UNCLE ZHOU: HAND-PULLED NOODLES AND HENAN SPECIALTIES IN ELMHURST
The signature “Dial Oil Noodles” at Uncle Zhou
"It's no secret that we at New York Food Journal love the fascinating cuisine of Henan, a province of 95 million people in Eastern China that is not to be confused with Hunan. Two years ago, we named the aptly titled Spicy Big Tray Chicken at the Henan restaurant Spicy Village as one of the top ten dishes of the year.
Cucumbers with chili
In that spirit, we ventured out to Elmhurst to visit Uncle Zhou (pronounced “Joe”), a Henan shop offering hand-made noodles on a strip of authentic eateries. The modestly sized dining room was busy but controlled, and the walls were lined with brightly colored, construction paper-mounted pictures of some of their featured dishes. A neon sign in the front gave our wooden table a distinct red glow.
A dish of cucumbers arrived to whet our appetites. The dish was not on the menu, but we spotted a photo of it on the wall and considered that enough reason to order it. The cucumbers were cool and refreshing, lightly brined with tart vinegar and carved up thin with impressive knife skills. A gentle heat from the breath of chilies completed the dish. On the side, we enjoyed some lamb dumplings, which were nice and pillowy with a juicy interior.
Noodles arrived. They featured Uncle Zhou’s signature “dial oil noodles,” a cousin of our beloved dan dan noodles with less heat and more garlic, mellowed with tart vinegar and prepared with the thin hand-pulled noodles. The noodles had a truly distinctive taste and were incredibly garlicky, as if the garlic were heated only enough to dull the sharpness without cooking it through. I still have no idea what “dial oil” is–if it’s an obscure kind of oil or just a bad transliteration of something–but it doesn’t matter. I would order these on every visit.
An order of spicy beef knife-shaved noodles delivered that unexpected flavor profile we have come to expect from Henan cuisine. It tasted like a Chinese take on pho, with an aromatic broth laden with warm spices. The knife-shaved noodles were very rustic and unevenly cut, with the downside that the thicker noodles were nice and springy while some thinner ones came out too soft.
Baked Noodle & Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce
We ordered the obligatory Spicy Big Tray Chicken. The chicken was tender and the dish was rustic, with the complex spice-laden flavors we expected, but without the “wow” factor of the version at Spicy Village. The accompanying noodles were welcome but too few. Next time we may try the “crispy chicken in big tray,” which apparently is a different dish. (Incidentally, a spicy big tray of rabbit is also available on the menu.)
Spicy Big Tray Chicken
On the other hand, the “baked noodle and fish” was a knockout. The gently fried whole fish was covered in a tangle of bei mian–hand-pulled, crispy angel hair–and was served with a sweet and sour sauce that was neither too sweet nor too sour. The fish and noodles both softened as they soaked up the sauce. It offered the best of family-style Chinese dining as we all dug into the big platter with our chopsticks."