Editor's Note: Along with cocktails, Roger Kamholz also has a real passion for noodles, making him the perfect person to launch out latest column, Knockout Noodles. Take it away, Roger!
Noodles are a global phenomenon. Dozens of world cultures, despite being separated by miles and language and politics, share a connection when it comes to their collective love for noodles. And because so many cuisines have cultivated and perfected their take on noodles over centuries, today we're faced with a staggering, mouth-watering abundance of noodle avenues to explore. It's noodle superhighway, really. The idea behind Knockout Noodles, my new column, is to pave an on-ramp. Well, lots of them, actually.
Here's the plan: I, a tremendous noodle lover but by no means an expert on the subject—who ever could be?—shall seek out the ubiquitous noodle in all its forms. We're talking Italian pasta, German spätzle, Southeast Asian rice vermicelli, Japanese soba, Chinese lo mein. It's all fair game! Which, now that I think about it, means I have a lot of work to do. In we go—let's Enter the Noodle.
One way to get your feet wet is to dive into the deep end, so I decided to kick off Knockout Noodles with my first visit to Cho Sun Ok, the small, yellow-signed Korean BBQ in Lincoln Square; in addition to meats and fish pan-seared at the table, Cho Sun Ok also specializes in naengmyeon, or cold noodle dishes. Naengmyeon is typically eaten in hot-weather months—think gazpacho and the aforementioned Japanese soba, for which there are hot and cold preparations—although many Korean restaurants are known to serve these chilled noodle soups and bowls year-round, Cho Sun Ok included.
The restaurant decor is wood-panel plain and the service is...let's call it hands-off, but neither factor keeps away the feasting crowds—who, judging by the waves of food ordered, quite literally come for the BBQ but stay for the noodles. My dining companion and I, on a strict mission of discovery, went straight for the noodles, ordering Cho Sun Ok's Mul Naeng Myeon (buckwheat noodles in cold beef broth; $8.95) and Bibim Naeng Myeon (buckwheat noodles mixed with hot and spicy sauce; $8.95).
Unbeknownst to us Korean noodle novices at the time, this pair of dishes together represent the two main varieties of naengmyeon. The Mul Naeng Myeon (shown above) consisted of transparent chilled broth filled with a generous portion of thin buckwheat noodles, sliced beef, cucumbers and other green veggies, a boiled egg and thick slices of Asian pear. Cho Sun Ok serves this dish in the traditional vessel, a deep-walled metal bowl that helps to keep the contents cool.
Admittedly, the Mul Naeng Myeon's buckwheat noodles were pretty toothsome, and slurping cold beef broth amid cold weather proved to be an off-putting combination. But the beef was tender and the veggies crisp. I was left feeling intrigued by the unfamiliar mix of ingredients. This won't be my last bowl of you, Mul Naeng Myeon, we'll meet again this summer.
The Bibim Naeng Myeon, also housed in a metal bowl for optimum temperature control, came out of the gates slow but ultimately won me over in a big way. Again, you get a dense tangle of buckwheat noodles, boiled egg, and sliced pear and cucumber. Instead of liquid in the bowl, you get a small side dish of light, slightly savory broth, which you can spoon in yourself. But the real jewel on this pillow of humble noodles is Cho Sun Ok's epic radish kimchi. Heavy with red pepper paste for a glorious spicy-sweet kick, the crunchy and pungent radish kimchi turned out to be the hot glue that held this dish together in heavenly balance.
I had found at first that the noodles were slightly gummy and difficult to eat, but then I came to realize the secret to eating Bibim Naeng Myeon is to utilize the broth and mix everything together, so the noodles become slick and all the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Now I was dealing with a bowlful of love—with the nutty, starchy flavors of the buckwheat noodles mingling perfectly with the spicy-sweet, vinegary sauce.
The array of side plates that came with our naengmyeon included more kimchi (yay!), sweet potato salad, hot mustard and cubes of gelatin. I can't say I understand these items, but I love trying them. My best guess is they're meant to start and then quickly put out small fires in the mouth. And that is a dining experience I can get behind.