Elmhurst's Uncle Zhou serves up authentic specialties from China's most diverse cuisine
Thwack, twirl, twist. Thwack, twirl, twist goes the rhythm of the dough. What begins moments ago as a misshapen lump of flour and water transforms, rapidly, into a long, slender rope.
Steven Zhou, 48, the namesake of Uncle Zhou restaurant in Elmhurst, takes the two ends of it in one hand, lifts the dough off the table, and deftly twirls it. The U-shaped loop quickly wraps around itself, raised ridges appearing on its surface. Zhou smoothes the rope, pulls it taut and twirls it again, the ridges growing more pronounced. After a few more twists, he throws the rope, now four feet long, onto a flour-dusted table and rolls it into a loop. Then, in a blur of motion, Zhou grabs one end and pulls the loop up, simultaneously pulling the other end down before twisting and flipping his hands, bringing the dough together.
By the time he finishes, the ridges have separated into noodles, and a bouncy heap of spaghetti-width strands hang from his fingers. Another twist-flip and they double in number and halve in thickness. Another, then another, until they're fine as thread, all in the span of less than five minutes. Zhou looks up, smiling.
"See?" he says. "Easy."
Surely the grinning chef jests. But hand-pulled noodles aren't the only trick he has up his sleeve. Uncle Zhou hails from Henan, a central Chinese province with a rich history and complex cuisine. The 5,000-year-old province is considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization, where dynasties both long-lived and short set up their headquarters. Some of the province's signature dishes–whole fish smothered with baked noodles and sweet-and-sour sauce, for example–are rooted in royalty. Zhou claims that specialty, which he makes using tilapia and vermicelli-fine hand-pulled noodles, was invented a century ago, when Empress Dowager Cixi's chef made her two separate dishes: fish and noodle. "She said the fish looked like it was sleeping, so the chef put the noodles on top of him, like a blanket," giggles Zhou as he recalls the ancient tale.
Henan cuisine, known for wheat noodles, lamb soup, stewed meats and fresh vegetables, is one of the oldest styles of Chinese cookery. As a once-thriving cosmopolitan and commercial hub, Henan's myriad culinary influences include provinces near and far, from bread-heavy Northwestern Xinjiang to peppercorn-loving Sichuan–although Henan's flavors are mild and seasonal, laced gently with onions and chilies.
In Uncle Zhou's no-frills dining room, customers slurp down steaming bowls of "nourishing" mixed lamb noodle soup, brightened with tender stems of bok choy, chewy tofu skin, frilly mushrooms and jewel-bright goji berries in a milky, fragrant broth. Zhou claims he adds almost 40 kinds of traditional Chinese medicine to it, based on a classic recipe from Hui Feng Yuan, a famous restaurant in Zhengzhou.
"My friend who works there told me that if I opened a restaurant in America, I had to make this soup," says Zhou. It's traditionally made with broad "belt" noodles, hand-pulled from a thick piece of sliced dough, though diners can request the aforementioned thin, bouncy, hand-pulled strands–or even rough-edged "knife- shaved" noodles, made by whittling off slivers from a giant block of dough with a special curved blade.
Vegetarians and lamb-averse diners gravitate toward the oddly named "dial oil hand drawn noodle," a soup-free bowl of thin noodles topped with a pungent combination of garlic, crushed chilies, bok choy and Chinese vinegar. It's doused with hot oil as a finishing touch, accounting for the mistranslation, Zhou says, because he didn't know the English word for "splash." One bite and the strange name becomes irrelevant–the dish is complex and delicious, each mouthful a riot of spicy-sour-sweet flavors.
Larger groups clamor for the Xinjiang-style "big tray of chicken," an aptly named main course of coarsely chopped bone-in chicken chunks, chilies and potatoes stewed in a rich sauce of pulverized chilies and broad beans topped with cilantro. Beneath the meat rests a tangle of sauce-absorbing noodles; more can be ordered by the strand.
These are the dishes of Zhou's childhood, in Zhengzhou, close to the mighty Yellow River, the memories of which he's carried tightly over thousands of miles. Today, although the province is struggling to adjust its economy to advanced technology, Zhou remains proud of his home and fond of its cuisine. "If I introduce more people to Henanese food, I'm doing my job," he says in just-shy-of-perfect English.
Zhou came to America in 1998, at age 34, settling on the Upper West Side. Two years later, his wife, Lily, joined him in New York, and they moved to Elmhurst. He held a variety of jobs: as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Rego Park, a delivery boy at another, a housekeeper at an office building in Midtown West. It was Lily's idea to open a restaurant, in 2010, when Zhou was unemployed. A space near their home, a failed Fujianese restaurant, was for sale, and she arranged to buy it cheaply from the previous tenants. She thought it would be a good project for Zhou, who was not enjoying his downtime.
"It's bad for you, mentally; nothing to do, just staying at home. I must do something," he explains. "I talked to my wife. She said she found something for me. It's really her restaurant. I just work for her!" he laughs.
Zhou opened for business in March 2011, in a nondescript strip mall near the rumbling LIRR tracks. He wanted to use a Chinese name originally–da he ren jia. "People from Henan know 'da he' means 'Yellow River,'" he says, but in order to attract a wider clientele, he sought out an English name as well, settling on the nickname a neighbor's children used. A friend who cooked in Flushing introduced Zhou to a chef from Henan, so Zhou hired him and set about learning how to cook professionally for the first time in his life. Today, Uncle Zhou has three cooks, and Zhou himself, who dashes between the kitchen and the front of house, multitasks as cook, waiter, translator, genial host and all-around everyman.
With only a handful of Henanese restaurants in New York, Uncle Zhou's food doesn't need much to stand out. But Zhou's not content to simply be unique–his food is carefully prepared and he is warm and welcoming to the growing crowds of culinary explorers, which have evolved from mainly Chinese to "everyone else."
Modest by nature, Zhou is happy just to see more people eating authentic Chinese food. "When you go to China and you eat real Chinese food, you'll never eat sesame chicken again," he says. He grins when asked if he hopes to see more Henan cuisine across the city: "I think there will be," he says. "I know there will."