Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Northern Chinese Specialties Live at Noodle Home in Castro Valley

Chinese "burgers," biang biang noodles, big plate chicken, cold skin noodles, and more are on the menu.

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In today's Bay Area, we think of artisanal, handmade foods as something precious that demands a premium price. But for husband-and-wife team Morgan and Lynn Mu, who grew up in the Northeast province of Liaoning, hand-ripped noodles were an essential, cheap part of their everyday diet.

Though biang biang noodles originated in the Shaanxi province, Morgan and Lynn's son Marvin says that many other provinces in Northern China, including Liaoning, eat biang biang noodles — and many people learn to make them at home. Morgan, who is one of the chefs at Noodle Home, learned to make them from his mother.

When customers place an order for biang biang noodles, Morgan gets to work in the kitchen. Unlike many restaurants where noodle making is a spectacle, there's no glass window through which guests can watch the process. But from the dining area, you can hear Morgan slapping the dough against the metal counter, producing that characteristic sound that biang biang noodles are onomatopoetically named after.

Likewise, Noodle Home, which opened in January, doesn't make a spectacle of itself. It's an unassuming, small restaurant on a busy stretch of Castro Valley Boulevard. But the restaurant churns out a broad menu of mostly Northern Chinese food — much of it handmade — at an extremely reasonable price.

Though the Mu family hails from Liaoning, their head chef is from Xi'an, and many of the dishes on the menu are from Xi'an. The Chinese "burger," also known as rou jia mo, is a classic Xi'an street food dish, perfect for splitting as an appetizer with a friend or eaten as part of a solo meal. While I've seen some restaurants substitute the bread with English muffins, that doesn't come close to the warm, homemade bread I tried, crisp around the edges and fluffy in the middle, with a slight starchy sweetness that balanced out the meaty fillings. Traditionalists might go for the version made with cured, chopped up pork belly, which was juicy and tender, with little chewy bits that added textural interest. There's also a more unusual version stuffed with cumin lamb. The lamb was delicately crusted with cumin, giving it a slight crunch while remaining succulent inside.

Liangpi, or cold skin noodles, are another Xi'an mainstay. Making liangpi is no joke — it involves making a flour dough, rinsing it in water until the water becomes cloudy, then letting the liquid sit. The starch left at the bottom is scooped out of the pot, then poured into a pan and steamed in a pancake-like shape, then cut into slices before serving.

At Noodle Home, the chefs steam fresh batches of liangpi every day — and it's well worth it. Though the noodles were thicker than other liangpi I've tried, the texture was bouncier, making for noodles that were satisfying and fun to eat. Strips of cucumber and bean sprouts added a little crunch and freshness, while oil infused with chili flakes added a touch of heat. I wouldn't have minded a more assertive heat, and the black vinegar usually served with this dish was undetectable. But the texture alone made for a delightful plate of noodles, one I'd happily order again.

Noodle Home offers another dish, one that Marvin describes as "totally Xi'an," that I haven't found anywhere else in the East Bay: paomo, or pita bread in lamb soup. It's a dish that's especially popular in the Muslim quarter of Xi'an. Traditionally, diners are supposed to tear the "pita" bread into tiny pieces in an empty bowl, which gets returned to the kitchen where the broth, glass noodles, and meat are added. "You give [it to] a customer here, they can't do it properly, and it's not gonna taste very good," Marvin said. Instead, the pita bread here is chopped up with a machine that slices it into uniform cubes.

The little nuggets of bread held up surprisingly well in the soup, maintaining a firm chew that reminded me of spaetzle or gnocchi. The soft, slippery glass noodles and crunchy wood ear mushrooms provided textural intrigue, while the lamb broth tied together the dish with its buttery, comforting warmth.

If you like your biang biang noodles prepared Xi'an style, it's hard to go wrong with the three-topping dry noodles with hot chili oil — made by spooning plain hot oil over noodles topped with chili flakes. Toppings include a mélange of diced vegetables — wood ear mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, and string beans — plus ground pork seasoned with soy sauce, a hard boiled egg, and a couple bonus stalks of bok choy to keep things fresh. Stir everything up so the chili flakes can take effect. The noodles were thick and robust, yet evenly textured and firm — never doughy or soggy. The veggies added crunch, while the pork added little bursts of umami. I'd pass on the egg, which was well-seasoned but overcooked and rubbery.

But if you like your biang biang noodles prepared a little differently, try the da pan ji, aka "big plate chicken," which is listed on the menu here as the chicken platter with potatoes. The dish originated in the Xinjiang province, but it's popular in many parts of Northern China, including Liaoning. Each time I visited Noodle Home, at least one of the tables was devouring a giant platter of chicken, and invariably, at least one other curious customer walked in and asked Marvin and Lynn, "What's that?"

The awe-inspiring dish came on a giant, oval-shaped silver platter, chock-full of chopped, bone-in chicken thighs and tender potatoes. Red and green bell peppers and onions added their caramelized sweetness, while cilantro on top created freshness. Dried red chili peppers were scattered atop the dish, though Marvin assured me they were just for looks; instead, the dish's mild heat came from chili flakes. I peeked under the chicken and potatoes to find ribbons of biang biang noodles hiding underneath. The sauce on top, though, is what made the dish so exceptional: a little sweet, a little salty, with a hint of curry powder and spices like star anise. Different bites yielded different notes of flavor, making me want to keep eating and eating.

Marvin says he's seen two people finish the full-sized platter before, but my group of three had enough leftovers for two meals. Since my last visit, Noodle Home has added a half-size portion, which is probably a better option for couples or solo diners. But Noodle Home doesn't need to rely on portion sizes alone to draw return customers; the food speaks for itself.

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