The commuter noodle shop—so common in Asia's metropolitan centers—is a rare sight in Chicago. Which is unfortunate, because who wouldn't want to slurp down a hot, hearty noodle soup or, say, a saucy bowl of curry udon while waiting on a chilly El platform? (The cold weather's coming, people.) Even if you're not the eat-on-the-go type, I bet you can appreciate the value of a conveniently located spot with steaming noodles practically at the ready for a quick sit-down meal that's going to fortify and warm you from the inside out. I guess what I'm getting at is, if Chicago has one of these elusive commuter noodle joints, the Bucktown/Wicker Park location of Penny's Noodle Shop is that place.
Located just feet away from the Damen stop of the Blue Line, this Penny's is built for quickie dining: friendly but efficient servers; a dining room laden with two tops and repellently sparse decor; and a kitchen that teeters on the line of being uncomfortably fast with your order—all of which, as a supporter of the commuter-noodle-joint concept, I find endearing. Of course the other important factor is that the food can be good. And Penny's noodles, for how fast they spring from the kitchen, are very good. I'm particularly a fan of the Thai ravoili ($7.50), which features housemade shrimp and pork dumplings.
The portion is generous for the price, and includes smoky-sweet slices of glazed barbecued pork, green onions, minced cilantro, ground peanuts, crisp bean sprouts, and big leaves of lettuce. The plump little dumplings are filled with well-seasoned ground meat and shrimp and are wrapped with feathery-light skins of rice noodle. They exhibit none of that sticky, heavy, doughy texture you occasionally experience with Asian dumplings. The crushed peanuts and cilantro add nice depth. But I am less impressed by the barbecued pork, which is flavorful but dry. I also find the bed of lettuce to be a waste; seemingly, it's there to be decorative, but it just clutters up the bowl. Whether or not you're in a rush to catch a train or get home after work, you don't want anything getting in between you and those tasty Thai ravioli.