Quickly, but gracefully, the noodle maker's hands work a piece of dough into a thick loop, stretching and slinging and spinning it around, then pulling it apart to create finer and finer threads laced between his flour-dusted fingers. He's clad in a white cap and white apron, working behind a large glass window that gives a full view of the kitchen from the dining room. Customers at a nearby booth crane their necks to marvel at his precision and skill, and he smiles back with his eyes.
Every time an order comes in at China Magic Noodle House, chef Zhang Qiang grabs another piece of dough and begins again.
You'd never suspect that this modest Chinese restaurant, practically hidden around the corner from Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket, distinguishes itself with a such a unique dining experience, but that's what makes gems like this so fun to seek out.
Owner Bin Li, who came to the Valley from New York City and opened the spot a month and a half ago, offers a simple menu of hand-pulled, made-to-order noodles (la mian, considered by some to be the predecessor of Japanese ramen, at least linguistically) in the style of the Lanzhou region of northwestern China. There are also some Hong Kong-style appetizers, fried rice, and fruit smoothies filled with chewy boba (which are practically a meal unto themselves).
Here, you can choose from five kinds of noodles: Thin, thick, wide, shaved (thin slices carved off a block of dough with a sharp knife), and vegetable. While they all taste like, well, noodles, and are much more tender than the dried versions, you may find you favor certain ones, depending on the dish. For example, I loved the way the wide noodles tasted when pan-fried, while I preferred the thin variety in slurp-worthy soup.
Dinner started off with some interesting freebie appetizers. Throughout the meal, I found myself nibbling on a bowl of chilled, marinated peanuts, which lost their brittle crunch and were more toothsome, like beans. Meanwhile, tangy shreds of pickled carrot and daikon got my mouth watering, cleansed my palate between dishes, and were particularly delicious with bites of spicy marinated pig ear.
Never had pig ear? At China Magic, it's sliced so thinly it's practically translucent, and it crunches when you chew it. Dressed in potent red chile oil, it had a mildly porky flavor. I couldn't eat a lot of it, because it was so rich, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Pan-fried dumplings, filled with ginger-flecked pork, were plump and enormous, served with salty soy dip, while golden, crispy egg rolls tasted just fine without accompaniment. One night's special — a heap of glossy, dark emerald Chinese greens dressed in oyster sauce — was actually the perfect vegetable component in an otherwise meat- and starch-heavy meal. I'd like to see them added to the regular menu.
Fried noodles wowed me the most, especially the version with tender slices of beef, flecks of red chile and a few whole chiles, scallions, carrot, onion, and mung bean sprouts tossed with spicy XO sauce (a Cantonese specialty that's actually made from seafood). The steam rising off the plate smelled enticing. Likewise, I ate too much of the chicken fried noodles, which were kissed with sesame oil and mixed with sprouts, carrot, green onion, and white cabbage.
Another hit was lamb noodle soup, whose flavorful broth was as noteworthy as the noodles. Pickled greens, some spinach, and sprigs of fresh cilantro were a welcome contrast to the salty, slightly gamey soup and chunks of tender pink meat on the bone.
A more summer-appropriate option was a pile of warm noodles dressed in a light lemon sauce, teamed with chilled slices of garlicky beef and topped with cilantro. It looked very simple, but the tangy, aromatic sauce had me hooked after one bite.
And last, but not least, I gobbled up the most endearingly named thing on the menu, "shrimps and corns with noodles in curry sauce." Thin strands of noodle were generously soaked in mild yellow curry sauce, studded with sweet kernels and topped with a few whole shrimp. While other dishes had a clean taste, this one was more decadent, thanks to the creamy sauce.
Tapioca-filled smoothies are the only sweets you'll find here, but I suspect that won't be a disappointment.
China Magic is all about the noodles, and it easily lives up to its name.