By Gene Gonzalez
One day, I made the wrong turn on Ayala Extension and ended on Yakal Street. I was fascinated to see that within a short 200 meter stretch were five Mainland Chinese restaurants that have opened. I did check out the very first ones but it was obvious that their portions and servings were pointed to groups of at least four for sharing. So I transferred to the next eatery that looked quite appealing with their traditional Chinese wood cutouts that gave a coromandel effect to the restaurant called Noodle Factory.
By looking at the menu, it seems that that the cooking is of Central China and showed some familiar items offered in small working class eateries. On both occasions of my visits the recommended specialty was beef and cow organs served in a stone pot on your table top. This of course did not deter us from ordering other items seeing that the bosses and their chef looked like mainland Chinese which reinforced our notions of authenticity. One of the very first two things I had ordered was a chopped chili chicken dish which is very common fare. This dish arrived freshly stir fried with its aroma wafting of cumin, chili paste, and most important of all, Szechuan pepper corns which gives this dish its authentic flavor and the umbing, electric buzz sensation on the palate that seems to be a characteristic legacy of Yunnan and Szechuan styles. The chef instead of using the rather smoky, dried grassy notes of dried red pepper used the local sliced green finger chili but quite excusable since this is quite expensive as an ingredient. The little cubes of chicken were extremely flavorful and one order eventually was not enough for two as the heaty buzz caused by the spices on the palate was addictive and just added up on every tidbit tasted. Next came what was listed on the menu as cod with preserved vegetables. A soupy dish which did not turn out to be cod and was a tad too salty for our tastes (serves me right for ordering this dish in a menu that lists a great majority of meat dishes as the proprietors and chef would be more inland people). Anyway, the kitchen did make up for this dish with their noodle dishes. One of their preferred noodles is the wide rice noodle known to local Chinese as hofan. We ordered two variants, the Peking Noodle and the Shanxi noodle. The Shanxi noodle is typical of a light working class lunch bowl withsprouts, chili paste, scallions, and infused flavored oil. The wide rice noodles have good texture and have the silky and al dente bite. We preferred the Peking noodle with a richer flavor as a little ground pork and very umami soybean paste are the base of this dish sometimes known as Chachang mien (though this uses the wide hofan…) The complexity of the flavors of both noodles are never revealed until the third or fourth mouthful where the flavors add up on one’s palate. Another dish typical of this cumulative flavor buildup is the burger and cold noodle set. English muffin like Baiji bread that is not too leavened and baked white with a filling of pulled pork trotters (had this in Beijing from another regional place serving donkey meat sandwiches) is paired with cold noodles with garlic chives and infused chili oil.
After this filling meal, we met one of owners, Mr. Zhang who could speak in impeccable formal English and 23 promised to come back to try other menu items they offer. On our return a couple of days later, we were cared for by an enthusiastic waitress who recommended the three-in-one noodles. The three-in-one basically combines the Peking topping of ground meat with soybean paste, the Shanxi infused oil with sprouts, and the third of which is quickly cooked scrambled egg with mixed vegetables, crunchy wood ear fungus, and tomato. This I would say would be the best of the lot as there is more complexity in the flavors as compared to the three noodle dishes we had on a previous visit. Of course, I could not resist ordering the fried diced chicken with chili and soy but this time had it with a Snow beer that I would see in China but never had because first choice would be what is local and familiar with the preferences of people in a Chinese city. This was impressively clean tasting with floral and fruity notes and a good finish. Definitely this place comes close to authentic flavors and is open till two a.m. for a late meal or snack.
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