Noodle cravings can sneak up at the oddest of times, but when temperatures slither into the upper 90s, the thought of a hot bowl of ramen or a steaming mound of chow fun could curtain such desires. Some soup lovers advocate consuming hot broth to induce a cooling sweat, but others eschew perspiration in favor of the cold comfort of refrigerated food. Fortunately, the cuisines of many Asian countries have evolved over the centuries so that today there’s a perfect plate for any occasion — including sultry days when a cool lunch is all that’s desired. While you probably won’t be allowed to lie on the floor and drape cold noodles across your face at these three restaurants, you’ll at least be able to chill out with soothing dishes from Japan, Korea and China.
1930 South Havana Street, Aurora
The ramen fever that had Aurora fired up when Katsu Ramen opened in 2015 has subsided enough that you can now grab a table without waiting in line most days, though it still gets pretty packed when temperatures drop. But people who skip this spot in summer are missing a perfect opportunity to feed their ramen yen. Katsu Ramen offers a chilled ramen alternative called hiyashi chuka that can be purchased nearly everywhere in Japan, from convenience stores to some of the country’s most revered ramen shops.
Katsu Ramen’s version starts with cooked and chilled ramen noodles that retain their springiness even after refrigeration. A creamy sauce, which falls between broth and chowder in thickness, goes on next; Katsu’s is mild and slightly nutty, with a whip-crack of fresh ginger to wake up the tastebuds. Stacks of julienned cucumber and sweetened omelet (similar to the tamago found at sushi bars) are arranged artfully over the noodles, with thin slices of cha shu pork adding meaty heft. A couple of tomato slices and a wedge of lemon give the dish a touch of acidity, but two sides of cold pickled vegetables also do the trick (watch out for some sneaky heat from the pickled scallions).
This hiyashi chuka is not just refreshing; it’s also much lighter and served in a smaller portion than typical basins of hot ramen, so you’ll leave feeling satisfied but not weighed down.
2040 South Havana Street, Aurora
Moving from Japan to Korea on the chilled-noodle map means heading from cold to colder. Naengmyeon is typically served with ice cubes added to the broth, bringing the temperature down considerably. Yong Gung sticks close to tradition by serving a big bowl of chicken-based broth covering a dense nest of arrowroot noodles, which taste like a thinner version of Japanese soba. A pair of scissors will help dissect the tangle, made up of noodles so long and skinny they’re tough to tease apart with chopsticks alone.
Beneath the placid surface also lurks a mound of shredded chicken breast, long shavings of daikon, some spears of cucumber (that signifier of all things cool), and a dollop of a spicy-sweet sauce that dyes the whole bowl a cloudy reddish hue as you swirl it into the broth. One of Yong Gung’s servers recommended using the hot mustard provided to kick up the soup a little more, along with a few drops of white vinegar (part of the condiment caddy at each table). The mustard went especially well with the hard-boiled egg half bobbing in the broth, turning it into something akin to a deviled egg.
440 East Colfax Avenue
The first time I tried Chinese cold sesame noodles was on my first visit to New York City’s Chinatown, nearly twenty years ago. This was before the days when Yelp! and smartphones guided diners to just the right destination, so a foray into Chinatown without a guidebook meant following my nose and my gut. Both led me to a cheery, if rundown, joint where cold sesame noodles and scallion pancakes were house specialties. I dug into the noodles, thrilled with their springy texture, deeply nutty flavor and unexpected heat from hidden chiles. In subsequent visits to Chinatowns in San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, I’ve learned that the cool, creamy dish is quite common, even if it’s curiously difficult to locate in Denver.
Determined to add cold sesame noodles to my trio of summer chillers, I finally located the dish at an unlikely spot: Capitol Hill’s Great Wall Chinese Restaurant, which bills itself as “New York Style.” The bustling restaurant immediately reminded me of that New York noodle shop from two decades ago, if a little more run down and a little less cheery. Great Wall’s personality comes in somewhere between surly and really, really surly — probably the result of daily dealings with the, um, eccentric denizens of East Colfax Avenue.
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Faded photos on the menu board give little indication as to the finished product you’ll receive; time and sunlight have bleached the images to varying shades of aquamarine, which does little to whet the appetite.
No matter: The dirt-cheap sesame noodles ($4.50) weren’t pictured anyway, but the dish didn’t stray far from my expectations when it arrived with little more than a slap of a paper plate on my formica tabletop, still airborne as the server retreated without a word. A big pile of fat, square-cut noodles smothered in light-brown sauce and freckled with sesame seeds looked familiar enough, and the first bite brought a flood of memories. Great Wall may not offer a great example of Chinese-American dishes, but the kitchen certainly showed enough proficiency with a few simple ingredients. Bold peanutty flavor predominated, with sudden-onset heat that hit the back of the throat, giving a jagged edge to the cool creaminess. And the green-and-white paper plate was nearly identical to the one I remembered from my first Chinatown experience. The only thing missing was cucumber.
Colfax Avenue isn’t a prime destination for beating the heat; its asphalt and concrete seem to intensify the sun, giving rise to blasts of hot air and questionable aromas. But there’s at least one stop where cold noodles offer a brief respite from the blazing sun outside — and re-energize you for a trip out to Havana for its cool Korean and Japanese counterparts.