Noodle Tasting in the International District
At the corner of Eighth Avenue South and South King Street, across from the Wing Luke Museum, sits a nondescript, sparse-looking store that some might call uninviting. But take one of Wing Luke’s latest culinary tours (they’ve previously done Asian sweets) and you’ll learn that inside is the production and sale of one of the Chinatown-International District’s most essential ingredients.
It’s not the fortune cookies.
Tsue Chong is the first stop on the Twilight Noodle Slurp Tour, which debuted last week. The tours are one way that Wing Luke achieves its mission “to connect everyone to the rich history, dynamic cultures, and art of the Asian Pacific Americans through vivid storytelling and inspiring experiences.” And Tsue Chong has quite a story: It’s a fourth-generation noodle-making business that will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2017. While most sales are to area restaurants, the general public can come in and purchase their fresh or dry Rose Brand noodles as well.
After a visit to Tsue Chong whets your noodle appetite, the three-hour tour makes several stops for actual slurping. The chosen restaurants, like the noodles themselves, reflect some of the ID’s diversity. Tour participants gain insight into the area’s history while learning to navigate the streets and getting tips on other places to eat. Tour manager Doan Nguyen said one of the tour’s goals is to make the ID less intimidating, noting, “You can walk down King Street alone and find tons of noodle-eating options.”
Even ordering can be overwhelming. Take, for example, the tour’s first stop, Gourmet Noodle Bowl: The menu lists 31 noodle dishes, all with little explanation beyond the name. We tried “N31”—the shrimp spicy fried noodles, with the noodles wide and chewy. But from my experience at Gourmet Noodle Bowl, almost any choice would be a winner. The staff rightly takes pride in their product, taking time to explain noodle choices to encourage me to try something new. The takeaway: Ask for help at these restaurants, and while language might be a barrier, the workers really want to ensure that you enjoy your meal.
Another stop is the new Dong Thap Noodles in Little Saigon for a taste of bún bò Hue, a spicy Vietnamese noodle soup. “Noodles” should be highlighted in the name because they’re actually making their own onsite. Tapping into husband Nick Bui’s noodle-making roots, owner Khanh Van Tran explains, “I don’t like to buy packaged food for my kids . . . I’d rather make things fresh. We make our own noodles here, and I know everything that’s in them.” The noodles are indeed the highlight, soft and slippery yet slightly chewy. Another thing that makes Dong Thap special: You can order pho with a choice of two noodles. Older Vietnamese are very excited to see bánh pho lon, as the wide flat noodles are quite traditional and hard to find locally.
More noodles follow, making for a filling evening. The final tour stop is Phnom Penh, another place with a fascinating story. We tried a traditional Chinese-Cambodian dish called mee katang. Sampled here with crispy egg noodles—though even better with chow fun rice noodles—this stir-fry is a popular dish eaten any time of day, quick, easy, and satisfying.
We also learned about chef/owner Sam Ung, whose memoir, I Survived the Killing Fields: The True Life Story of a Cambodian Refugee, tells of fleeing the Khmer Rouge and coming to America in 1980. Starting from scratch with a family to raise, Ung worked in area restaurants, saving money to open his own place in 1987. Phnom Penh started by serving just seven types of noodle bowls, laying the foundation for expansion and the success it now enjoys nearly 30 years later.
Which brings me back to Tsue Chong. The name means “gather prosperity.” For Asian people, the often-humble noodle is an inexpensive way to satisfy hunger, while also symbolizing longevity. For professionals in the ID, it’s been a way to thrive and flourish—to find fortune. For this, we’re all fortunate.
Originally published in Seattle Weekly on 11/10.