By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Chef Billy Lam has his head down, and he's thinking.
"Hmmmm," he says, drawing it out as his finger touches the menu here and there and there. "Udon?" he asks.
"Definitely," I tell him. "Definitely udon."
Chef’s Noodle House
Saigon dumplings: $3.50
Shanghai soup: $3
Thai noodles: $7.50
Vietnamese noodles: $6.95
Udon noodles: $8.95 Noodles & Company
Pad Thai: $5.50
Wisconsin mac & cheese: $4.95
Hunched over the counter, our heads almost touching, Lam and I study the laminated menu with its stains and its corners curled from years of rough treatment. Back in one of the simple, inelegant booths that line the walls at Chef's Noodle House, my dining companions are getting anxious. We're all hungry, but as we'd come through the doors, I'd told the chef that we wanted to eat noodles -- and no one takes noodles quite as seriously as Billy Lam does. There's no rushing the selection process.
"Chinese noodles?" I ask, touching the list of four noodle bowls at the heart of the menu.
"No," says Lam. "I don't have them anymore. I keep them on the menu, but no one order."
The Chinese noodles look intriguing -- made from potatoes and corn, according to the description, and topped with crispy dumplings in a black pepper sauce -- and I can't remember ever seeing a similar dish anywhere. Why would customers stay away from something so interesting?
"Pud Thai noodle?" asks Lam.
"Yes." And then Shanghai wonton soup, crispy Saigon dumplings, and Vietnamese bun with egg rolls. We run through everything, finalizing our stops on this noodle tour of Asia, and then Lam nods his head. "Good," he says, pleased with how things have shaped up, and he disappears into the kitchen to get to work.
Lam's been going to work at Chef's Noodle House for ten years now, and it shows. The converted Taco Bell is efficiently organized with a rounded, half-moon dining room set with plain tables and fronted by a covered patio that describes the same arc. There is bench seating, bar seating, room for to-go orders to be placed and picked up. The kitchen seems lived-in -- a line designed to be run with minimal fuss, with crowded shelving and everything just a reach away. The place is clean, but threadbare from a decade of use. I can see where it might have been all shiny once, but that day was a long time ago.
But that doesn't seem to bother Lam: He has an order on the rail, and that puts him in his element. Cooking is what he does -- what he's done for the past 27 years, without letup, ever since he came to the United States from his native Vietnam. And before that, he grew up in the restaurant industry. For forty years, his father owned a place in Can Tho called Hoi Ky, and it was there that Billy Lam (and his little brother Tuan, now chef/owner of the T-Wa Inn) first learned about food and picked up some of the recipes he's still using today. When he landed in Pittsburgh in 1978, he spoke no English but knew kitchens, so that's where he went.
"The only thing to do was work in restaurants," he says, his English now good but his accent still thick as sauce.
He cooked, he washed dishes, and in 1980, he found himself in Denver. His family owned, then lost, then regained the T-Wa Inn. Lam owned one of the first Panda Express restaurants, on Federal Boulevard, then the Panda Cafe, then the ambitious China Cowboy across from the Capitol that was a disaster and almost ruined him. In 1995 he moved into this old fast-food joint near Lowry, and he's been here ever since, always in the kitchen, always working, always learning.
While the past ten years may have taken the shine off Chef's Noodle House, Lam's cooking has only gotten better. He brings the first plates to the table himself: a square dish of wonderful, crisp, golden-brown dumplings filled with soft ground chicken, onion and scallions, their skins bubbled from the heat of the fryers, along with bowls of Shanghai soup. The soup is simply amazing, its broth as delicate as miso -- warm, dimly salty, faintly astringent -- then layered like a liquid napoleon with the sweetness of julienned carrots, the musk of Asian greens, the muscle of tender, verdant broccoli. The wontons -- handmade and stuffed again with a chicken paste, poached and set almost like a pâté -- are impossibly light, trailing streamers of wrapper like cirrus clouds through the consommé-clear broth.
Before we've finished cracking dumpling skins and slurping soup, Lam is back with the next course -- the noodles. He doesn't make his own, which is a shame but understandable: He knows that the best rice noodles, the best flat, Thai noodles, the best udon (especially udon, which are made from buckwheat flour that has no gluten and therefore require a special, rare magic to keep them together) need space and time and machinery that Lam doesn't have in his kitchen. Instead, he orders his noodles from the best makers on the Left Coast -- from Los Angeles, in particular -- and treats them as the works of art that they are.