Two University District noodle shops, one shared love of knowledge.
by Jay Friedman
September 21, 2016
You never know how you’ll fall into noodles. For two noodle-lovers who unexpectedly turned noodle-makers on University Way in Seattle’s University District, it’s been about the pursuit of education.
Xiaoli (Lily) Wu got an early taste of her future and followed her dreams. She grew up in a small village near Songyuan in northeastern China’s Jilin province. Wu describes it as a poor area with no rice production in her part of the province. Any wheat was sold to make money, so corn powder played a prominent role in the diet. The roads were dirt. “One day I walked two miles and saw my first paved road and then saw a car,” she recalls, still with a sense of astonishment, adding, “It made me want to get one, and made me want to make money to change my family’s life.”
Wu’s parents sent her to middle school in Beijing to get a better education. The trip marked her first time on a bus. And, taking lunch, her first time to eat Xi’an-style biang-biang noodles. She loved them, but with limited money necessitating meals at the school’s cafeteria, those noodles would be a constant craving far too luxurious to afford.
With a dream of living in America, Wu felt fortunate to get a student visa and funding in 2006. She settled in Flushing and studied in Brooklyn, meeting her now-husband in the process. They moved to Seattle, but she missed her beloved biang-biang noodles, so the two took a leap of faith: traveling to Xi’an to learn how to make them. Training eventually gave them the proper technique for stretching and thwacking the dough to create the long, wide noodles that are at once silky and chewy. But without previous cooking experience, they had to experiment by sense of taste to capture the flavorings of the noodle’s sauce and toppings.
Back in Seattle, a forced closure of Wu’s first restaurant left her depressed, but she has opened Xi’an Noodles, working the front of the house by day (her quieter husband is in the back) but often arriving early to help make all the labor-intensive noodles. In addition to the delicious biang-biang noodles (I like them spicy, simply seared with hot oil), there are a variety of other noodle dishes like liangpi (cold skin noodles that are quite refreshing) and spicy cumin lamb rice noodles in soup. The restaurant is extremely busy. Wu hopes to expand in the future, but is currently content to have the one place up-and-running, constantly reminding herself that “even the bad thing can become a good thing in the future.”
Like Wu, Huyen (Frank) Zhu also came to Seattle for education
—in this case for his daughter, who attends high school in Bellevue. Zhu himself left a job teaching engineering at the university level to come here in 2014, opening Silk Road Noodle Bar earlier this year. While he’s from Hefei in eastern Anhui province (near Shanghai), one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes is Yunnan-style “Crossing the Bridge” noodles.
The connection was initially confusing, but Zhu eventually conveys (with the help of a number of Chinese students enjoying their food and enthusiastically eager to translate) that he’s a friend of the CEO of a company that produces rice noodles. This company has a division that runs a chain of Wang Yi Wan restaurants in six Chinese provinces. Silk Road is modeled after these restaurants, with a Wang Yi Wan consultant coming to Seattle to train Zhu and his staff how to cook the noodles.
The menu is fairly modest, with a small number of noodle dishes. You can get them in spicy and non-spicy versions of beef noodle soup, but most unique is the pickled fish rice noodles, with a broth that’s simultaneously sour and spicy. For a dry product, these noodles are soft and yet slightly chewy. The secret, according to one of the workers, is soaking them for six hours before quick-cooking them.
The remaining question for Zhu: What does he like about noodles? Without hesitation, he proclaims that “one bowl of noodles is enough for a meal, making it convenient, fulfilling, and really delicious.”
Delicious indeed are the dishes available at these two shops just a few blocks apart on the Ave. Its owners are schooling the local students—and increasingly the greater community—about the joy of noodles from beyond the borders of their respective provinces back in China.