I had eaten approximately 300 miles of cold sesame noodles listed in the menu covers before I knew they had a story. If I’d thought about them at all, I would have reflected that everything has a story, but I didn’t. Back in the 1980s, when I came to New York, they were simply a thing you had to order with Chinese takeout because somebody always wanted them, even though they usually tasted like leftover spaghetti with Skippy.
Before this leather menu covers, though, cold sesame noodles in New York were the specialty of one particular Sichuan-born chef, Yu Fa Tang. Called Shorty by everybody, Tang came here in the early ’60s after working for more than a decade in Taiwan. By 1967 he had his own restaurant on East Broadway, Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn, where among other renditions of Sichuanese food he made cold sesame noodles that would lodge themselves in the memories of generations of New Yorkers and be imitated, lamentably, by takeout cooks all over town. At its peak it reportedly went through 500 pounds of noodles a day.
For more details on the background of the dish and its life after the restaurant closed, I refer you to a 2007 treatise that Sam Sifton wrote in The New York Times Magazine. For a taste of the original and unexpurgated recipe, I refer you to the very good new restaurant that opened on the site of the original in October. Its name now shortened to Hwa Yuan Szechuan, it is worth visiting for reasons that go well beyond nostalgia.
Hwa Yuan is an imposing restaurant, built by Shorty’s son Chien Lieh Tang and his grandson James Tang to plant the family name solidly in this century. To the left of the entrance is a lounge where translucent backlit panels cast everything in a streaked-marmalade glow. Straight ahead is the first dining room, and there are more up the stairs to the right.
The tables sit under white cloths, and the places are set with white china traced with gold. To the right of the plates are two pairs of chopsticks on a white-china rest, one for serving and the other for eating.
Needless to say, the cold sesame noodles are mandatory, at least on a first visit. They are, for one thing, truly cold. Not left-out-on-the-counter cold, but trickling-mountain-spring cold. The temperature accentuates their smooth surface and, like the slivers of cucumber, makes the small zap of chile oil call out more clearly. The first time I ate them the sauce needed a little more salt and vinegar, but the next time it had a finely balanced tension. If you know only the sugary peanut-butter imitation, tasting Hwa Yuan’s original must be like hearing Van Morrison for the first time when you’ve grown up on Ed Sheeran.
Chien Lieh Tang is the chef at the resurrected Hwa Yuan, and although his cooking is not hard to appreciate, a little orientation may help. First, a warning: Those who believe that the only good Sichuan food makes you weep, sniffle, moan, call 911 or crawl under the table will need to adjust their standards. Hwa Yuan serves many family recipes that reflect an earlier stage of Sichuan cooking and Shorty Tang’s time in Taiwan. While chiles are often present, they rarely dominate. Nor does the kitchen try to lard extra umami into every dish. The best food at Hwa Yuan tries to impress through charm, not arm-twisting.
Family pride being the point here, dishes that carry the names Tang or Hwa Yuan tend to be excellent. Not, I’m afraid, the Hwa Yuan dry-aged shell steak, which got impressive flavor from basting with marrow but was knotted with tough membranes when I tried it.
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But Tang’s Amazing Spicy Wine Chicken was a treat, very tender hunks of dark meat in a delicate sauce of Shaoxing rice wine, bean paste and chile oil. Tang’s Amazing Tofu was a minor discovery, seared squares of pressed tofu with fresh green chiles in a sauce that’s more interesting than you’d guess from its pale tan color. Hot Tang Tang noodles may sound like cold sesame noodles run through the microwave; they are something completely different, short strands of noodle in a steaming cup of sour-and-spicy broth that has a businesslike edge of roasted dried chiles.
And Whole Fish with Hot Bean Sauce, Tang Family Creation is a bona fide star, the dish I know I’ll order again even if I’m not in the mood for cold noodles. It had a devoted following at the original restaurant, where it was made with carp. Now it is barramundi, precisely cooked and resting in a rusty mash of chile oil, fermented soybeans and chopped scallions. It’s a forceful dish that’s still noteworthy for its balance.
As for the Hwa Yuan crab cake, I have no idea whether it lives up to the name. The kitchen was always out of it, along with such other intrigues as duck liver pâté and foie gras with fruit.