As progress with artificial intelligence marches forward, many futurists believe we have legitimate reason to fear a rise of the machines. Experts differ on when programming will reach the point that robots will be thinking and feeling independently of what we tell them, though there's evidence we're pretty darn close. But when it comes to taking our jobs shaving noodles by hand, the jerk above has already broken that automated glass ceiling.
Should you fear the Noodle Robot at Kuen Noodle House? Only if you hate dao xiao mian (knife-sliced noodles) that are perfect every time and come with the show of a robot in a chef hat making it rain dough straight into a boiling pot of water. The five other varieties of noodle (with descriptions from "Thin" to "L. Wide") are pulled and stretched by a human, but that robot is gaining on us.
Fortunately, there's more to Kuen than gimmickry. I tried three varieties of noodles in three of the 24 different preparations and was impressed with each. My dining partners each had a different favorite. The dao xiao mian have a ropy texture, like firmer udon. We got ours as Xinjiang-style beef chow mein, spicy enough to reveal a Szechuan influence, not the straight-on Uyghur recipe served next door at Afandim.
Though pan-Chinese staple zhajiangmian is typically served with mid-width cumian noodles we got ours with the widest ones available. They were quickly coated with the sauce of chunky pork and Beijing-style yellow soybean paste like miniature, edible Slip 'N Slides. Raw matchsticks of carrot and cucumber brightened up the salty, funky combination.
Seventeen of those 24 dishes are described as "ramen," but as far as I can tell, that refers only to the style of noodle used, if that. Some of those dishes are soups (the lamb ramen combines broth and water spinach with an entire lamb shank), but our order of Eggplant & Pork Ramen turned out to be noodles in a delightfully unctuous sauce. The noodles didn't bear much resemblance to thinner Japanese ramen, but the cubes of tender fried eggplant and twigs of pork whispered of five spice that was especially heavy on the star anise.
But my friends and I weren't done noodling yet. Our goal was to try all of the hand-pulled noodle specialists that opened in the last year in Chinatown (I've already written about Strings Noodle), so Let's Noodle remained in our sights.
Despite the name, the menu of hand-pulled noodle dishes is limited to just five. The majority of the bill of fare is devoted to Henan soups and wok-fried entrées like sautéed bullfrog and something called Daring Blood Bowl. Lamb is the predominant protein and it found its way into both dishes we tried. The original lamb soup noodle had a broth that was almost creamy in texture from its long-stewed bones, but in desperate need of seasoning. I added chile flakes to my bowl. But I certainly didn't need to add fillings. It was among the most motley mixes I've seen, with wood-ear mushrooms, dried day lilies, shredded seaweed,vermicelli, goji berries and cilantro steeped with the lamb and extra-wide noodles.
About that pasta: It's thinner at Let's Noodle than at Kuen. "Delicate" is an accurate word, so slight that they coat your tongue, then melt. They are a thing of beauty, especially outside the realm of soup in a plate of spicy Cumin Lamb Stir Fried Noodle. Though there were only a few equally thin pieces of lamb, bean sprouts and onions crunched with the toasted chile seeds that bought heat to the cumin-covered, ethereal strands.
Perhaps the silken beauty of the noodles had something to do with having been made by a human. Apparently, we aren't at a point yet where robots have achieved quite that level of mastery.