We were maneuvering into our places around the table at San Dong House B.B.Q., doing the hug-or-handshake dance, reeling a little from the force of the smelly tofu at the table next to us, when the repetitive sound — halfway between a soap-opera smack and the slam of a two-by-four onto a door — interrupted our greetings.
Startled, I looked for the source. In the back of the kitchen, a chef in his 50s was flinging his hands out from his shoulders like the flapping of crane's wings, with arcs of dough stretched between his hands. The wings flapped shut as he brought the two ends of the five-foot strand of dough together. One hand grabbed the bottom of the loop, stretched it horizontally, and then slammed the dough onto the table.
It was the sound of genuine hand-pulled noodles. Noodle-making as dinner theater dates far, far back before the days of Iron Chef. There are noodles kneaded with giant bamboo poles clutched between the thighs of the noodle master, a wince-making spectacle. Shanxi Province is famous for knife-cut noodles in which a lump of dough is sliced, flick-flick-flick, into thick slugs that fly into a vat of boiling water. And Lanzhou, in north-central China, is cited as the origin for brutally stretched noodles of the sort San Dong House B.B.Q. specializes in. Over the centuries, hand-pulled noodles have spread throughout northern China and Korea; in the Bay Area, Chinese or Korean restaurants advertising a noodle master in the kitchen appear and disappear with no great regularity. You have to stay up on your restaurant gossip to find them.
San Dong House B.B.Q. is the newest restaurant advertising a hand-pulled noodle specialist, a chef the staff knows only as Shifu (Master) Chi. Though the shifu comes from Shandong Province, and the name seems to signify the presence of Shandong cuisine, the restaurant presents a more generalized, northern Chinese menu with long sections for noodles, dumplings, grilled meats, and a mishmash of homey dishes.
The thwack of the dough against the chef's worktable, despite its volume, ceased being startling by the time the first dish arrived. In the best tradition of cheap Chinese noodle houses, there wasn't much else about the place to remark on except that it appeared to receive thorough scrub-downs. Like the white tile floors, the tables were bare except for cruets of soy and chile paste. The walls were covered in mirrors rather than paint or paintings, and the place was lit so brightly we couldn't help but compare the noodle-wrangling prowess of everyone around us.
On our way to the noodles, we detoured with small plates of appetizers dished up from a buffet table in the kitchen, such as chilled cucumber half-moons marinated with garlic and a wisp of Sichuan peppercorn. Transparent, striped whorls of shaved pig's ear — whose gelatinous crunch no molecular gastronomist has yet duplicated — were mildly seasoned, then tossed with shavings of scallion and Chinese celery. Both were fine, the equivalent of the complimentary salad that comes with your T-bone steak dinner at Outback Steak House.
Pale-skinned and evenly formed, with a high, pinched crest, the dumplings that appeared soon after were more remarkable. Boiled just until the thin exterior grew supple, the pork and cabbage dumplings ($5.95 adozen) had a whispery gingeriness and a fleeting vegetal crunch. The chopped scallions and cloud-ear fungus that bulked out the vegetarian dumplings ($6.95) were more stridently flavored, tamed by a spoonful of sharp black vinegar. San Dong's lamb dumplings ($6.95) were magnificent, with just enough gaminess to them to evoke the lamb, but a more mellow succulence than the ones at Kingdom of Dumpling. Within a bite or two, we learned to hold them daintily — one badly aimed bite, and the juices pooled inside would squirt out and be lost.
One caution: Order from the page of barbecued skewers ($1.96 to 3.95) at your own peril. From the sweet potato (solidly crunchy) to the duck neck (er, just don't), they're all dusted with the same confetti of garlic, cumin, chiles, and salt. The beef: chewy. The lamb kidney: even chewier. The only skewer I'd order again was the lamb, frilly strips of meat pulled off the fire before the flames drained off all its tenderness. The large platter of barbecued short ribs ($10.95) was no better. They resembled kalbi, and some of the sweetness of the Korean marinade, but no Korean restaurant here would be caught selling tough beef so hard to separate from the bone.
I ordered a few other side dishes, mostly vegetables to accompany the noodles and dumplings. The waiter recommended the dry-fried string beans — wrinkled, salty, heavily flecked with dried radish — and they were about as fine as any I normally spoon out of a paper box. More pleasant was a plate of pressed tofu stir-fried with clear-toned, spindly Chinese celery ($6.95), as well as spicy charred cabbage ($6.95), the chopped leaves wok-blistered and flecked with a mixture of minced pork, fermented soybeans, and dried chiles. There was an entrée of country-style "pork side" ($8.95), threads of lean meat stir-fried with cabbage, carrot, and bamboo shoot; it was nothing I'd put on my list of the year's best dishes, but I was grateful for a leftover-carton lunch the next day. And the fried smelly tofu — the Insane Clown Posse of street snacks, marinated in a feculent-smelling brine until it becomes spongy and odiferous — is so popular the restaurant had sold out the night I returned specifically to try it.
The main reason all of us were at San Dong House, of course, was the hand-pulled noodles (all $6.99), made with a low-protein flour that the noodle master kneads, twists, and stretches to an astonishing elasticity. The noodles, slightly thinner than udon, are served either in soup or boiled with a little sauce. Moving a hank of them into a smaller bowl required stretching my chopsticks as high as I could reach, then having a friend coax the trailing ends into their destination. (Cheaters can cut theirs up with kitchen shears.)
If you're looking for noodles without broth, ignore San Dong's northern Chinese take on Sichuan dan dan noodles, dressed with a dull puddle of sesame paste and chile oil, in favor of the more robust version with bean sauce, ground pork, and julienned cucumbers. The oxtail soup noodles, and the even better beef with beef tendon noodles, floated in a beef stock seasoned with a few star anise pods to contribute the illusion of sweetness. So much gelatin had melted into the clear stock that it shimmered, feeling satiny on the tongue.
The joy of eating hand-pulled noodles is simple and visceral. With your chopsticks, you pluck the smallest tangle you can catch from the Sargasso Sea of floating noodles and begin slurping. They are smooth, these noodles. An Italian would not call them al dente, but Italian pasta can't quite replicate their texture, paradoxically soft and still bouncy. You suck and suck, determined to get to the end of the strand without biting. You pause to exhale. You slurp some more. Who will punk out first, the noodle or your cheeks? Each mouthful is a test of endurance — but the victory always belongs to you.