Using Their Noodles

Two local eateries make an art of hand-pulled pasta

Xian's hand-pulled noodles (Photo by John Anderson)

If patrons peer through a glass window into the kitchen, they can see the chef pushing and pressing, twisting and twirling, stretching out and drawing in a roughly 6-inch dough. In about 20 seconds, the chef transforms into an artist, just as the dough transforms into one long strand of noodles. There is no need for machinery, no props to distract. The hands are the sculptor, and the noodles the masterpiece.

With Austinites increasingly hungry for everything handmade, it is a wonder why most pasta used here is still pre-packaged. Austin never struggled with making a good sauce, but the foundation was sometimes lacking. Luckily, in the past decade several restaurants and food trucks have started to make their own. Now the art of hand-pulled noodles, also known as la mian, is thriving in the capital city.

The actual history of noodles is uncertain. The Italians and Chinese both lay claims to inventing them. However, written records show that the Chinese have been eating them from at least AD200 in the Han Dynasty. Recent archaeological finds in China even suggest that noodles have existed for 4,000 years.

There are three main types of Chinese noodles – those made from wheat flour (like hand-pulled noodles), those made from rice flour, and those made from starch (frequently mung bean). Hand-pulled noodles remain a favorite in the country, so much so that China's Ministry of Commerce and China Hotel Association named those originating from the northwest city of Lanzhou one of its official top 10. But you don't have to take their word for it. Two restaurants in Austin will save you the plane ticket.

Xian Sushi and Noodle Bar

The name Xian – which means "fresh" in Mandarin Chinese – gives the first indication that the menu focuses on the homemade. From the noodles to the soup to the chili oil, most items have the imprint of chef and owner Ting Lin. Lin describes himself as a traditional kind of guy, with a goal to preserve the centuries-old food traditions without resorting to machines.

Lin's dreams of opening a noodle restaurant started young. When he was 6, he realized that although he grew tired of eating rice, he could always quickly engulf a bowl of noodles. Originally from the Fujian province in southeast China, Lin moved to Kentucky when he was 15. During his stay there, he could not find a single place that sold fresh noodles. By 21, he took matters into his own hands, reading books on noodle making, doing extensive research, and practicing making noodles in his garage.

Lin traveled to Lanzhou for several months to learn how to make hand-pulled noodles at an academy. "When I went back, I pretty much knew the concept and how it is," he says. "Basically, it was to get there and finalize every detail."

The routine at the school was simple. Every morning, the students would make their own dough, which typically consists of flour, water, potassium carbonate, and salt. In the afternoon, the students would intern at the restaurant located below the academy, hand-pulling their own noodles.

At both Xian locations, patrons can observe that training in action. Lin's manipulation of the dough is a performance tailored to win over onlookers (similar to Turkish ice cream men), but each step has a purpose. His flattening and pressing of the dough softens the gluten inside. When he twists the dough, the gluten travels from one end to the other. When he twirls the dough up, it becomes tighter so that when he eventually pulls the noodles it does not break. It may look precarious when he flings the dough in the air, but he's in full control.

Xian (Photo by John Anderson)

The dough's recipe constantly changes. It is affected by the difference of the flour and water in the U.S. compared to China, and with every change in temperature and humidity. Summertime in the U.S. means ice water has to be used, and twice the salt is added to prevent the dough from rising too quickly.

Although Xian serves Asian cuisine, the noodles on the menu all have Italian names: spaghetti, fettuccine, and pappardelle. Lin wrote his menu this way to make it easier for customers to understand the noodles' size. There's also a "triangle" on the menu, noodles with three sides instead of the typical rounded or flat edges. Lin explains it simply: "The long one, we roll it, the flat one, we punch down, and the triangle, we just make it look like a triangle in the beginning."

The two most popular sizes are the thick spaghetti and the pappardelle, as people enjoy the larger, chewier texture. "Everybody has their own preference," Lin says, "Hand-pulled noodles is the perfect way to serve everybody."

Julie's Handmade Noodles

When school is in session, food lines around campus are nothing out of the ordinary. While often that food gets away with being mediocre, the extra-long lines for Julie's Handmade Noodles attest that the food truck is a little bit different.

Owner and chef Julie Hong is known among students for her handmade noodles and dumplings, and is affectionately called "Julie mommy" by many. Her vivacity and bright smiles might be what initially attract students, but her noodles keep them coming back for more.

Speaking in Mandarin Chinese, she shares that her motto is to always serve filling meals that never let her patrons go hungry. She also demands of herself that everything is served fresh so that her patrons can feel her warmth. She prepares each bowl of hand-pulled noodles slowly and diligently, focusing on pulling it for her current customer rather than jumping to the next.

Hong's hand-pulled noodles are different from the traditional Lanzhou style. Instead of tossing the dough up into the air to twist it, she nimbly slams and presses the dough down and stretches it thin across the span of the table. Lanzhou-style noodles tend to be singular long strands, but many strands are created here, making it easier for slurping. As with most hand-pulled noodles, hers have different widths and slightly jagged edges.

Hong hails from Shenyang in northeastern China where her family used to own a noodle store. The recipe and way of pulling is a family tradition that has been passed down many generations. It wasn't forced onto each generation, but they all picked it up naturally at a young age – even Hong's 8-year-old grandchild knows how to make it.

Hong arrived to the U.S. 15 years ago to the Flushing neighborhood in New York City. She worked a series of different jobs to make ends meet. Her stint installing wooden floors left her left middle finger twisted. Eventually, she took on different jobs including kitchen staff member at a Chinese and Japanese restaurant, nanny, and private chef.

But she was apart from her son and wanted to be with him. Her son was working as a sushi chef in Austin, so she left her job and went back to what she knew best – making dumplings from scratch and hand-pulling her own noodles. The hardship gave way to resilience, so even when she has to serve a thousand noodle bowls to hungry students, hand-pulling most of them, she does so cheerfully.

By the end of the year, Hong hopes to open her brick-and-mortar noodle shop in North Central Austin. She shares that some people are impressed with her courage at opening a store when she doesn't speak or understand English well, but all Hong wants to do is serve more of her warm handmade noodles to locals.

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Austin hand-pulled noodles, Xian Sushi and Noodle, Ting Lin, Julie's Handmade Noodles, Julie Hong

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