have your glass noodles. And they come in a sesame soy dressing and then a garlic sauce. Then quail egg, shrimp, pork, lettuce, cilantro, onions and fried shallots are put on top of that. And the red is a minced pork garlic tomato-based sauce,” he said, ticking off the elements in the easy tones of a salesman who knows his product sells itself.
“Then you stir all that up and get the flavors mixed together. People add a spoon of this, our house satay,” he said, pointing to a fiery red condiment bowl. “It’s got fried onions, fried garlic, fried chiles and oil.”
Got all that? It comes together like a TV dinner — meaning the kind you see on the TV travel shows. The tomato-fortified pork begets memories of marinara. The quail egg and roasted pork become bacon and eggs. Shrimp and bean sprouts and lettuce are at home in most any Asian bowl. The noodles are like the tapioca beads in bubble tea pulled long and thin with a gloss of toasted sesame. Each flavor takes its turn, and each bite can be customized with a dip in the steaming bowl of stock or with a dash of the satay, a kind of chile marmalade with bright heat that blooms and fades with every bite.
Luu’s mother, Mimi Tran, said they start boiling the pork bones the night before service, then cool it down and skim the fat, then finish the long simmer in the morning. It’s more than just soup; call it a cloud-filtered consomme with an aroma that rises like vanilla.
Luu and his family started 123 Noodles on July 5. The Austin native came back from jobs at the high-rolling Sharkeez in California and the posh Sushi Roku at the W in Scottsdale to be the front-of-house guy at a food court in North Austin. And he hasn’t looked back. “My dad’s a chef, my grandmother’s a chef and my aunts are all chefs. I’m the customer service guy. We’re going to be a destination.”
The genealogy of the crew, a mix of family and friends, ranges from Vietnam to China to Nepal. Tran said they wanted the noodles to reflect those countries. Luu said he traveled to Vietnam to get a sense of the food’s history. When electricity or gas aren’t an option, Luu said, some of the shops get daily deliveries of charcoal to fire the day’s cookpans. Probably those little shops we’ll see on TV. Or we can drive to West Parmer Lane.
(TOP: Chinese-style ramen from 123 Noodles, with pork, shrimp, quail eggs and pork stock. INSET: The shop is a family-and-friends enterprise. The crew includes, from left, Jai Magar, Suong Nguyen, Huong Quach, Mimi Tran and Nam Luu. At top right is the noodle dish Hu Tieu with minced garlic pork, sliced pork, quail eggs, shrimp and glass noodles, served dry with broth on the side. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)